Nothing causes author duress like the unveiling of the book cover. In my experience, it’s one of the most stressful parts of the publishing process, and there are days when I wish we could go back to the days of unjacketed books, when the only thing to get fired up about would be the font type! I’m sure Bloomsbury Children’s Books is wishing the same thing right about now.
This past summer, Bloomsbury had a big controversy on their hands when people noticed that the cover model for the book Liar by Justine Larbalestier didn’t exactly match the description of Micah, the protagonist in the book. At first, Bloomsbury tried to explain away the decision, saying that this was somehow a reflection of the character’s compulsive lying. They eventually relented, and a new jacket was prepared in time for publication. Though there was some residual blogger anger, things simmered down.
Until Bloomsbury did the same thing again. This time with Jaclyn Dalmore’s Magic Under Glass (a great book, by the way). This time, there were no liars to blame. While the book describes the protagonist, Nimira, as “dark-skinned,” the cover depicts a fair-skinned, corseted girl. While people were upset about Liar, the reaction to this cover was scathing. Jezebel’s (linked above) headline read “The White-Washing of Young Adult Fiction Continues.” Some bloggers went so far as to call for a boycott of Bloomsbury, though they realized they’d be hurting the authors as much, if not more, than the publishing company. And there’s much more to read on the subject at Reading in Color, Bookshelves of Doom, and Chasing Ray, as well as many others (you could spend all day linking between the blogs—and I hope you do).
So why do I bring this up? I think it’s important that we’re all paying attention to the issues involved here, and by linking to these other smart people and their opinions, I hope to generate more good, healthy discussion. As Justine Larbalestier pointed out when the controversy erupted around her book, the reason this happens is that booksellers believe that books with people of color on the cover don’t sell. Yikes. I really don’t think that’s true, despite what people tell me. The publishing industry has neglected people of color in the past, claiming there was no audience for books by and for people of color. Can you imagine? They learned their lesson when authors started self-publishing and selling hundreds of thousands of copies of the books that the publishers turned down. And now those same authors do big business with New York publishers, making them millions.
I hope some progressive, enterprising publishers start to prove these booksellers wrong by designing covers that prominently feature people of color. And when one breaks out and becomes a huge bestseller, maybe we can stop being so cynical. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this, and as always, let’s keep the conversation respectful and positive.