Thursday, January 21, 2010

Whitewashing the Covers of YA Novels

Yet another YA novel that depicts a colored protagonist as Caucasion on its cover has hit shelves--and it's the second in less than a year for the publisher, Bloomsbury USA.'s Kate Harding reports:

Last summer, the publishing house Bloomsbury USA drew substantial criticism for featuring a white girl with long, straight hair on the cover of Australian author Justine Larbalestier's "Liar," a young adult novel about a girl whom the author describes as "black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short." At the time, Larbalestier blogged not only about her own disappointment but about similar examples of cover whitewashing, and the pervasive belief among publishing professionals that "black books don't sell" -an assumption apparently based on the premise that a "black cover" is the primary characteristic distinguishing such books from better selling titles. "Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them," said Larbalestier (adding in a footnote, "And most of those were written by white people").


The same publisher has done it again, releasing Jaclyn Dolamore's "Magic Under Glass" -- the protagonist of which is clearly described as having brown skin -- with a young white woman on the cover. Bloomsbury's fear of losing the white market was evidently greater than their embarrassment over the "Liar" debacle -- unless, of course, what they chiefly learned from the "Liar" debacle is that you don't need to put as much money into publicizing a novel if its packaging is sufficiently controversial (in which case, you're welcome, jerks).

Read the entire article HERE

In both of these instances, the authors have been outraged--and rightly so. Larbalestier's open disappointment with the cover portrayal encouraged readers to stand up against the blatant racism with her. The action even forced Bloomsbury to redesign the cover to "to better reflect the protagonist's appearance," Harding reports. But it was definitely forced.

There are multiple schools of thought by publishers regarding race on book covers, but the biggest reason being cited for whitewashing is sales. And it's not only in YA, but in adult fiction as well (Mitali Perkins discusses more examples in her interesting article for School Library Journal HERE). Publishers claim that covers with people of color just don't sell, and that most of the book-buying market is white.

But why do you think that is oh great publisher in the sky? Because you do nothing to change it.

Readers often want to read something they can relate to, but if there are so few covers of color, how do you expect the people of color to relate to all the white covers out there? Many publishers do have African American publishing lines, but even so, they usually don't get the same backing in-house or the same promotion and support as the non-AfAm titles. So they're dead in the water. Why not do a little desegregating and give all the books a fair shake, based on little things such as, oh a book's merit and quality?

It's enraging to me. There's too much stereotyping and racism still alive in the world today anyway, there's no reason to add more to it by blatantly disregarding the color of a character's skin. Not only is it dishonest to the book, its author, and its consumers, but these choices are perpetuating the "poor sales." As Harding points out:

[...]maybe sales numbers aren't the only important factor to consider here. Yeah, I know, faceless corporations, profits, shareholders, blah blah blah. But the decision-makers here are still human beings -- and more important, so are the consumers. In addition to the high probability that publishers have created a self-fulfilling prophecy where covers featuring models of color are concerned, they are hurting people with their current practices.
It's shocking to me that the big-wigs haven't picked up on this yet, or that they're disregarding it if they have. I guess there hasn't been enough of a fall-out yet. They won't take action it seems until it is significantly affection them negatively. So, it falls to us consumers and authors to express their disapproval and push for change. Harding--and I--urge you to do something:

But as Anna North at Jezebel suggests, there's no reason not to send a bunch of angry letters. Adds Ari at Reading in Color, "We should keep blogging, emailing, writing about this issue" -- Bloomsbury's been shamed into doing the right thing once before, at least. And as Larbalestier said back in July, perhaps the most important thing we can do -- especially white people, who could easily read nothing but books about ourselves, and far too often take that option -- is prove the prevailing wisdom wrong. "When was the last time you bought a book with a person of colour on the front cover or asked your library to order one for you?" she asks. If you want to see more of them, here's her best advice: "Go buy one right now. "
What do YOU think about whitewashing?


  1. Personally, I don't even like book covers with people on them. I like to completely imagine characters on my own based on author descriptions. I hate being influenced by the models on covers. That being said, if the publishers still insisted on being freaking racist and worrying that a black woman on a cover wouldn't sell books, why didn't they just redesign the damn thing so there wouldn't be a person on the cover at all? As a reader, I would be outraged at the publisher for putting a white character on the cover when she's supposed to be black, or, for that matter, putting a Japanese girl on the cover when she's supposed to be Korean!

    I can't even imagine how pissed those authors must have been. Of course if I were a published author, I would be annoyed if they put models on my cover too...but that's a whole other issue.

  2. Okay, I get why publishing houses are doing this. They've done the research they want to sell the books, etc. But... then why put a person on the cover AT ALL? But, I wonder if it didn't help sells of LIAR and now they are figuring they can do this for the other book as well...

  3. That's a great point, Jamie. The cover debacle actually got LIAR a ton of publicity, so the sales have been fantastic. Unfortunately, it seems that even bad publicity is good publicity. So, it's hard to say how concerned publishing execs are really going to be about this issue.

    P.S. I do hear that this book is AMAZING so it warrants the sales anyway ;)

  4. My personality leans toward always wanting to know the truth... no matter what the consequences are. So, for me to go into a bookstore and feel as though I am being lied to by the cover of the book, is absolutely ridiculous. I know we're told to not just a book by its cover, but if it doesn't at least lend itself to the theme of the book, then I'm not really sure where to start.

    So, I suppose my summarized opinionis if you're going to put any color face on the cover of the book, it better be correct... no matter what the consequences.