Black OR White Covers

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?

9 thoughts on “Black OR White Covers”

  1. Fundamentally changing the color of a character, in the cover of a book, is looking for controversy in the first place IMHO.

    I understand that the publishing industry is first and foremost a business, and that the people who invest in it look for what will sell; however, and as a former bookseller, it was my experience that teenagers and parents, when looking for a great book, would open it and start reading the first lines. If they liked it, they would buy the book regardless of the ethnicity of the main character. This happened countless times. All it took was having the book in the first place. It helped to have a staff who had read it and could recommend it. I also encountered several customers who specifically asked for books showcasing culturally diverse characters, with the clear intend to “broaden” their horizons.

    I walked into my local bookstore a few days ago, the day after Christmas. Sitting on the floor was an Asian little girl, looking at the African American version of Disney’s the Princess and the Frog, with her mom sitting nearby.

    Whether that movie satisfyingly portrays African Americans is another debate; I however found cute that, to a child, the color of skin didn’t matter in that instance.

  2. I really think it’s quite amuzing that people still tend to make assumptions about other’s based on what they look like on the outside. On several occasions when talking to someone about where we grew up, etc., it comes up that I am from Brazil. I always get one of two replies, or sometimes even both, “Really? You don’t look Brazilian!” Or, “Oh yeah, now I see it.” I never know how to reply to comments like these because they seem so ridiculous to me but at the same time I know they are not ill intended, so I usually just chuckle and say nothing. Another time a man was speaking to me about how the country is getting run down because of all the immigrants that the government keeps letting in and how they steal the jobs of true Canadians. This sounded equally as ridiculous to me but this time the comment was made with ill intent, so after sharing a few choice words with him and startling him with the news that I was an immigrant, he shut down immediately and hopefully went away with a little different perspective on things. We are all people. We are all very much alike. Personally, I think that the whole issue with the book cover story was just a marketing strategy to create a buzz. A wonderful story is a wonderful story no matter who writes it, or who it’s about and that’s all there is to it.

  3. I’m in the process now of designing my book cover… and I erred on the side that the book will be judged by its cover so therefore… try to create a vision that is halfway between what the book is about and ambiguous but attractive. Having said this, a cover that is nothing like the book or in fact intentionally misrepresents what the book is about, breaks my level of trust with the author (sadly, not the publisher).

  4. Identity formation and exploration of the “not me”: I think those are two projects that young readers bring to books. In both cases, I believe, a book’s cover should be true to the pages inside it. In terms of identity formation, what justification can there be for erasing difference? “You can be part of the story–just not a *visible* part of the story.” That’s a violation of justice to my way of thinking. I certainly don’t think that every book needs a face on the cover (or a torso…or eye…or whatever), but if there is a face, it should not disguise the truth of the story.

  5. My comment is simple. Covers of books should reflect content. If that means showing the race of the character, then that is what should be depicted.
    I agree, as someone previously commented, that children are mostly oblivious to race and just either enjoy the story or not. An interesting story will inadvertently sell itself based on its own merits, but it should also be true to what the author had initially intended.
    Thus, the cover should reflect that intent and not be altered to suit “what sells.”

  6. Thank you all for commenting. I was intrigued by Lauren’s comment about the possibility of the whole issue being a marketing ploy to gain buzz. The reason I doubt this was an intentional marketing gimmick is because of the razor thin margins for profitability of books. Being that Bloomsbury made the cover change, paying for an art change, design change, and re-jacketing of the book itself, all of which raises the bar in making back their initial investment. Of course, one could argue that the controversy created would more than make up for these out-of-pocket expenses, but I just don’t know if a publisher would willingly take this risk. The publishing process is usually focused on avoiding mistakes, not purposely creating one.

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