Cover Matters is a new monthly feature in which we examine the medium that is first contact between a reader and a book: the cover. This feature will dedicate more separate space to a topic that has always intrigued, irked, and befuddled us. We will be talking about issues such as whitewashing practices, covers in poor taste, misleading or completely inaccurate covers, clichéd covers and, of course, covers that manage to get it right. We plan on having guests (bloggers, authors, cover artists, and publishers if possible) join us for these monthly pieces, with the following question in mind: Do covers matter?
In this first issue, we will be examining the practice of whitewashing of covers. We begin by taking a look at a few examples of Whitewashing over the ages, following up with an examination of the rationales justifying this practice. We proceed to talk about problems of whitewashing, as this form of discrimination has much broader implications in not only the publishing and book world, but in the real world as well. We finally conclude the post with a call for awareness and a guest article by the eloquent and passionate Ari from Reading in Color.
In books, to whitewash is to use a white representation for a character that is not white. If you have been anywhere near the wonderful world of book blog internetting for the past few months you are probably aware of two major cover fiascos, in which publishing house Bloomsbury used white models on covers to represent non-white protagonists. After the huge online outcry the covers of Liar by Justine Larbalestier and of Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore were retreated and replaced:
As much as we, and probably the rest of the world (as some of the comments we have seen point to), would like to think that these are only but sporadic, isolated incidents, unfortunately this is not so. The practice has been going on for a long, long time, and it is not confined to one genre or one race, nor is it solely an American issue, either:
Example 1: Octavia Butler’s Dawn
Dawn is the first book in Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series and her protagonist Lilith Iyapo (the standing woman in the cover to your left), is described as “an imposing black woman” (quote from NK Jemisin’s article). The first cover published in 1987 was replaced with the cover on the right in the 1997 edition, 10 years later.
Example 2: Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet and Powers
Ursula Le Guin is a Fantasy author known for writing multiracial characters. Her Earthsea quartet for example features dark-skinned characters, however early books depict white-skinned ones on the covers.
Similarly, the arc of her 2007 release Powers, which features a POC as the main character, was distributed with the cover on the left. Thankfully, the publishers fixed the mistake in time for the release.
Example 3: LA Banks’ Crimson Moon Books
The Crimson Moon books features a protagonist who is half-creole, half African-American and the four covers in the series are completely all over the place in portraying said protagonist. The latest cover is the only one that comes close to Sasha’s honey, darker skin tone.
Example 4: Cherry Cheva’s She’s So Money
The protagonist of this 2008 book is Asian (Thai to be more precise).
Example 5: Esther Friesner’s Sphinx’s Princess
This 2009 novel and 2010 sequel, about Nefertiti, the Egyptian Queen has a very white, European looking model on its covers.
Example 6: The Dragon and The Stars Anthology
This anthology edited by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi, and featuring fantasy, myth, and science fiction stories by and about ethnic Chinese writers from around the world – including Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, Canada and the United States….and it has a European Dragon on the cover. (Never mind the fact that the book isn’t even about dragons)
Example 7: German cover of NK Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
The protagonist of this fantastic novel is thus described:
I am short and flat and brown as forestwood, and my hair is a black-curled mess. Because I find it unmanageable otherwise, I wear it short. I am sometimes mistaken for a boy.
So who is the person depicted in the cover of the German version?
According to the author, the German editor has declared that the woman in the cover is not meant to depict anyone in the book. It is a random person. She has been advised:
by other pro authors that this sort of thing — art that’s got nothing to do with the book — is common among foreign publishers, who go in more for “symbolic” rather than “representative”/”realistic” like us USians prefer.
We remain baffled as to how a blonde, random woman in lieu of a dark-skinned woman could “symbolise” anything other than racism. This is a choice and a choice that brings us to the point of this post.
The most dominant rationale we have seen for justifying whitewashing of covers (and movies, etc) is the simplistic argument:
We have a few problems with this argument. First, we should disclose that we do NOT have any hard data (although if anyone does have access to sales figures, we’d love to hear from you), and as such, we must deal with largely anecdotal and other secondary evidence.
