A long way to go

A long way to go

Representation matters. Last year, using the 2020 Arthur C. Clarke Award submission list, I wrote about the problems facing the genre publishing industry here in the UK.

Since then, using the same methodology, we’ve collated the data from 2013 through 2020 to look for progress. We could have gone back further, but there’s nothing in earlier data to suggest additional insight could be added by including them.

2021 saw a total of 105 submissions across 41 imprints. Slightly lower than the previous year but fluctuations do occur from year to year and the pandemic saw a lot of books delayed. The proportional split by gender remained similar to 2019 at c.62%/37%/1% male, female, other. The split by ethnicity also improved marginally, with 14.3% of submissions being from people of colour and 3.1% of those from UK people of colour (compared to 12.1% and 2.6% in 2019 and sub 7%/1% for each of the preceding six years).

 So there has been an improvement both in gender parity and representation from ethnicities other than white compared to the last eight years. Given the changes are only apparent in two of those years (which is also true when looking back across the last 20) it is hard to call this a trend with a straight face.

As with last year’s data, the number of people of colour being published in SF remains catastrophically low, and any progress can be attributed to the efforts of smaller independent imprints.

As Clarke Award director, Tom Hunter, says, “One thing this data makes obvious to me is the continued disconnect between shifting reader habits and the speed with which publishers can or are currently choosing to adapt. We know from our own reader data that the demand is there, from our literary agents that the submissions are there, and from all of the awards like us that the quality of writing is there, so let's be clear: if you're choosing not to embrace this demand, you're choosing to leave money on the table.”

We have also compared the total submissions made between 2013 and 2020 by the eight recognised genre imprints in the UK, together with the total number of unique submissions from people of colour. Those imprints are Voyager, Tor, Angry Robot, Orbit, Gollancz, Solaris, Head of Zeus and Titan. Alongside that we have benchmarked this against the total number of UK-based eligible submissions from people of colour (excluding explicitly fantasy submissions - just one unique author in eight years) for these eight imprints. Finally, and more speculatively, we’ve thought about the expected number of submissions from people of colour on a demographically representative basis (i.e. what would c.14% of the list look like if it was from people of colour). Against the 401 submissions these imprints made out of a total of 861, we might have expected 56 unique submissions by people of colour in that period. Instead, we see just 16, and only one of those by a UK based person of colour. That’s one in 56 over eight years. Head of Zeus is the only imprint to reach proportional parity in their list, but their strategy has focussed on bringing SF published outside the English-speaking world into English.

The eighy imprints cover just under 50% of all submissions in that period. The gross number of submissions by people of colour was actually 31, but more than half of those (16) are accounted for by just six authors.

So far, all we really have is more evidence of an industry which pays little to no attention to writers of colour.

The question is, why? What is it about publishing that makes it so blind to the stories diverse authors want to tell?

John Jarrold of JJLA suggests that part of the issue has been a lack of submissions. His own inbox has shown a marked increase in submissions by people of colour over the last four or so years. "In recent years I've seen far more submissions from diverse authors - in terms of ethnicity, background, gender and other areas. It's a joy," he comments.

He puts this down to people like NK Jemisin, Tade Thompson and Nnedi Okorafor arriving on the scene and showing others there is a way in. Other agents I spoke with confirmed this trend.

However, it has not yet made a difference. Anecdotally, proportionally more writers of colour are getting published in fantasy, but there is little hard evidence to back this up. My own experience, alongside that of other authors of colour, is a problem with gatekeepers, or editors as we call them. In the UK at least they are almost exclusively white. Additionally, they are brought up on white stories and structures. I remember hearing about one (white) editor feeding back that they thought a writer of colour was good at writing about racism. This kind of tone-deaf analysis by white editors is a big problem because it demonstrates a wider lack of understanding of the kinds of beats and tropes diverse authors are going to reach for.

For those of us who’ve experienced racism throughout our lives, survival is agency, resistance is often passive subversion and there is no interest in ‘the hero’s journey’. Racism and surviving it may be the point of a story not some kind of addition to a ‘whiter’ core theme. I do not by any means wish to say that stories by wrtiers of colour need to focus on trauma or suffering. Far from it. Rather, this is simply a good example of the kind of experience a majority ethnicity editor can have very little idea about. Many of the authors I’ve spoken with repeatedly cite a lack of understanding of these basic facts by white editors who default to judging submissions by white niches and clichés. The problem here is not that there are white editors – many of them absolutely consider themselves to be allies. Rather it is that publishing remains blind to its own ignorance of how its whiteness colours its reading of texts outside that experience. As long as that ignorance is unquestioned it will be a substantial barrier to the stories of people of colour getting onto shelves. Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World is a potent antidote to this blindness which I can only hope becomes the recognised classic it deserves to be.

While agents and editors still look for white stories in brown clothes, the best of what authors of colour have to offer will not find a home. Indeed, they will be dismissed as ‘not connecting,’ precisely because they are concerned with lived experiences for which middle-class white editors have no framework.

Alongside this is the impact of the backlist.

As Ed Wilson of Johnson and Alcock says, "Agents know there is a problem, and many of us are trying to change publishing in the present, and for the future. But we can’t do anything about the decades that have gone before. Look through the backlist of any agency, and any publisher, and you’ll see a majority of white authors in SFF. These books are in print, and they continue to sell. It will take a whole generation of publishers actively acquiring, publishing and promoting diverse authors before we see meaningful change in the makeup of the backlist."

I think Ed is right in his analysis. Over time we’ll see more progressive stories providing sustainable revenue, but this undoubtedly holds back the rate of change regardless of peoples’ desire to make those changes.

The events of 2020 helped create a long overdue discussion around the colour behind the scenes of publishing. A lot of voices came forward as allies but so far very little appears to have stuck. It’s not enough to ask for diverse voices and then reject them because ‘they’re not like us’.

With respect to seats on bums? Only by recruiting, retaining and then promoting people of colour to significant decision-making positions will we get the rest of the way. Good allies need to know when they're hindering progress or they become part of a system of institutionalised racism.

Finally – how to keep people of colour writing? Support. I do not know one writer of colour who hasn’t faced racist abuse and reviews designed to bomb their ratings. Putting a book out, hoping it will swim without a different kind of support framework than that offered to white writers is aiming for failure. Publishing people of colour should come with eyes wide open to the obstacles we are going to encounter which white writers won’t.

The debate on diverse voices is essential to keep having because we have a long way to go – finding them, publishing them and then keeping them.

Stewart Hotston is an award-nominated writer, reviewer and for the last two years a BSFA Judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. As well as guest editing Vector and writing for Focus magazine he regularly writes for Sci Fi Bulletin about all things genre. His last novel was Tangle's Game, published by Rebellion, and he has two more, as yet unannounced titles coming in 2022.