In the history of publishing, it hasn’t been uncommon for publishers to take books about black characters and white-wash them by depicting the characters on the covers as white. The example I was most familiar with as a kid was Dawn by Octavia Butler. On the cover of the old paperback my parents had, we see the events of the book depicted as a skinny, naked blonde white woman being sealed into some kind of pod. Of course, the main character of the book is a black woman named Lilith whose race and sex are pivotal to the way that the other characters interact with her.
Dawn was first published in 1987 (which I just looked up on Wikipedia; I’d thought the book was from the 70s). While there are always stories about how cover art misrepresents the contents of books — sometimes in blatantly racist or sexist ways — I’d thought that kind of blatant miscasting of black characters as white ones was over.
It’s true that publishers seem to believe that audiences won’t buy books with black people on the covers, especially when those books are YA. The grounding for these beliefs is tenuous — something which I’d heard before, but which is confirmed here by the author of the book, Justin Larbelestier, and discussed in comments by Tor editor, Patrick Neilsen Hayden. Publishers have used a number of techniques to avoid putting black people on the covers of their books. Books featuring black characters may show a silhoette on the cover, or an abstract painting, or some other kind of image that intentionally keeps the characters out of view. Of course this erasure is terribly problematic. But while it exists on the same spectrum of behaviors as replacing black characters with white images, the latter is so much more blatant and corrupt that I find it really shocking that Larbelestier’s publisher felt comfortable pulling these shenanigans.
Larbelestier has written in detail about what happened, and I recommend you take a look at it. Here are some excerpts.
On the difference between how the book is read in Australia (where it was published without a face on the cover, which Larbelestier says she prefers), and how it’s being read in the US:
No one in Australia has written to ask me if Micah is really black.
No one in Australia has said that they will not be buying Liar because “my teens would find the cover insulting.”
Both responses are heart breaking.
On the claim that books without black covers won’t sell:
Every year at every publishing house, intentionally and unintentionally, there are white-washed covers. Since I’ve told publishing friends how upset I am with my Liar cover, I have been hearing anecdotes from every single house about how hard it is to push through covers with people of colour on them. Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA—they’re exiled to the Urban Fiction section—and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all. How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white? Why would she pick up Liar when it has a cover that so explicitly excludes her?
The notion that “black books” don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them4 Until that happens more often we can’t know if it’s true that white people won’t buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with “black covers” don’t sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with “white covers.”
On how white-washing in the publishing industry is peculiarly retrograde:
Are the big publishing houses really only in the business of selling books to white people? That’s not a very sustainable model if true. Certainly the music industry has found that to be the case. Walk into a music store, online or offline, and compare the number of black faces you see on the covers there as opposed to what you see in most book stores. Doesn’t seem to affect white people buying music. The music industry stopped insisting on white washing decades ago. Talented artists like Fats Domino no longer needs Pat Boone to cover genius songs like “Ain’t That a Shame” in order to break into the white hit parade. (And ain’t that song title ironic?)
And on actions that readers might consider taking to support work by, about, and showing people of color:
When was the last time you bought a book with a person of colour on the front cover or asked your library to order one for you? If you were upset by the US cover of Liar go buy one right now. I’d like to recommend Coe Booth’s Kendra which is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Waiting on my to be read pile is Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger, which has been strongly recommended to me by many people.
Myself, I just pre-ordered The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (The Inheritance Kingdom) by N. K. Jemisin whose posts come to Alas through Angry Black Woman where she writes as Nojojojo (although I have to say that while the cover seems to be depicting a black woman, her face is in shadow and mostly hidden)*. I also ordered Racing the Dark by Alaya Dawn Johnson.
Bloomsbury: you’ve done something really contemptible. I hope you’ll republish the book with a better cover.
I’ll even buy it if you do.
*In comments, Nojojojo points out that the face depicted on the cover represents a character without a specific race or sex. I apologize for my assumption. So, while purchasing her book doesn’t count as purchasing a book with a non-white character on the cover, I’m still looking forward to reading it when it comes out.