That said, it seems to us that the argument that the statement, “PoC Covers Don’t Sell” seems more than a little disingenuous. First off, there aren’t very many books with PoC representation on the covers out in the market to begin with! Check out one informal survey done by a blogger cited at Racebending.com, in which a paltry 2% of 775 YA books looked at had PoC on the covers. This is a small sample, but from our experience, it feels pretty representative. Go into the YA or SF/F section of your book store and take a look at the covers. We’re betting about 2% of those covers depict a PoC (if that). In this sense, yes, PoC covers don’t sell…but that probably has something to do with the fact that there aren’t any significant number of them out there. And while we’re on the argument that covers with PoC on them do not sell, take a look at the July issue of Italian Vogue. The issue, in the midst of a huge slump in advertising and sales for fashion magazines, sold out completely in the USA and UK, causing a rush second printing of 40,000 copies. This hot-selling, record breaking issue was the “Black Issue” and only featured black models. For a relatively small circulation magazine, this is huge news. While we know that matching book publishing to magazine publishing is an apples to oranges comparison, we do think it’s an interesting trend to at least note.
Following and related to the argument that POC-cover books will not sell, the second major argument we have seen in the rationale for whitewashing covers is:
There’s a whole lot wrong with this argument. First, it assumes that the majority of “readers” are white. We live in a very diverse world – in the United States alone, over 38% of the population is a race other than white (according to the American Community Survey Demographic & Housing Estimates from 2006-2008, and separating “Hispanic/Latino” from the “white” classification). Demographics aside, this argument is also flawed as it assumes that readers can only relate to books about characters that are similar to themselves. What does that say about books with vampires or werewolves or blue aliens on the covers? Is the message, then, that readers can eagerly relate to these covers and these different species’ of characters – but cannot relate to something so removed as another human of a different race? What does this say of PoC audiences that read books with predominantly white protagonists? This argument implies that they either have more mental fortitude and adaptive prowess than their white brothers and sisters, or that their being able to relate to white characters simply isn’t as important than whites being able to relate to non-whites. Any way you cut it, it’s insulting to all those involved.
Besides the Young Adult category/genre, we’ve seen this argument of non-relatability applied especially in the romance field – in particular, with African-American Romance. Attempts at “Crossover Marketing” (Marketing African-American Romance in the Romance section as opposed to segregating it to the A-A Section) were met with this brand of criticism, for example from the Arlington Morning News (from aalbc.com):
In an Arlington Morning News story about crossover marketing of African-American romances, a magazine publisher indicated that the covers, which show Blacks in Afrocentric styles, might make white readers uncomfortable.
“There are many people who might see the covers of the books, which often feature women with braids or short kinky cuts and men with clean-shaven heads and dark skin, as being too black and in-your-face” She went on to suggest covers without people.
As we’ve said before, this is a problem that pervades the publishing industry, across genres. Again, the same assumption presupposes this reporter’s argument (a white person is not too white for PoC readers, but PoC characters are too “colored” and “in-your-face” for white readers). The point is, these sorts of assumptions about white and PoC readers are insulting to ALL involved – to both persons of color, and white readers alike.
Problems & Implications of Whitewashing
The problems inherent in whitewashing of covers extends much further than a mere book. The practice is indicative of a larger problem that is prevalent in the publishing world, and in our own world, as readers and humans. Even before a cover is placed on a book and may be whitewashed, there are numerous obstacles and problems that face PoC writers. You may have noticed that many books with PoC protagonists are written by white authors, especially in the YA arena. In fact, the whole impetus for our “Cover Matters” posts were two such books – both Liar and Magic Under Glass are books with PoC protagonists, and are written by white authors. According to statistics taken from the Children’s Cooperative Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, this trend is the norm:
We want to make it very clear that we think that it is TOTALLY awesome that white authors write about POC. We want diversity! We live in a diverse world, we want diverse characters that represent the real world! Justine Larbalestier has written a great article about why her protagonists aren’t white, that we encourage everyone to read.
