Diversity in science fiction needs action now

Literature awards are great for celebrating the best of the book trade, but in my view they are no good at all when it comes to highlighting existing inequalities lurking within our industry.

For that to happen you either need an active and passion readership ready to challenge you (and in the science fiction community we definitely have one of those) or you can dig deep into your own data and call yourself out first. Book awards are a mirror of publishing output, not its decision-makers and budget-holders, but maybe sometimes we can reflect back uncomfortable truths as well as hand out prizes.

In the book trade, there’s a widely held belief that our industry has a deep and complex problem with inclusion, and there’s also an ever more vocal demand for new and more diverse work. So, how does the world of science and speculative fiction publishing rate against this rising demand?

Every year, in advance of our shortlist announcement, the Clarke Award releases the full submissions data of books received (you can see our 2019 submissions list, just revealed, here). In 2018, with a total of 124 titles in contention received from 46 publishing imprints and individual submissions, we witnessed a record-breaking year for the award.

By comparison, in 2008 just 16 imprints submitted a total of 46 books, so that’s an increase of 170%. There’s mixed news on the gender parity front however, with 36 of those books being written by women (29%), although this remains a distinct improvement over ten years ago where just six books submitted were by women SF writers.

Great as this wider genre expansion is, and welcome as the incremental rise of women SF writers is too, when it comes to judging ourselves harshly the facts are stark, and just 9 of those 124 books received (7%) were by writers of colour. Slice that up and that’s basically only 1/5 of a book per submitting imprint.

Many authors and industry spokespeople have talked more eloquently about the need to address this disparity in publishing than I will ever be able to. But I also suspect more than a few publishers will quietly check their new submissions piles or log into BookScan after reading this, and suggest that in order to affect any real change they need to submit more books by writers of colour.

They may argue, of course, that there needs to be more evidence of sales potential first to get those books past gatekeepers in marketing, finance and other departments. They might (just) have a short-term point, but to me this sounds more like using data to justify a current position - and I think it also misses the bigger publishing opportunity.

Here are four cultural tipping point trends that show what I mean.

  • From the SF&F bookshelves: N.K. Jemisin wins a record-setting third consecutive Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction Novel with the final part of her Broken Earth trilogy (parts one and two having taken the prize in their own respective years).
  • From the ‘respectable’ bookshelves: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad wins the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature.
  • From the Box Office: The Marvel Universe film Black Panther makes over a billion dollars at the box office in record time and gets nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture (it doesn’t win that one though, of course).
  • From an adjacent cultural sector: The Musée d'Orsay in Paris opens their major exhibition Black Models: From Gericault to Matisse, challenging our historic perceptions of French masterpieces by reframing and renaming them to foreground attention on their black subjects, gaining both critical acclaim and a big upswing in first time visits from new audiences (new readers to you and me) along the way.

And, just in case, here’s one more from the world of Big Advertising:

Diversity advocate Lydia Amoah and advertising behemoth M&C Saatchi (who probably know more than the entire publishing industry combined about smart ways to part consumers from their cash) release a new report on the ‘Black Pound’ urging brands to embrace cultural transformation and better reflect the diversity of society if they want to drive growth.

Pulling this all together, one might reasonably conclude that there is a rising critical and commercial attention being paid to works by creators of colour, that other major players in adjacent cultural sectors are actively adjusting their content to seek out new audiences and that, crucially, the smart money is suggesting that brands ignore the reality of diverse societies at their own risk.

As Sir Arthur himself once said, “The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible”. Are we really talking about something so impossible, or just trying to persuade ourselves it’s so? Look further than the tentpole trend markers I’ve listed above and I think you’ll find a much broader critical (and commercial) momentum building among both science fiction readers and broader cultural consumers - and it’s not like the rise in social diversity is going to change.

You don’t have to tell me how risk adverse publishing can be, and I’m fully versed in that weird business contradiction that sees books taking an age to come to fruition and then getting a mayfly-like moment in the sun before the next book drops. However, as someone uniquely positioned just far enough outside the industry to see things differently, but close enough to the business end to know how the book-shaped sausage is made, I can’t help but think the real risk to growth is not acting now while there’s still a real chance to secure first mover advantage. After all, there’s no point throwing more and more titles down the product conveyor belt and calling it growth if you’re not also actively working to expand your market.  

If the total number of books submitted to the Clarke Award judges can rise by 170% in just 10 years, is it really so impossible to imagine that the number of books written by writers of colour could rise up as well? I’ve no doubt that growing new audience out there will judge us all very harshly indeed if they have to wait another decade.

Tom Hunter is director of the Arthur C Clarke Award.