J.M. Reep

Judging Publishing Companies By Their Covers

In Commentary on July 25, 2009 at 12:07 am

On Thursday, author Justine Larbalestier, whose new YA novel Liar is about to be released in the United States, posted a blog entry that was critical of the book cover her publisher, Bloomsbury USA, has chosen for the US edition. The book cover features a close-up of the face of a white girl, but the problem is that the main character of Larbalestier’s novel is apparently supposed to be black.

Had it been up to Larbalestier, she writes that she would have preferred that the book did not feature a picture of any girl, white or black:

I never wanted a girl’s face on the cover. Micah’s identity is unstable. I wanted readers to be free to imagine her as they wanted.

At best, then, placing a picture of white girl on the cover of Liar seems like a case of false advertising likely to cause confusion for readers when they realize the difference between how the main character is described in the book and the picture of the girl on the cover.

At worst, however, it suggests that there are some disturbing racial stereotypes and assumptions behind the Bloomsbury USA’s sales and design departments’ choice of a front cover. Later in her blog entry, Larbalestier reveals:

Editors have told me that their sales departments say [covers with black people on them] 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.

Naturally, most of the comments that followed Larbalesteir’s post expressed outrage at the explicit racism on the part of Bloomsbury USA. Certainly, this incident raises questions that all of us: publishers, authors, artists, marketers, booksellers, and readers need to ask ourselves. Would a book with a white face on it sell better than a book with a black face? Do white readers not want to read books by black authors or about black characters?

But what struck me just as much as the racial controversy was the insight that Larbalesteir’s post revealed about how many publishers go about designing book covers. Apparently,

Authors do not get final say on covers. Often they get no say at all.

That shocks me. It’s one thing not to let authors do the work of designing their books themselves — that’s why publishers employ graphic artists. But to not let authors have any input, or to ignore that input when it is offered, is baffling. Why wouldn’t you want to hear the author’s ideas about what the cover of the book should look like?

The front cover is an integral part of the experience of reading a book. Some readers even make decisions about whether to read a book based on the image on the front cover. An author, who has spent months, if not years, working on the story, probably has lots of ideas about what the front cover should look like. To ignore an author’s wishes, to not even bother to ask that author what her wishes are, just seems incredibly stupid.

I self-publish, so I must design the covers of my book whether I want to or not. For some writers, that might seem like a chore, but I enjoy it. I like designing a cover that reflects my vision of what the book is, and it allows me to take responsibility for what’s on the outside of the book as well as what’s on the inside. But authors shouldn’t have to self-publish to have that option. Corporate publishers ought to let authors have a voice in designing a cover. If the author’s vision will harm the marketing a of a novel, then that’s one thing, but let the author in on that discussion!

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