However, the discrepancy between books written about PoC and by PoC is interesting, and also worthy of note. Take, for example, Mary Anne Mohanraj’s experience with “The Red Sari” phenomenon for her Bodies In Motion cover. Ms. Mohanraj explains:
My original cover was an ‘artsy, literary’ cover, but under market pressure, the cover was changed to an image of a brown-skinned woman with wet skin, wrapped in a red sari. I had heard that this was common for the covers of S. Asian books, so I eventually decided to do some research and see if that was actually the case.
Ms. Mohanraj put together a presentation of her findings for the 2008 SALA Conference in San Francisco, which you can read about online here: South Asian & Diaspora Book Covers.
For another perspective, we’d also like to call your attention to a post by POC author Neesha Meminger, “Who Gets to Represent”. Of her experiences, Ms. Meminger says:
When white authors write characters of colour, their careers are not hindered. In fact, they may get the traditional pat-on-the-back response whenever the privileged represent those they have privilege over. When authors of colour write books featuring white protagonists and all-white casts, their careers are not negatively impacted. I am not applauded or thanked when I write white characters in my books because I am expected to.
Certainly a valid point. She then goes on to say:
When authors of colour dare to feature protagonists of colour, or people their books primarily with characters of colour, our challenges to getting published are vast. If we do somehow manage to get published, our books are “educational,” or about race and “other”-ness — and we are almost never lead titles. Many of us struggle to get a second book published (Mitali Perkins waited over ten years to have her second book published), and to get the marketing and publicity support we need to reach our audience. (This last bit is probably true for the majority of authors, regardless of race or background, but it is definitely compounded for PoC).
So, What Can We Do?
Whitewashing of covers is a problem. It is a concrete, visual representation that can be held in our hands, of a much larger moral and social problem, namely: Racism. If you think that we are exaggerating, that covers don’t matter, that what matter are the stories inside a book, that this is the 21st century after all and we all have come a long way, perhaps you should consider the following:
- Most of the examples given above happened in the past 5 years, some of them are happening right now.
Whitewashing is not something that is relegated to the book industry either to wit:
- In 2008, L’Oréal was accused of Whitewashing Beyonce on their advertisement on an issue of Elle Magazine.
- The 2010 movie Avatar: The Last Airbender, which is based on a Nickelodeon’s cartoon and is “set in a fantastical Asian world,” depicting a multicultural world and multicultural characters. However, the casting of the movie is largely Caucasian – for the heroes, that is. The villains, however, are represented by PoC.
- Last Friday it hit the news that Gerard Depardieu will be playing the role of Alexandre Dumas in a new movie about the writer who was of mixed race and suffered racism when he was alive. Gerard Depardieu had to “darken his skin and wear a curly wig” to play the role.
And the list goes on.
So, the question we need to ask ourselves is this: what can we do about all of this mess? There is no easy solution for this of course – you can’t make a racist, not racist. You can’t make people who think they won’t relate to a PoC in a cover of book or a magazine, or in the lead role of a movie change their minds.
Where to start?
Awareness is important. Be aware of cover issues, for example, and don’t deny that there is a problem (i.e. “marketing departments are so busy, maybe this is not a racist issue at all”). Be aware that there is such a thing as White Privilege, and what exactly it means (check out this article from The Story Siren on her experience with White Privilege). There will a whole bunch of links at the end of this article as well, and we highly recommend you read them.
If you want to actively do something, you can start by reading more books by PoC, about PoC and with PoC on the covers – and the numbers will start to change. Check out the PoC Reading Challenge or join the Readers Against Whitewashing Facebook Page.
Publishers: if you are publishing a book about a PoC, OWN IT. Like for example, Simon and Schuster and Angry Robot are two publishers that are publishing great books about and by PoC with great covers too.
The truth is this: if we just sit back and let it pass, we will still be seeing whitewashing in the 22nd century and beyond.
And this is what we have to say on the subject; we admit we got carried away. The more we read, the more interested we became, and the post ended being more of an essay than anything else. We have learnt a lot in the process, we might even have shed a tear or two reading articles and watching videos at Racebending ( a site we highly recommend you all to check it out, it is eye-opening).
