February 16, 2010

Suggestions to the Editors

What can magazines like The Big Three do to promote more Asian American writers? I have in the past provided some tentative suggestions, but my experience in the publishing world approaches nil. Fortunately, author Claire Light today posted on her blog some very pertinent comments on the paucity of female and POC writers in literary magazines. (“Why Aren’t Women and POC Submitting Their Work?”) Claire Light has had a tremendous impact on how I see the world, from white privilege to use of the term hapa. Her thoughts here are, by and large, directly applicable to the editorial staffs of The Big Three. Below are some suggestions from the end of her post about what these white folk can do to reach out effectively.

A number of small gestures can make a huge difference. Make the whole experience as painless and welcoming as possible. For example:

  • Make sure your submission guidelines are easy to find on your website. Don’t hide them. Add language to your guidelines that specifically welcomes women and writers of color. Something like “We are especially interested in innovative work by women, writers of color, and writers from historically marginalized groups. We love to discover new writers!” Don’t beat around the bush. Be plain.
  • When you go through your back issues/backlist for the big names to list on your website, be sure to put the names of women writers and POC front and center. A publisher/magazine that has a lot of recognizable “minority” names on its website is basically putting out the welcome mat for “minority” writers. This is a subtle language you must learn to speak.
  • When you send a call for submissions out on a list-serv or send it to a website for a “minority” group, be sure to personalize it and express your strong desire to get submissions. Sign it with your name. Say something like, “I really want to encourage you all to submit work. Our submissions pile isn’t nearly as diverse as it needs to be, and as a result, our publications aren’t as diverse as they need to be. You can help change that. Please take a chance on us and send us your best work!”
  • Write up a brief primer (maybe a paragraph) on how to make an effective submission (including maybe a little something about what to put, and what not to put, in a cover letter.) Include this in your call for submissions. Make your expectations plain, and don’t give anyone any excuses not to submit.
  • Be sure to ask them to tell you in their cover letter where they heard about your magazine or publishing house, so you can track where the submissions are coming from; and ask them to include a brief bio that talks about their origins, so you can get a sense of where your writers are coming from. Encourage them to talk to you about who they are and what their process is, so you can understand it all better.
  • If you’re rejecting a promising submission from someone who’s obviously a writer of color or who says they’re coming from a POC website or list-serv, be sure you personalize the rejection with at least some minimal feedback, and an encouragement to submit again. Yes, I know you don’t have time, but it’s part of an editor’s job to cultivate promising writers, and if you want a healthy field of diverse writers in ten years, you have to plant now. This is assuming that you actually DO send rejection letters out. Many journals don’t reject in a timely or consistent manner, and there’s nothing more off-putting to someone who already thinks they’re not going to get a fair shot, than being utterly ignored. Basically, acknowledgment is key, even when you’re rejecting.
That’s all fairly easy, surface stuff. But if editors and publishers really want to become more diverse and reflective of 21st Century reality, they’re going to have to change the way their organizations approach the work itself. Changes like:
  • Having some non-white, non-WASPy names on your masthead or staff list. Yes, we do read these. Yes, we are turned off when we don’t see any names like ours. Yes, I’m much more likely to send a story to a market with an editor of color or a woman editor first (although there are so few of these that I’ve learned not be picky.) And if a market’s guidelines don’t say anything about multiculturalism, but do say stuff about “no genre” and “high quality” (both euphemisms for New Yorker-style Carverism,) all the masthead names sound white, and all the author names on the website are or sound white, I’m probably not going to bother to submit to you at all.
  • Having a diverse editorial board or a diverse set of guest editors. Aside from the above issue, they’ll make an effort to reach out to their communities if they understand that that’s their job (no, you can’t just tokenize an editor and watch her go. If your mag isn’t diverse, she’ll often just assume you only want white male writers and do her job that way.)
  • If you’re successful in all this, your volume of submissions should increase. Go to ethnic and gender studies departments at your local universities and pick up an extra, slush-reading intern there. Put the intern’s name on the masthead. Let your intern know that their expertise in ethnic/gender studies is needed and they should point out any boneheadedness in editorial decisions if they see it.
  • Having an editorial mission statement and a strategic or business plan whose language fundamentally reflects a deep commitment to diversity.
  • Being advocated for in the community by a diverse set of respected writers. (Yes, when one of us has been published by a market, we DO immediately go out and tell our peeps to submit there. When one of our respected leaders tells us this stuff, we particularly prick up our ears. And when an editor buttonholes one of us and says “How do I get [your folks] to submit to [my magazine/house]?” without sticking their feet in their mouths, we do go straight to Facebook and post a link.)
  • Having a “usual round” of in-person visits to open mics, reading series, classrooms, etc that are in diverse communities, so you’re “touching” minority writers all the time.
  • When you request work from big name writers, hit up women writers and POC as often as you can. This is not to fill out your minority quota with big names, but rather to use the big names to entice emerging marginalized writers to submit to you.
  • Be constantly reading marginalized writers. Duh.
  • This is whole ’nother blog post, but start actively (and savvily) marketing your books/magazines to marginalized communities. It’s a cycle: if they’re reading it, they’ll want to submit to it. If they’re being published in it, they’ll want to read it. Rinse, repeat.
Yeah, as I’ve said before, it’s a lot of work. And you do have to change the way you do that work in the first place. But if you want actual diversity and not just lip service and real frustration, this is where you start.

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