Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Cover controversies

by Michael

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.


  1. I find this hard to believe too, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen. I remember the first depictions of African-Americans in books; they were essentially white people made to look dark. I've also seen other book covers featuring Caucasian-looking black characters. It's hard to imagine the opposite happening.

    There's another issue here too. It's always struck me as odd that some artists obviously don't read the books they're illustrating. As a child, it really used to bother me when a character was described one way in a book and rendered in an entirely different way by the illustrator. Surely this could be easily remedied by better communication between illustrators and publishers.

  2. Here Here. Obviously if YA of color cannot be depicted on the cover, they shouldnt be reading these books either (and paying for them), or for that matter, when we... er... they, grow up, not be writing them either!

  3. Wow. I just feel bad for the authors, who really get no say in the cover. Expecting my cover art soon, and will be paying attention to details.

  4. What a "ridonkulous" assumption on some publishers' part. By that reasoning, I guess The Color Purple cover should have featured violet-colored characters? The film industry obviously (and thankfully) doesn't take this stance, and it hasn't seemed to hurt their box office takes. grr

  5. That surprises me as one of my all time favorite books, that I read as a child over 30 years ago, is "Phillip Hall Likes Me I Reckon Maybe" and the cover is very true to character, a lovely young girl of color. As a typical elementary student it was the cover that made my decision to read it.

  6. Well, as long as there aren't books with people of color on the cover, I suppose they won't sell very many of them, will they...

  7. I think the "books with people of color on the cover don't sell" argument is inherantly wrong because, as far as I've seen, there's been no study to prove it. Has there been a study to compare how books with people of color on them sell compared to books with white people on their covers? And if they do sell less, is there another reason (e.g. they were aimed a niche audience, shelved obscurely, just happened to be more poorly written and reviewed, etc.)? I don't think publishers can make this claim until they start putting people of other races on their covers and compare how they sell. As Colette said above me, books with people of color on the cover can't sell if they don't exist.

    Furthermore, why wouldn't they? I'd like to believe our society isn't that backwards still. Our president is black, as are many of our biggest entertainers. Are we really willing to watch them on screen, but can't face seeing them on the books we read?

    I hope people continue talking about this because it's the only way to make the publishers see. If we boycotted these books, we'd only be hurting the authors, who have little-to-zero say in the cover design, and that would only give the publishers ammunition for their arguments.

  8. I still can't believe they did it, and more than once. It's underestimating the buying public, and like Colette and Kristin have said we can't buy stories about people of colour if we don't know they exist. Give us some credit publishers.

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