Aug 9, 2018 | #Blackspecfic

POB Scoring: Growth and Accountability


#BlackSpecFic is back for your fleeting attention but with better news this time!

Each iteration gets less coverage and generates less chatter than the last despite the problem persisting — to an albeit lesser extent. It could be the fault of publishing’s goldfish memory. It could be that we’re all constantly inundated with news that the world needs fixing and we have to prioritize where our energy is spent. It could be that the initial gasps surrounding the first report’s abysmal numbers were performative, that we’re not as invested in improving the field as we tweet we are. Any combination of these things can be true. The one certainty is that FIYAH is uniquely positioned to address these issues from both a market perspective, and that of a bunch of Black writers trying to navigate this space. And we can’t afford to have the field’s progress stagnate.

A tracking system for market progress came up on the occasions FIYAH staff were asked about next steps on how to fix things. After three reports, it became clear that the creation and implementation of such a thing would fall to us. So this year, we created the POB or “Presence of Blackness” Score Project, which tracks progress of pro short SFF markets in improving their #BlackSpecFic numbers. It was borne of necessity like so many other things in promotion of diverse literature. The idea is to provide Black writers with an at-a-glance reference point for which markets will be most receptive to their work while simultaneously letting interested markets know where they are successful in attracting Black writers and where they can improve their outreach methods. All of this with graphic scorecards, easily ranked, read, and collected.

The metrics used in the score are based on what matters to us as Black writers with our own submission experiences and what was revealed in our biannual BSFReport survey. As writers, we look for editorial staff who may understand the voice, the story’s cultural cues we’ve been told by non-Black editors is unrelatable or “not a good fit.” We look for mentions of us and our marginalizations in submission guidelines’ inclusion statements so we know the market’s at least paying attention. We look for places with diverse first-reader teams who are paid for their labor because it means on some level that we are valued not just for our content creation, but in our ability to impact story selection.

Though the endgame up to now has been the number of Black writers published, we weighted the presence of Blackness in editorial staff considerably. Putting Black people in positions to make publication decisions and not just offer up content and hope for the best is huge. We hope to see more Black editors at work in the places that value their judgment.

In an email painstakingly carefully worded so as not to offend, accuse, and therefore deter markets whose poor performance may be rooted in “They’re So Aggressive” anti-Blackness, I reached out to every surveyed market to let everyone know what we were doing. They were provided an opportunity to fill in the blanks where we were missing data, and I offered to answer any questions. Some places declined to respond at all, as is their right. And sometimes we got “no, and I’ll tell you why” emails, which were truly a “delight” and “not at all” condescending. But here’s what I can tell you about where we stand:

  • The markets who were vocal about their concerning performance in the first report are now leading the field. Strange Horizons brought on more Black first readers, editors, executed basically every actionable step outlined in our BSFReport and went from literally 0% for two consecutive years to almost 20%. And at least half a dozen others doubled, tripled, or quadrupled their output since year one.

  • Unsurprisingly, those markets — highly esteemed and otherwise — which made vague non-statements about preferring “quality” to “quotas” have continued to publish no Black writers.

  • Some low-scoring venues like Flash Fiction Online and Diabolical Plots responded with enthusiasm when I reached out for additional input. They want to do better and I’m excited to continue working with them in order to make that happen. In these cases, the awkwardness that surrounds addressing issues of racial disparity in every sphere created a barrier in which the editors who wanted to do better did not know where to begin on the “how” part of that equation. So POB will also be developing resources and providing a point of contact for the answering of sticky questions.

I was, of course, met with some grumbling about quotas. It has always been a tired argument, one which you’ll note is never presented by places with good numbers, or for whom being an inclusive space isn’t an afterthought. But we are now in the third year of following this. I’d defy anyone to find a market whose quality has declined as their inclusion of more Black voices increased. POB Scoring has a suggested standard of 10%, which is lower than the U.S. Census Data’s ~14% Black population, and accounts for the disenfranchisement of Black genre writers offset by the fact that Black writers don’t only live in the U.S. I’d defy anyone to insist with a dispassionate, not-racist face, that that’s an unreasonable goal.

So allow me to again disabuse anyone of this idea: No one is advocating quotas. Why would anyone fighting to have Black speculative fiction writers taken seriously advocate for the publishing of potentially under-developed stories to enforce a quota? Just admit your market’s discerning tastes skew colonial and that you’re fine with it, but stop insisting that apparently 100% of the stories you receive from Black writers just aren’t good enough.

This has always been about moving forward, about doing more than simply bringing awareness to the problem. Every zine is born with a desire to influence the future of the genre for the better and this is about giving them the tools to do exactly that. But #BlackSpecFic is about maintaining visibility, about Black writers charging in on the backs of dragons to remind you we are here, and that there can be no growth, no evolutionary morphing of SFF without Black voices.

The three #BlackSpecFic Reports are responsible for this increasingly fertile field, for the Strange Horizons SEUSA special issue, for FIYAH, and now for POB. We are able to have nice things now because our friends at Fireside and the indomitable Cecily Kane gave the market a mirror and stuck with the initiative long enough to see change happen in a feat of rigorous, dedicated allyship. Ideally I’d like to see the POB and #BlackSpecFic Report models extended to Indigenous writers, Latinx writers, and other underserved poc groups still struggling to find outlets for their stories beyond special issues. It’s ambitious, but the work is worth doing. Let’s make sure these groups don’t have to do it on their own.

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