To finalise, we would like to give the floor to Ari, from Reading in Color. She is the teenager who wrote that amazing letter to Bloomsbury when the Magic Under Glass cover debacle occurred, and her words have inspired several articles and blogs about the subject. We asked Ari: Do Covers Matter?
A huge thank you to Ana and Thea for inviting me to express my opinions here at The Book Smugglers. Like most bloggers I love to talk, rant, discuss and listen so I’m excited for this new feature they will be having called Cover Matters because it’s an important topic and one that we need to talk about.
I think YA book covers (I mostly read YA so I can’t compare my thoughts on this subject to adult fiction book covers) have lots of problems (skinny models vs. overweigh models, boys vs. girls, headless people, etc.) However, in this post I want to focus solely on whitewashed covers because they are the most distressing of all covers.
If you follow the book blogging world, especially the YA blogosphere then you have undoubtedly heard all about the Liar and Magic Under Glass cover controversy. A brief refresher: Bloomsbury USA whitewashed both covers of these books. That means that, although the books were about African American (in Liar the main character, Micah is biracial) or “dark-skinned” (the main character, Nimira in Magic Under Glass is described as such) girls, the covers had white models on them. This is wrong, pure and simple. The whitewashing of covers has been an eye opener to many in the blogging community.
The message a whitewashed cover sends is that POC are worthless, that we mean so little that even if a book is written about us, we can’t be on the cover because the image of a POC won’t sell. Even if a book is about a certain topic, the cover can be completely different from the story as long as it sells. Now I want everyone to step back and think about this. Are you back? Is that not completely ridiculous? For all the “color blind “folks, let’s take color out of the equation. It would be like having a vampire on the cover of a book about a witch or a dog on the cover of a book about a horse, etc (except it’s 100x worse to whitewash a cover). Wouldn’t you be mad or at the very least puzzled? POC can read about white people, that’s “normal” and expected. But ask some white people to read about a POC and it’s a problem, “there aren’t many books about POC in my favorite genre” or “I don’t see color so I shouldn’t have to alter my reading habits.” I admit that I always thought it obvious as to why whitewashed covers are wrong, but I received a rude awakening when I started reading comments on other blogs that said things like “so?” or “I don’t really care because I don’t see color. I just read the story if it sounds good.” This is troubling for a few reasons.
First, the idea of “not seeing color” is ridiculous and sad. It’s sad because we live in a colorful world, with people who are all different shades. If you don’t “see color” then to me, you are saying I don’t recognize the beauty of all people who are of different hues. People come in all different colors and we should see this beauty and appreciate, not ignore it. If you’re white, you are colorless to a certain degree but that’s not bad! I certainly don’t think white people should feel bad for being white or pale (ugh don’t get me started on tanning! Tanning beds are one of the creepiest things in this world), everyone should be accepting of their own skin color as well as others.
I understand the intention behind “not seeing color”. This mindset states that you only judge a book based on the story within the pages, not on the cover. The idea being that you will read any book that appeals to you and that therefore you are not narrow-minded because you would read a book about a person of color (POC) it just hasn’t been written yet. As if, once a book is written in your favorite genre and it’s about a POC, it will magically appear in your local bookstore or library and you will pick it up. Naturally, this is completely ridiculous. I’m willing to bet that those who claim to be color blind own books with mostly white faces on the cover. This may not be intentional on their part, but since they don’t see color, they limit themselves from searching for books that have color in them and they don’t protest the lack of color and cultural diversity in books.
There are not many YA books out there about people of color so you have to make a conscious effort to look for them. When I was a young reader, I just read the most popular books, the ones everyone was reading (Beverly Cleary, Harry Potter, etc.) but I realized something really fast: the popular books rarely involved people who looked like me, or who came from different cultural backgrounds than the white norm. It wasn’t fair. I wanted to see more books about POC, but when I wandered the shelves of my local bookstores, I didn’t see very many, maybe one or two. This bothered me for a while, but I didn’t decide to do anything till I was older, getting ready to start high school. I started to do research. I looked up titles and authors who were/wrote about POC and armed with this knowledge, I headed back into bookstores. If the books weren’t there, I asked for them to be ordered. Oftentimes these books were in obscure locations that I wouldn’t have thought to look, more often than not though, my bookstore just didn’t carry them but they were always happy to order them for me. If I was color blind, I never would have done this. I would have kept reading the books that I saw prominently on display in my bookstores and libraries, books that did not have POC on them and/or were not about POC.
