In August 2009 there was a controversy over a novel with cover art that showed a white face even though the main character of the story was black. The main argument for featuring a white face instead of a black face seems to be a belief that readers are more likely to buy a book with a white face on it. The cover was changed by the publisher because of the uproar it caused on the web, but the incident got me thinking about the images on the covers of our own books, especially since we are a publisher that focuses on diversity.
One hundred percent of the time diverse faces stare out from the covers of our books. Does this mean that only Asian American readers buy Asian books and African Americans only purchase our African or African American titles? If this were the case, we would have been out of business a long time ago. Our publishing mission is based on the idea that the universality of themes contained in our books appeal to a wide audience. A book that takes place in Southeast Asia, for example, should capture the imaginations of both a white child in Minnesota and a child of South Asian descent because of the common themes that bind us together.
The bias—intentional or unintentional—to purchase the familiar is shortsighted. It assumes our interests are so constrained that we will only pick up books with people who look like ourselves on the covers. I do not believe this. My hunch is based on my experiences as a reader. I read books about subjects I’m interested in learning about, which means I am “crossing over” all the time, reading books that take place in settings all over the world with all sorts of characters. The argument could be made that I am a unique reader, maybe more culturally enlightened than the average person. I don’t think so. Writers like Chang-rae Lee and Jhumpa Lahiri didn’t become bestselling authors because only people of Korean or Indian ancestry read their books. They became bestsellers because they are great writers who wrote books with universal appeal.
During the production of our books we review cover images, and we make sure the cover accurately depicts the story. The number one rule for getting this right is for the cover to portray how the characters are shown or described in the book. So what do you all think? How accurately should a book cover reflect what’s inside? With covers, what kind of obligation do publishers have to readers?