Race and When Book Covers Lie

I, like I am sure many people do, assume a character looks like me when I read a book. More often than not they, like me, are white. But many woman don't see themselves frequently reflected on book covers or in the books themselves. The main characters in the book they read are white and they are not. Characters of colour are under-represented in books and when they are represented they are even more rarely the protagonist. So why is it that when a young adult literature author writes a book about a black female protagonist the girl on the cover is white?

Justine Larbalestier, author of Liar has been campaigning for a different cover with her publisher. As author she doesn't get to choose the cover. Authors are lucky if they get any input at all. She's been campaigning for a different cover from the get go but she didn't want to be the first one to speak out against it. I get that. But she's hoping that the conversation on the blogosphere about her cover helps her campaign to get a different, better cover for the paperback edition. Because no author wants this - from white, but the protagonists in her novels aren't. Why? Here are just a few of her reasons.

Because a young Hispanic girl I met at a signing thanked me for writing an Hispanic character. Because when I did an appearance in Queens the entirely black and Hispanic teenage audience responded so warmly to my book with two non-white main characters. Because teens, both here and in Australia, have written thanking me for writing characters they could relate to. “Most books are so white,” one girl wrote me.
Because no white teen has ever complained about their lack of representation in those books. Or asked me why Reason and Jay-Tee aren’t white. They read and enjoyed the trilogy anyway. Despite the acres and acres of white books available to them.
Because I don’t live in an all-white world. Why on earth would I write books that are?

The cover of Liar isn't a bad book cover. It's provocative. It's inviting. It is, however, a tremendously bad cover for this book. Kate Schafer Testerman is a literary agent who wants to emphasize something that Larbelestier said on her blog - "Authors do not get final say on covers. Often they get no say at all.

The key phrase you’ll find in contracts is “consultation,” not “approval.” Most publishers do want to try to work with an author to find a cover that everyone likes, but if they can’t get everyone on board, the author’s opinion often weighs far below that of key sales accounts.

Publishers want the covers of books to be universal so that they appeal to as many readers as possible. What they are missing is that universal doesn't equal white.

Colleen at Chasing Ray calls it Cover Fail 09 and has a fantastic link round up of people talking about this. Why did she do it?

It occurs to me that Bloomsbury, while certainly noticing the controversy over the Liar cover, could also dismiss it as the opinions of a few bloggers (who, whether we like or not always seem to be dismissed as "extremist"). So what if there are a ton of responses? What if we have them all nicely organized in one spot so you can't help but see the dozens (and dozens and dozens?) of blog posts that this cover choice has spawned?

Where in a bookstore are you most likely to find a black person on the cover of a book? The urban fiction section. Lauren McLaughlin hates the "urban fiction" designation for books.

The thinking among many people in sales and marketing is that “black covers don’t sell.” This easily extends to the even more pernicious truism: “black books don’t sell.” This then leads to the still more pernicious trend of segregating books by and about black people into the “urban fiction” section of your local book store.
[...]
What, I ask you, is the point of this segregation? Why do we need to divide our novels, our movies, and so much else into separate demographic categories? Who wins here?
And who loses?

Am I an expert on racial issues? Heck no. What I am is a reader - a reader who tries really hard to judge a book by its content rather than its cover. But I'm not going to lie to you. If I'm in a bookstore most often the first thing I'm going to see about a book is its cover and it is going to impact my initial reaction to a book. It can help decide whether or not I want to read a book. It can shape the reaction I have to that book once I've read it. Most of the time the physical appearance of a person on a book cover is irrelevant to me. I ignore it as much as possible because I don't want it to shape how I see the characters.

But this is wrong, for so many reasons. It's wrong because women of colour on book covers should not be just in the urban fiction section. It's wrong because all girls should be able to see themselves physically reflected on the covers of books. Its wrong because it completely changes the book the author wrote and the character she created. It is just wrong.

Susan's unofficial list of great YA by or about women of color. There are 47 books on that list. Can you think of more to add?

When was the last time you saw a novel with a black woman or girl on the cover? I honestly can't remember. It might have been Sherri L Smith's Flygirl. And on what planet would that ever prevent you from buy and/or reading that book? Because it's completely beyond the realm of my comprehension.