On Book Covers and Race

I’ve been following and participating in the “Ain’t That A Shame” post over at Justine Larbalestier’s blog, in which she takes the risky (for an author) step of calling her publisher on its decision to post a white face on the cover of her forthcoming novel Liar.

Whitewashing — the fannish term for when fictional characters of color are depicted as white in cover art — has long been a problem in the book publishing industry. Its root is racism, of course: the pervasive belief that people of color’s stories aren’t universal enough to play to white consumers. (Though white people’s stories are deemed universal enough for everyone, hence the white cover figures.) We see this in other industries, as with the current fanrage over M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action film adaptation of the fantasy cartoon “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. The film version casts the heroic leads — for a series set in an all-Asian world — with Caucasian actors. The same thinking was behind the book industry’s bizarre reticence to publish “black fiction” for years, except from those few authors who were embraced by white critics (e.g., Toni Morrison)… until black authors started self-publishing to bestselling numbers, which forced the industry to take notice. Even then, the underlying racist beliefs lingered. At the National Black Writers Conference (put on by the Center for Black Literature a few months back), I got to hear Octavia Butler’s agent relate the story of a publisher she met who still insisted, in the late 1990s, that black people didn’t read. (Incidentally, Octavia used to get whitewashed too.)

So I wasn’t really surprised to hear that Justine had trouble with this. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it was something I was really worried about when The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms sold. In my first meeting with my editor, I said to her, “If you put my protagonist on the cover — and I’d rather you not because I’m one of those weird folks who hates figures on covers, but if you do — please don’t make her white.” But because I knew the history I was up against, in an effort to be “realistic”, I mentally prepared myself for a white cover figure.

But here’s the thing. My publisher is Orbit — one of the newer publishers in the US, though they’ve been around in the UK for awhile (they’re a subsidiary? imprint? offshoot? of Hachette). So they’re essentially a big old company that’s also small and new. Possibly because of this, they’ve got a new-paradigm way of looking at things, which over the past few months has increasingly impressed the hell out of me — to the point of catching me by surprise at times. So even though my editor is one of the only (or maybe the only) editors of color in SFdom, and even though I’d seen that Orbit was bucking some traditions in other respects, I was totally caught off-guard when they sent me the preliminary cover art for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. There was my character, front and center, looking striking and tough-as-nails… and gloriously brown. I’d absolutely convinced myself that a brown woman on the cover of a mainstream SF novel, from a new novelist, from a big publisher, just wasn’t going to happen. And yet there she was.

I felt a bit ashamed of my pessimism, actually.

Later on, though, my editor called to explain that they were making some changes to the cover — which included removing the character. I got a bit anxious about this, because I’d liked the prelim, but she broke it down: the preliminary image was just too busy, particularly once the final text was applied. It was also too dark, some other stuff. The final version ended up even more beautiful, and all my concerns vanished the instant I saw it, because it was glorious. It kicked ass. I was very happy.

But here’s the thing. Because I’d seen that preliminary cover, I knew the publisher had been willing to put a brown woman on my book. My fears were allayed at that point — such that when my editor said she was removing the character for aesthetic reasons, I believed her. But given the pervasiveness of whitewashing in the industry, I do wonder what readers are going to think when they see my book, read that the character is brown, maybe see my author photo and realize I’m brown, and then see there’s no character on the front. Will that feed into the notion that PoC on book covers don’t sell? And I can’t help wondering what might’ve happened if they’d kept my protag on the cover, aesthetic considerations aside. Even if the publisher had been willing to run with it, would the buyers at the chain stores accept it? Would retailers take one look and shove it in the African American Interest section? Would SF reviewers pay any attention to it? Like I said, this is a pervasive thing.

So I guess I’m still wondering what role my race (and my character’s race) will play in the business end of things.

I’m incredibly glad that someone with Justine’s profile is trying to call attention to the problems, though. I’ll be blunt here: authors (and readers) of color have been complaining about whitewashing for years, and it hasn’t changed much. So maybe it’ll help to have a big-name white author make a stink, and get a (largely) positive response from her readers. Every little bit helps.

All this said, I am still blissfully, gleefully happy to be with Orbit, in part because they are willing to buck the dominant paradigm. (Also because they’re just frakkin’ cool.) When a publisher has a 21st century attitude, it shows in everything they do — from who they hire, to what authors they choose to sign, to how they market their products, to their professionalism, and to the quality of the final work. I think this is paying off for them — several of their debut authors have hit the bestseller lists lately — so I can’t help hoping that I’ll be a big hit too, not just for my own sake, but to help show the industry that being progressive is a good (and lucrative!) thing.

Guess we’ll have to wait and see.

15 thoughts on “On Book Covers and Race”

  1. Pingback: Quickly | Justine Larbalestier

  2. Err yes well but– there *is* a person on the cover of your book, who looks pretty dark to me. Mind, everything looks dark on this damned monitor; but if I take the gamma up to where print is invisible, he-she-it *still* looks dark. And the thing that looked like hiherits nose is revealed to be a cupola of the building.

  3. I don’t know if anything is going to change when everything dies down regarding the Liar cover. But two good things have come out of it for me. One I found this blog and a new book to look forward to, great cover btw. Two, hearing my hair isn’t nappy, its kinky. I haven’t heard that in a hot minute and its still funny. It’s laugh, cry or scream. I choose to laugh. I don’t care if your book isn’t coming out until next year, adding it to my Roll Call list right now.


