First, a quick reminder: anything that I say here is entirely my own experiences and thoughts. These blog posts do not reflect the thoughts, opinions, or policies of my employer, colleagues, husband, or cats. If you want to know their opinions, you’ll have to ask them.
Last week, the internet was afire with discussions of the cover for Justine Larbalestier‘s upcoming book, Liar. The book, which features a black protagonist, was given a cover with a white girl on it. After the furor that the original cover caused, Bloomsbury relented and changed the cover to feature a black girl, claiming that the original cover was “intended to symbolically reflect the narrator’s complex psychological makeup”.
First and foremost, let me say that I think that Bloomsbury’s full of it, and their “symbolic reflection” is better translated as “…balls. Caught out.” As has been pointed out in many of the other discussions about this subject, whitewashing covers is far from an uncommon practice in publishing.
So first, Larbalestier’s book. It’s my opinion that putting a white girl on the cover was a bad move, but I have to say that I don’t think that the new cover is any great prize. Sure, there’s a black woman on the cover, but to me, that’s the only improvement. They’ve zoomed out, losing the sense of immediate intimacy that the first cover created. They’ve kept the image in color, presumably to show readers that hey, this time the model’s black! Really! Unfortunately, the lime green lettering clashes with the navy blue of the fabric around the woman’s face, so I’m not convinced that color was a great idea–it’s just not an attractive combination.
Don’t get me wrong–I think that redoing the cover was something that had to be done in this instance, but I think that ultimately, Larbalestier ended up with a less compelling cover. And, as much as no one likes to admit it, covers sell books. Covers are what convince readers to pick something up and read the blurb; covers are what make people grab something off of the new releases table. The original cover for Liar was very intense and intimate, and it drew you immediately into the heroine’s world. The relatively sparse lettering, the very limited color palette, and the very close crop of the girl’s face all contributed greatly to this, in my opinion, and the new cover has none of those things. The new cover is less intimate, less compelling. I hope for Larbalestier’s sake that sales are fantastic and prove that everyone else in the world disagrees with me, but I can’t shake the feeling that she would’ve sold more books with the first cover.
Which, really, brings us to why books get whitewashed in the first place. And–well, and the answer is basically “it’s complicated”. An equally good question is this: Why is it Harry Potter and the Majorly Best-Selling Books? Why Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, not Amelia and the Terrible, et cetera? Conventional wisdom says that boys (the default majority/power-holding group) won’t read books about girls (the weaker, less-valued group), but girls will read about boys.
The same applies to books with black protagonists, or gay protagonists, or protagonists who are any type of person who is not a heterosexual white male. Straight white men are the default. You hear it all the time–the coveted bracket of men between eighteen and thirty-five. They don’t even bother with the full label, because straight and white are implicit.
Books that aren’t about straight white people are still in a bit of limbo. Even when they’ve got appropriate covers, they still run into the problem of shelving. Do we shelf an urban fantasy with a black heroine as fantasy, or as African-American? The gay romance–with romances, or with GLBT? Even some of the religious books fall into this–the so-called inspirational romances usually get shelved with romance, but what about the Christian cozy mystery? Where does that go? Again, the answer is something along the lines of “it’s complicated”.
Anywhere you put those books, you’re losing readers. (The exception to this, of course, is if you’re doing it online, since books can be classified as multiple categories.) You put your lesbian romance in with GLBT, you’re missing out on the readers who usually read romance, but who wouldn’t have cared that the characters were gay. Put your black urban fantasy heroine in with fantasy, and you’re missing out on the people who are actively seeking books with black protagonists.
Of course, you’re probably gaining some readers, too–the reader who doesn’t care if her romance is between two men, the reader who just wants a book with a black heroine and is willing to try a new genre to find it. Will you gain enough readers to make up for the readers you’re losing from another section? I don’t know. Maybe. Are there other benefits (increased name recognition, say,) to being shelved with fiction as opposed to GLBT, or African-American instead of fiction? Maybe. Are you better off developing a strong following in a given niche? Maybe. (My opinion there is actually yes, you are, but I’ll post about that some other time, since this is getting long.)
I have no idea which of these options is better, but it does add an interesting dimension to the cover conversation–if your cover is suitably nondescript (like the Australian cover of Liar, for example,) then bookshops can shelve your book in whatever department they’d like. Which, like I said, may or may not gain you any readers, but is pretty much guaranteed to give you a bunch of angst. Yay.
In unrelated news, I’m sorry, but writer gets rejected isn’t news. Memoirs are hard to sell in the very best of times, and hey, guess what? This right here? Not actually the best of times. “I can’t find a publisher for my meaningful anthology about Manhood” is not a sufficiently supporting argument for “publishing is abandoning men”. Life’s hard. Writers get rejected. Put on your big-boy pants and move on.