Christian Leftist

Christian Leftist

2009.07.25 - This Week in Racism 008 - Publishers and Cover Art

Whitewashing of cover art for books about people of color has been a problem for a long, long time, going back to Uncle Remus and the minstrelface that the publishers thought would sell more copies.

Now Justine Larbalestier, YA author of How to Ditch Your Fairy, has showed bravery is saying what her readers allowed her to say by expressing themselves vociferously: that she actually hates the current cover of her upcoming book, Liar. The protagonist is biracial but looks black, and yet the cover shows a white girl with fair, straight hair.

Larbalestier doesn’t have a clause in her contract giving her final approval of the cover art, and she strongly objected to the cover, to no avail. The hard truth is that the more rights you ask for in your contracts, the less llikely you are to find a commercially advantageous book deal. Authors usually have little to NO say over the art design for their books. The -isms present in the publishing industry are as bad as the music industry’s ever were, only the people in power are unable to recognize their perpetuation of these oppressions because they consider themselves to be ‘liberal.’

Justine expresses the cold facts eloquently:

Every year at every publishing house, intentionally and unintentionally, there are white-washed covers. Since I’ve told publishing friends how upset I am with my Liar cover, I have been hearing anecdotes from every single house about how hard it is to push through covers with people of colour on them. Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA—they’re exiled to the Urban Fiction section—and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all. How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white? Why would she pick up Liar when it has a cover that so explicitly excludes her?

The notion that ‘black books’ don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. 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 them4 Until that happens more often we can’t know if it’s true that white people won’t buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with “black covers” don’t sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with ‘white covers.’

When are clueless white people going to get it? Those of us under 35? We don’t want incremental change that only manifests itself on our deathbeds. We’re sick and tired of excuses for this kind of behavior. White are the minority on this planet. In a few years, they will be the minority among people under 25. By 2050, maybe much sooner, they will be the minority in the United States. It’s time to move past colonialist attitudes and shove the ignorant portions of the populace into the 21st century, whether it makes them uncomfortable or not.

Bloomsbury wants proof that their racist sales strategies are going to cost them money if they don’t change? Fine. I’m going to buy the Australian version of the book. I encourage you to help the author and protext simultaneously by doing the same, and make sure to tell Bloomsbury why you’re doing it.

Bloomsbury Publishing
Distributed by Macmillan
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010


F: (212) 780-0115 or (212) 982-2837

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