  4. Well, that’s because he’s the god of darkness. =) Don’t think he’ll qualify as a PoC, though — in the absence of evidence to the contrary, people tend to assume white. (Technically he doesn’t have a specific appearance; he changes to become whatever the people around him subconsciously want him to be, including a black hole. But in the book he’s humanoid, white, and male most of the time.)

  5. Gah — that was a reply to MJJ, sorry. Keep forgetting to hit “reply to this comment”. -_-

  6. As a fellow Orbit author (Hi!) I’ll echo your sentiments. My recent trilogy has many non-caucasian characters in it, and when we discussed covers — and I knew the main cover design element would be of a single character — I stressed how important it was that there be no ambiguity about that. And nobody at Orbit blinked an eye. I got nothing but a resounding chorus of, Yes, of course. Which is why I adore them all.

    I’m really looking forward to reading your debut novel.

  7. tricia sullivan

    I can’t wait to read your book. I am with Orbit in the UK and I’m waiting for just that right moment when I can wheedle my editor into an ARC of it. And not because it’s free! Because I can’t wait.

  8. White man, long time fan, and…you’ve hit on one of my issues.

    I grew up watching Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura, and she was one of the women who helped define “beauty” for me as a pre-teen/early teen boy. I learned early that Sci-Fi/Fantasy should be as diverse as Real Life, except Real Life has William Shatner in it, and Sci-Fi/Fantasy probably shouldn’t. Oh, well.

    I remember in college when somebody showed me a picture of a guy making something in a forge, and they said, “That’s Theros Ironfeld forging the Dragonlance.” I said, “Um, dude, no. That guy is white.” “So?” “So *read the books!* He’s from *Ergoth!* He’s *black*!”

    I finally had to haul out the books and point to the description. Theros Ironfeld is not African-American: the world of Krynn has neither Africa, nor America! But some white guy with a hammer, he is NOT!

    This picture comes much closer: http://step.polymtl.ca/~coyote/picturesd/dragnlnc/forging.jpg
    This one, eh: http://www.lucifer.tw/dragonlance/001intro/pic/warrior4.jpg
    (It’s not just him in that picture, the whole style makes me go “eh”).

    Neither quite captures all he did: Master Smith, Resistance Leader, Forger of the Dragonlances, and General. But at least he’s not white!

    I feel your pain, I do. I’ve had this argument since the early 90s, and I just buy the stuff!

  9. I found your ‘pro’ blog! Heh. And to think all I had to do was follow discussions of racism outside of el-jay… *Sigh*

    I will definitely be buying your book, as soon as I can find a copy or order one. Knowing Cambridge and Boston’s selections, I’ll probably have to order it, as they have almost as little respect for fantasy as they do for romance (in the basement of the COOP, and they created a single half-row for romance with about six shelves sometime between 2004 and 2009). I will support you not only because the cover art would be an automatic sell otherwise, but because I share your convictions and I want you to continue to succeed.

    Orbit blew me away with its cover art for Black Ships by Jo Graham. I really am a sucker for good cover art; it’s so important for me to be able to look at a cover and imagine the story and be happy. That’s why Orbit’s softcover books are so wonderful — they don’t look cheap or ugly or clichéd.

    When I complain about how adult genre fiction should have covers more like Melissa Marr’s and Laurie Halse Anderson’s and even (*shudder, shudder*) the first of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, people say that readers buy what they recognize as fantasy and like the garish, busy covers on Robert Jordan books, for example.

    I think it’s utter horseshit. Just look at the results of the cover contest and a Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It took me three seconds to glance at them and tell you which one I liked, which one would win, and which two would never win over cross-genre readers.

    We can have our cake and eat it, too. Diana Gabaldon is an amazing historical fiction writer, and her covers have the most boring symbols on them. Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted was a national besteller for weeks, even with a haunted house looking Munch’s scream face on the cover. The Twilight series has sold millions because of two hands holding a red apple. I BOUGHT that cursed book BECAUSE OF THE COVER ART! Look at Prep by Curtis Sittenfield. Wicked by Gregory Maguire, BEFORE the musical, when he was still selling a ton of books.

    It isn’t about whether the cover is a symbol, a landscape, a person, or some combination of all three. What matters is whether or not it’s striking. It’s so hard to be striking when you’re a “chick in chainmail” or a “guy in armor on a mountainside,” just like ten thousand other covers before you.

    I do not understand why the S & M people DO NOT UNDERSTAND THIS.

    *clears throat* Ahem.

    Anyway, I will be supporting Orbit more because of what you’ve just said. Don’t think of it as giving Orbit a cookie. Think of it as social justice inspired disposable income redistribution. ;)

  10. NK,

    Thanks for coming by Color Online. I’m pretty sure I’ve said somewhere let’s talk about Color Online promoting and supporting your work. You need more than praise. You need readers. Please drop me a note at cora_litgroup@yahoo.com

  11. Pingback: This “whitewashing” covers thing has to stop. Period. « Katie Ellyson

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  15. Even though I usually tend to like pictures of the main characters on the cover, I think the cover of the original book is a million times better than the one of the German version: http://www.randomhouse.de/book/edition.jsp?edi=304416
    At first, when I bought the book, I instantly liked the cover because I thought it was nice that it gave an idea of how Yeine looked but still left space for your own imagination.
    But when I started reading I noticed that she actually looked completely different and was very disappointed that they (whoever designed the cover for the German version) made her look like an Amn on the cover (and also pretty confused why they did that), which is really misleading.
    Luckily, I could still imagine Yeine how she really looks (or more precisely the way my imagination formed her picture after how she is described) for the rest of the book =)

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