Diversifying submissions is a long-term commitment

There's no quick fix for a persistent problem.

I’ve often been asked how to diversify submissions piles as an editor—in fact, the first time I spoke about the topic to the industry was probably “‘Women and Trans/Non-binary people’: The Pitfalls of Haphazard Gender Inclusion” at WisCon 40 in May 2016, which I was delighted to find a transcript of.

I’ve been asked the question again, this time about people of color, rather than trans and nonbinary people. I thought I’d share my email replies to the public, with the caveat that this response was specifically about race, though the conclusions can be generalized across other marginalizations.

“How do I diversify my submissions?”

This is a pretty complex question that doesn’t have a simple answer. The hardest part is going to be introspecting on your own tastes and decisions as an editor. Many times, people of color get rejections with comments like “I didn’t connect with the story.” But often, the lack of connection is the editor’s problem—if you’re not well-read across multiple genres, voices, groups of people, the unfamiliar is going to bounce off of you.

So, really, the first step is to diversify your reading. Not just within the genre, but outside of it as well. Nonfiction, poetry, blogs, fiction, all of it offers various perspectives that can help broaden your own. Some names will start to become familiar, and those could be the ones you solicit directly. Of course, it’s not a quick solution, because the problem is a long-term one.

Special calls for POC and indigenous writers can help you diversify, but, in the end, I find a lot of those initiatives to be tokenizing. I prefer magazines that make a continuous effort to diversify, such as Strange Horizons. If you have staff, making sure that people of color and indigenous people are in leadership positions does a lot to open doors for people.

My own rule of thumb when I’m going through submissions and narrowing down my final selections is whether the submission brings something different to the table. Race is never the deciding factor, but if I’m comparing two beautifully written pieces on similar themes and topics, I would prefer to publish the one that has a more underrepresented perspective.

[R]eading widely, including tweets, is so important because I often find that if editors don’t do that work and put out a call for marginalized voices, they often end up (1) repeating the same few familiar names, (2) only choosing work that minimally challenges the status quo, and/or (2) alienating people with ignorant responses. That is, if you open a call to POC but don’t know what common pitfalls are, you can end up repeating them and harming your reputation in the process.

Tweets are also very helpful to read because they provide a picture of what (the more vocal parts of) fandom cares about. Twitter can be a negative space even for the people who like it, though, so if that’s not a feed you care to navigate, you can see what essays are being published at places like Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Uncanny; there are a lot of venues that actively highlight differing perspectives to create a conversation around speculative fiction, rather than repeat the same messages.

Twitter excels, though, at giving you a much more live picture of the genre. Essays are still important in that they give you a look into long-term conversations, but publication timelines are too long for them to provide a good look into rapidly changing discourse.

For example, many companies and publications made Black Lives Matter statements at the peak of the George Floyd protests, but they have since gone back to “business as usual,” leaving many Black writers frustrated that the outpouring of support they got has since died down. The point of witnessing the conversation, though, isn’t for me to interject as an editor with “actually” or “not me!” Instead, I try to show I’m listening by posting directly to the Arsenika Twitter with a statement reaffirming support for Black writers and reminding people that my upcoming submissions window is a space that centers those voices. That gets the message across more than me replying as an individual.

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