Book covers sell books. But there are a few tricky things about book covers. Covers can be misleading. A fact that many publishing companies seek to work to their advantage.
Case in point: In 2009, Australian author Justine Larbalestier’s book Liar was the topic of much discussion. Released with the face of a young white girl with straight hair on the cover, the YA novel was about a young black woman with ‘nappy hair’. The cover was eventually changed—thanks to outcry from the author and her supporters.
Why did Ms. Larbalestier’s publishing company feel the need to put a white girl on the cover of a book about a black girl? “Black” books don’t sell. This is an unfortunate perception with no hard and fast numbers to back it up but it persists. After the Liar debacle, many other authors in several genres spoke up. They recounted similar whitewashed book publishing experiences.
This is what Ms. Larbalestier had to say about the situation:
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 them. 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.”
For Blacks Only?
Are certain books only for black folks? My answer is no. True, there are many black authors who write strictly for an African American fan base. There’s nothing wrong with that. These authors are writing to their prefered audience, writing about their black American experience for a specific slice of the public that can relate to that experience. Depicting their black characters on their covers is only natural. This a normal and acceptable marketing strategy.
Whitewashing “black” book covers is not a normal or acceptable business practice. The printing of the original Liar cover was an intentional choice made by a majority Caucasian leadership in a large international publishing house. A bad move, in and of itself, made worse because the book was written for younger audiences. The very audience that we want to convince that race no longer matters.
Yes, I know that some ‘African American literature’ is substandard. To be honest, some of them are vulgar books, rife with lewd language, violence, and eroticism. But so are some ‘white’ books. No one race of writers has a corner on the market of bad writing.
Whitewashing book covers is a form of systematic racism. Plain and simple. Some have tried social marketing strategies like selling books with bland, text-based covers. To me, that’s no better than banning words. Some publishers, like the one I wrote two novels for, do not publish books with words like nigger, spic, picanniny, buck, sambo, and jigaboo. Banning words won’t make the racism go away, no more than whitewashing the faces on book covers will.
My three books are written for the Christian audience. Not black Christians. Not white Christians. All Christians. The story lines in my books revolve around racial reconciliation and forgiveness in the South. Most of my characters are black. I chose to prominently display people of color on my covers. During one of my first book signings, a black woman angrily accused me (a black woman) of writing a book about a white man.
Her reaction blocked out my explanation to the contrary. She walked away empty handed. The book happens to be about a biracial man who prefers to identify with his black heritage. Unfortunately she had wrongfully judged the book by its cover. It was her loss.
So what do you read the most of? Are you a one-genre reader? Have you ventured out to read works by authors who don’t look like you?