A Different Kind of "Show, Not Tell"
On pioneering as a creator from a historically marginalized background
In my last letter, I mentioned making space for voices other than mine in the writing, reading, publishing and SFF ecosystem. This is the first of such, and you will receive one such letter every mid-month from a reader, writer and/or publishing professional, likely from an underrepresented group. (I promise to get out of the way next time and not preamble!)
For today’s letter, please welcome Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki to After Five. For those who don’t know, Amazon KDP recently shut down Oghenechovwe’s page under suspicious terms, banned him from the site, and attempted to hold on to over $2000 of royalties, with which he was meant to pay contributors to a recent anthology. Luckily, a small portion of the global SFF community rallied around him and fundraised for the payments, while an SFWA-backed contingent queried Amazon. While things are on their way to recovery, they are not completely solved. This essay gives us a peek into the long-term effects of events and policies such as this. This is a 9-minute read. - Suyi.
A Different Kind of Show, Not Tell
It is difficult for a writer not to have heard of the ubiquitous writing advice, ‘Show, not tell’. The aim is to use language to portray events unfolding in action rather than mere narration which inevitably results in ‘info-dumping.’ Grand as this advice seems, it is not always practicable and one may sometimes wisely resort to simple narration to avoid bloated writing.
There is, however, a different and more dangerous kind of ‘Show, not tell’ in the publishing industry. It demands of the writer not simply to have good work but to show that the writing will be accepted. Like the ‘show, not tell’ of writing, this too is sometimes unworkable in publishing.
When you pitch a project to a press, you are usually asked for similar works to gauge the market viability of the work. The industry does not want to take your work solely for its merit; it wants a certain level of assurance, to see the action of how that success has been effected before, in other similar works. It wants you to show in effect that your work can succeed by showing others like it have before.
When similar works don't exist, you will find it harder to sell the project. This ‘show, not tell’ of publishing is something that disproportionately affects marginalized creators as there are fewer projects by people like them to show the viability of the current project being pitched. It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their pitches aren't accepted when there's no precedent that they can work. And there's no precedence that the stories can work because they are never accepted.
The vicious part of this kind of technique is that it goes beyond just the work itself to the creator. So you have to not just show that the story can work, but that it can work for and from someone like you. An older writer recently regaled me with the tale of how Octavia Butler tried to put together a Black speculative fiction anthology with one of the big five but it fell through. Whereas there were writers at the time doing just that and you could find stories about Africa, but only from white, male writers. This is but one example of how ‘show, not tell’ in publishing is particularly disadvantaging to marginalized writers.
Thanks for reading After Five! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Often when the work of a marginalized writer has no heralds, it falls on the would-be creator to convince their investors to take on such a project, an immense and laborious task, but far less gruesome than the alternative should they fail to get that. The alternative is what is faced by many indie creators who cannot successfully get their works ‘greenlit’ by major publishers and studios. They then have to create that work, fund it themselves and make it a success without the publishing apparatus and machinery, or funds available to the bigger players in the industry. Oftentimes, this will involve scaling the work down immense levels to be something that can be managed with their limited resources. While doing this, they face the two-fold danger of succeeding with the scaled-down version but in a way that's so far from the original concept, that it seems they failed even in their success. The second is failing altogether, and in either case, proving to the initially unwilling bodies the rightness of their prior decision in not taking the project in the first place. It is often a brutal experience that leaves marginalized creators low down and the industry itself poorer for it.
It is a testament to how difficult being a pioneer and creating a first is and why such pioneers are more celebrated by marginalized creators. The effort that goes into ensuring such a project lives and not only lives but also succeeds is humongous because it charts a course, creates a path and the success and chances of other preceding works getting greenlit may depend on the outcome of that one. New works are sold off the back of successful works by marginalized creators and indie creators who have to go through a vicious, uphill climb to success.
It may seem like tokenization, but this is why firsts are and should be even more celebrated in a world that enforces higher standards and takes fewer chances on marginalized creators. They chart the course, pave the way and fulfill the show, not tell that exists in publishing.
The first-ever Year's Best African Speculative Fiction anthology was published only recently, even though Year's Best anthologies have been a staple of the industry for decades. It was met with vicious opposition from troll farms and even titans of the self-publishing industry like Amazon KDP, Smashwords, Draft2Digital. it had to be pulled down from those platforms and will eventually be given out for free after a successful GoFundMe to recoup the monies invested in it.
The system and publishing machinery is deeply inaccessible for indie and marginalized creators, especially those residing outside the West. But it is not entirely bleak. The Africa Risen anthology will be published this 2022 by TorDotCom, following the success of the Dominion anthology by two of the creators, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, Zelda Knight and Sheree Renee Thomas the editor of the groundbreaking Dark Matter anthologies.
Not to forget the various other, to varying degrees, successful indie anthologies like the Africanfuturism anthology, AfroSF, and more. On the long fiction end, new works by marginalized writers are being picked up as well. Recently, Tordotcom Publishing announced a three novella deal with debut author Moses Ose Utomi, the first of which will be The Lies of the Ajungo. Suyi Davies Okungbowa also just released Son of the Storm, the first book in his fantasy trilogy The Nameless Republic
May we endeavour to support both marginalized, indie creators and those debuting to major presses, as their important works contribute richly to creating and growing a genre tradition that allows marginalized writers to thrive. Until a time, hopefully soon, we abandon the unwieldy, unworkable show, not tell requirement in publishing, as we are starting to do in writing.
Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki is an African speculative fiction writer and editor in Nigeria. He co-edited the groundbreaking Dominion anthology which made him the first African editor to win the British Fantasy award and which was also a finalist in the Locus and This Is Horror Awards. His novella Ife-Iyoku, Tale of Imadeyunuagbon won the Otherwise and the Nommo Award and was a finalist in the Nebula, BSFA and Sturgeon awards. He is co-editor of the Africa Risen anthology, and both edited and published the first-ever Year's Best African Speculative Fiction anthology, with which he's eligible for the Hugo award, best editor, short form. You can see his climate fiction novelette “O2 Arena” here, also eligible, and the rest of his awards eligible works here. You can find him on Twitter at @penprince_.