And here I thought I was done with controversies for the week.
For those who haven’t heard, there’s been a big to-do in the past few days over another instance of cover art whitewashing re a YA novel called Magic Under Glass by debut author Jaclyn Dolamore. Like the last instance, it turned into a big thing, with some big-name editors and authors in the field weighing in on the issue. And a whole lot of readers got pissed off — again — as they should, IMO, because the problem of whitewashing has gone on for literally decades in the book industry (and other media, as I mentioned when I blogged about this before).
At its core, whitewashing is rooted in racism — the belief that people of color aren’t interesting enough, attractive enough, “universal” enough, or empathetic enough to appeal to the white audience that is assumed to be buying most books. Ergo, their presence within the book must be hidden on the cover. And racism, as I already mentioned, doesn’t go away on its own; loud, intensive, angry agitation is what breaks the inertia. In this case it’s already been successful; Bloomsbury made the decision to stop production on the whitewashed version of Magic Under Glass and rework the cover art with a more representative model. Yay!
Thing is, people are still pissed. A number of the protesters are saying that Bloomsbury’s gesture is not enough; they need more proof the company is trying to change the systemic problems that keep causing whitewashing to happen. They want to see Bloomsbury publish more authors of color, hire more editors of color, and so on. I wholeheartedly agree with all of this. But a couple of days ago I got an invitation to participate in a boycott of Bloomsbury, and this boycott has not been called off despite Bloomsbury’s mea culpa. That’s why I’m writing this now. (Note: the boycott invitation was sent to a small group initially, and I’m not sure they want to be public yet, which is why I’m not linking it.)
That such a boycott would hurt the authors whose work has been whitewashed (and others) is understood. In fact I’ve seen more than one commenter in some of these conversations essentially suggesting that those authors deserve to get boycotted if they sell their books to publishers who whitewash. Authors shouldn’t support such publishers, the reasoning goes, because the publishers won’t respect the author’s vision of the characters. Authors should instead support some of the newer PoC-focused small presses that have popped up, like Tu Publishing and Verb Noire.
I think supporting TP and VN are great ideas; both authors and readers should do this. This is a great way to find some new voices, and I hope both presses grow and thrive. And I think the protesters are right in that small/specialized presses offer authors some real advantages. But boycotting authors — yeah, authors like me — who don’t choose to go this route? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.
OK, look, here’s how it works. Publishing is a business venture — a partnership. An author who thinks their writing is something people will want to read seeks an investor who can make this happen. The author gets some things out of this deal: publicity, financial support for their future writing in the form of an advance, and someone to handle all the stuff us artsy-fartsy types don’t usually like to think about, like A4 acid-free versus B5 partial pulp paper and endcap displays and discounting and good grief I’m a writer not a supply chain engineer so why would I possibly care. Anyway, the publisher also gets some things in exchange for the money they’re investing — usually they control anything having to do with marketing, distribution, and sales. “Marketing” includes the cover art.
Now, I’ve heard lots of people in this debate suggesting that going with a small/specialized press is a way for an author to retain control over their cover art. That’s just not true. Small presses necessarily (because they’re small) make less of an investment in the author’s work. Most small presses don’t have the budget for large advances, big print runs, much in the way of marketing, distribution to chain stores, and so on. So they’re usually less pushy about exerting their rights. But they can, and many of them do, because ultimately their investment is on the line. A good publisher will try to make the author happy, they really don’t have to. So small press or big, the author has no control over the cover art. The only way for an author to control the cover art is to forego this business partnership entirely — to self-publish. And that brings in a whole other set of problems.
Now, let’s look at this whole thing from a different angle. This was the cover of the first Octavia Butler book I ever read:
The standing woman is supposed to be Lilith Iyapo — described at various points as a physically imposing black woman with natural hair. I’ve always visualized her as looking, well, kind of like me. (But taller.)
When I was, hmm, 12 years old? Somewhere thereabouts. I found this book, with this cover, at my local library. Probably wouldn’t have picked it up if I hadn’t been bored mindless — not because the cover characters were white, but because the art just isn’t very interesting. I didn’t realize the protagonist was black until 20 pages in. Didn’t realize the author was black until years later, though I suspected it after reading the book. (Gay people have “gaydar”; black people have “blackdar”. Trufax!) But reading this book, and the author’s subsequent books, rocked my world. I realized, thanks to Ms. Butler, that I could write science fiction and fantasy if I wanted. That we have a place in the future too, and our past is more than slavery and Civil Rights. I will say this point-blank: if I had not discovered Octavia Butler then, I would probably not be publishing a novel now. Might not even be writing.
Obviously I would have found her more easily if the cover art had been representative. I can’t help wondering how many other kids like me missed the chance to see something of themselves in SFF back then, because they had no idea SFF was about anything but white people. I was lucky to find this book. But the reason the book was there in the library for me to find was because it had come from a big publisher. My hometown library was too small to carry small-press or self-published works on its shelves. So if Octavia had self-published, or gone to the PoC-friendly small presses of the time — there were some; the idea isn’t new — I might never have found her. Not even if the cover art had looked like it does now. The book just wouldn’t have been anywhere I could have accessed it.
Now, imagine someone had decided to start a boycott of Butler’s publisher back then, because of that Dawn cover. If Butler suffered because of that — oh well, too bad, she should’ve sold her book to a PoC-friendly press, right? Butler’s publisher would very likely have blamed the boycott and any poor sales on Butler — on the “risk” they’d taken in publishing a black author’s work, or the “risk” of a black protagonist, or the “risk” of publishing a story that dealt frankly with issues of race and gender and power. Not only would Butler have had real trouble selling another book to that publisher or anyone else, but very likely every other similarly “risky” author would have instantly become persona non grata in the industry. It’s illogical, and there’s a racist whiff to the notion that PoC are risky, but it’s a plain fact: when publishers take risks and fail, they don’t take those risks again, or at least not soon. Thus Octavia Butler’s career might have ended or been interrupted with that novel, and the generation of writers of color whom she inspired might be much, much smaller now.
Jaclyn Dolamore — who might very well be part of the generation inspired by Butler too; Butler was loved by more than just geeky black girls — has made good choices here. She chose to include characters of color in her fantasy novel, and from what I understand she did a good job of it. She chose to publish that novel with a large, powerful company which could get her book in front of lots of readers… even if it meant she had to give up some control to make this happen. Bloomsbury made a bad choice — a stupid one, in the wake of the Liar affair — but that doesn’t mean Dolamore was wrong to sign with them. Racism in this industry takes many forms, and cover art whitewashing is only one of them. What’s inside the book is more of a problem, IMO: it’s very, very hard to find characters of color who are written intelligently and put front and center as the protagonist. What we have in Magic Under Glass is just such a character, and what we have in Jaclyn Dolamore is a rare author who is willing to give us such a character.
I am all for angry protest, but this is a case of taking a Magnum .357 to your nose to spite your face. Is a boycott really worth losing this intriguing character in future novels, and/or the author who created her? Making it harder for other authors to break in, if they want to write characters like this? Making it harder for readers to find such characters, because there will be fewer of them? A boycott would do all of these things, IMO. It wouldn’t be right. But it would happen.
So I’ll write a letter to Bloomsbury; I might sign the petition; I’ll blog about it; and when I meet industry people at conventions and so forth, I’ll talk with them about it. When I next see whitewashed cover art — because I highly doubt this will be the last incident; the habit is too ingrained in the industry to be cleared up that quickly — I’ll sit down with everyone I know and explain why I think the art is a problem, and why that problem occurs. I’ll keep trying to make good choices for my own career. All of these things are helpful.
But a boycott? No way.