POC do not get on covers. I suppose this is because somewhere publishing companies have statistics (or have at least noticed trends) that show that people are more likely to read about white people than POC and that covers with white people sell better than covers with POC. This places the blame of the lack of POC on covers solely on the consumers. If we start buying more books with POC on the covers, publishing companies will put more of them on the cover and publish more books about POC. Also, why do some white people not want to read about POC? It’s important for families and teachers to talk about the importance of having tolerance for other cultures. Tolerance is developed from reading about cultures different from your own. BUT if we consumers don’t see many books with POC on the cover, we will continue to buy books with white people on the cover (and if we don’t see color, we won’t give this a second thought) and a whole generation of leaders will have grown up without reading about and respecting other cultures and then it’s the publishing companies fault. It’s a vicious cycle and instead of pointing fingers and blaming the publishing companies or the readers, let’s talk about how we can change the minds of both publishing companies AND readers. We can do this by buying books with POC on the cover and books that are about/by POC. This will send a message to publishing companies, that we don’t care who is on the cover, as long as the story is good, therefore, publish more books about people of color. If your book blog is dedicated to a certain genre, then start making an effort to read and review books in that genre that feature POC. We can send messages to our fellow readers by talking up the books about/by people of color, if you have a blog, you have a computer, so there are no excuses for not being able to find books about POC (Google anyone?) Reviewing books about POX does not mean we praise every single book about/by a POC. There is no free pass just for writing about a diverse group of characters (especially if they aren’t authentic), we should hold all books to the same standards; are they well written? Entertaining? Meaningful? It’s just an added bonus when the cast is multicultural.
Covers matter because they are the first thing (or one of the first things) that attracts us to a book. When you see a cover that is so unique, so breathtaking, laugh out loud funny or just plain weird, that gets your attention and draws you to the book. As a POC, seeing a cover with a POC on it, draws me in. I will pick up ANY book with a POC on it (and then read the summary to see if I actually want to read it) because sometimes I get tired of reading about blondes, brunettes,and feisty redheads (*eye roll* Why can’t you be a feisty blonde? or black-haired girl?) with blue, green or hazel eyes. People of color deserve to see images of themselves reflected on book covers, especially young readers. As children and teens of color grow we need to see ourselves reflected on book covers and in books to re-affirm that we are special and valuable because we don’t always get that reassurance from TV/movies, magazines or those around us which provides a crushing blow to self-esteem. I am one of many young people of color who at one point or antoher wanted to be white and cursed the fact that not only do I look different from everyone else, but I rarely see images of people who look like me in the media. That is a sad reality and conclusion to come to and I sincerely hope that in a small way, my blog along with others will help promote the works of POC enough that the next generation (regardless of skin color) will grow up with POC on book covers and will pick up the book without giving it a second thought except being excited about the story on the pages. When young readers (including myself) see POC on book covers, we get a boost of self-esteem and feel triumphant, happy in the knowledge that people will be walking around with a POC on a book cover (for a little while at least). They are seeing in color and will come to realize (if they haven’t already), that we all have some common experiences and trials regardless of skin color. It’s an eye-catching cover indeed that can convey all that with just one image of a POC.
People have already stepped up and begun working to promote books by/about POC. Check out Color Online, theHappyNappyBookseller, Crazy Quilts, Multiculturalism Rocks!, Gal Novelty, Asia on the Heart,World on the Mind, Bookish Blather, Good Books & Good Wine and the POC Reading Challenge. Oh and if you stop by my blog that would be pretty cool too and maybe, just maybe, it would be a great resource
Thank you, Ari!
Referenced Articles/Links for Further Reading: