Thursday, July 23, 2009

Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover

I think the main clue that Justine Larbalestier wasn't thrilled with the US cover for Liar was her use of the Australian cover for her twitter icon.

When I read Liar, which I loved, I closed the book and looked at the cover, extremely puzzled. Twisting and turning to make it work, I wondered, well, is this another lie? Is Micah telling a lie about being black? I thought that didn't make sense, in terms of the story. Slightly more sense making was that the cover was itself the lie: "you think this is what I look like, but it isn't." Except it was the type of sense that made one's head hurt. Still, I didn't want to believe the obvious --

That a white girl was put on the cover of a book about a black girl because otherwise, it wouldn't sell in bookstores and it wouldn't be checked out in libraries. Larbalestier blogs about it in more detail at her blog: "The notion that “black books” don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing"; Publishers Weekly reports on the cover, with the publisher, Bloomsbury, saying they hoped that what I thought (more evidence that Micah is a liar!) was the universal reaction; and even GalleyCat posted about it.

Here's my first question: If Micah was white, would the publisher have said, "hey, let's put a black girl on on the cover to show Micah's a liar!"

I don't think so.

Here's my second question: What are we doing to disprove the idea that "black books don't sell"?

I am white; looking at most of the reviews I've done in 2009, you'll see mostly white covers. Should I try to review more books with main characters who aren't white? Yes. Is it sad that, despite numerous bloggers and commentators noting that blogs don't review enough books about people of color, that it's a story about a book cover that motivates me? Yes.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy


Rhiannon Hart said...

Due to the enormous response to this particular cover non sequiter maybe publishers will start to care a little more about whether the artwork on a book matches the writing. Or maybe they won't. *sigh*

Mary G Librarian said...

The author of Liar suggests that everyone who objects to this cover go buy a book with a person of color on the cover. Personally, I think that's a great idea. I've been wanting to read Kendra, by Coe Booth, for the longest time and I'm heading over to my local bookshop to buy it or ask them to order it, if it's not already in stock.

tanita✿davis said...

Here's my second question: What are we doing to disprove the idea that "black books don't sell"?

I've been reading about this boiling tempest since the first bubbles broke the surface, to drag the metaphor way out into ridiculousness.

I'm glad you asked this question.
I think you're one of very few asking. I know for a fact that this has affected me PERSONALLY; people have said, "Oh, well... I just didn't think to pick it up, the cover turned me off" in reference to either of my books. So. Good question.

And right now, the whole thing makes me so exhausted that I have no answer. I'm just glad it happened to Justine... who is Caucasian.

Maybe something will come of it.

Liz B said...

Rhiannon, while I respect the concept that an author is not always the best person to judge the artistry or marketing of a cover, I think its an entirely different thing when an author says "but the cover is WRONG." And I do agree publishers need to listen to that.

Mary G, It's a great book (my full review is coming closer to the actual pub date and I'm wondering how to rewrite it, if at all, based on the cover stuff going on now.) I would hate to see Justine or the book suffer because of the cover & her speaking up on it. I don't know how or if "buy Australia" would impact that.

Tanita, part of what makes me sick about this is believing that Justine's race is part of what made this a headline story where people finally paid attention. But I also think this is partly because of the Internets; when Chris Crutcher's Whale Talk was published, with a white boy on the cover, despite it being a boy who was black, Japanese, and white, their was talk and buzz but it was 2001 and just not at the level we see here (not that I recall, anyway).

I have heard talk of librarians (!) saying "books about x won't sell" (sometimes black, other times Jewish, whatever they percieve to be the "other" / "doesn't exist" in their community. But I feel part of a librarian's job is to find the great book and sell it and not stop at such shallow thinking about their community and the books. And I also realize that bloggers need to get beyond their "reading what I want to read" reviews, ESPECIALLY if they see themselves as something more than a personal reading journal. Also, beyond "reading what a publisher sends me". I've seen some Twitter/ blog comments that the "ya bloggers" still haven't addressed this issue about race and the books they review. I hope we do see different books being reviewed; but I also know their is an access issue. If a publisher doesn't send it to me & my local library doesn't have it, what to do?

Kristi(e) said...

I've actually been looking to revive my Throwback Review now that I've graduated. Perhaps the best way to do so would be in response to coverfail and review older books with minority lead characters that may or may not grace their own covers. It's a small step, but it's a step all the same. Hopefully if enough bloggers take these small steps in reevaluating how they do one aspect of their blog we can incite change.

Neesha Meminger said...

I really appreciate your last comment, LizB. My book has not been picked up by any of the major chains--completely dismissed by B&N and Borders--and there are libraries that never received a copy (I sent them copies from my own author's stash). A publisher's "push" has a lot to do with how far any given title goes.

The cover issue has been a topic of conversation among South Asian authors for a long time. Particularly South Asian women authors. I've written about it on my blog and it's a topic guaranteed to lead to long, sometimes heated discussions among my peers and colleagues.

Most of us (South Asian women authors) end up with covers that have truncated, sexualized models, plants, spices, or "exotic" fruit. The reasons I've been given for not having brown faces on covers is that the "wider reading public" will not be able to relate to an Indian woman's face on the cover (or Sri Lankan or Pakistani or Bangladeshi, etc.). However, when I peruse the shelves at my local B&N, I see tons of books with faces on covers--the Gossip Girl series, to name one of many thousands. Even in the debut group I belong to, many of the books depict white faces, The Demon's Lexicon, Spell Hunter, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Winnie's War, Waiting to Score, just to name a few...while my novel has a belly button on it (at least it's a brown belly button!).

I know other books by women authors end up with body parts on them as well, but my issue is more with the reason/s provided by publishers/booksellers/marketing folk for never having a brown face on a cover.

I applaud you for taking up the issue on your blog and on Twitter. But I join Tanita, and yourself, in wondering if this would have been the firestorm it is, had the author not been Justine Larbalesteir.

I don't know much about the cover issue with Chris Crutcher, but I wonder if he took it up as ardently as Ms. Larbalesteir has? She has really come out strong and determined, and taken a firm stand. That's a kind of courage I've rarely seen among those with some privilege over others. She is white, successful, and has a large fan base. It's a risk for anyone to speak out against their own privilege, but she is standing by her principles.

That's what we need a lot more of.


Liz B said...


I'm on the lookout for your book.

I don't make much on my Amazon Associates links; and I usually then indulge in Buffy Season 8/ Angel Season (um, 6, I think?). But I think I'm going to be indulging in shaking up my TBR pile with the books I don't otherwise have access to.


Doret said...

I've noticed many bloggers who don't review a lot of books featuring poc have decided to avoid this topic. Thanks so much for posting this.

When I help an adult in fiction, they read the world. Maybe they're in the mood for something by a Chinese, Russian, Indian, or African author. Customers are attracted to the different covers that will take them to another land.

South Asian authors are very popular among adult readers right now. So why not in YA.

If reading is learned and passed down, why isn't this worldly reading versatility passed down as well.

Neesha Meminger said...

Liz, I would go to Powell's, or other indies. I seem to be getting a lot more love in those off-the-mainstream-type of places :).


Color Online said...


Thanks again another great post. We don't want or need white readers to feel guilty or defensive. All we want is to be read and to gain the exposure other great reads get.

May I humbly offer my Susan's Unofficial List of Great YA By and About People of Color.

It's a short list, but I'm hoping you enjoy some of these books as much as I have.


Color Online said...


Regarding the access issue:

1)Request your library buy it. Many will when a patron asks. I have a wonderful library system and every request has been purchased.

2)Look for dated POC on trade sites like Paperback.swap. I understand we can't buy every book we want to read. I know I can't.

3)Contact the author directly. Many will send you a copy. They don't have endless stashes but believe me they love being asked to review their books.

4)Send me a review of book by POC writer. Every month I do a drawing for a free book for reviews we publish.

5)Color Online hosts a trivia quiz. Same deal. Enter the drawing win a book. And winners pick their prizes from our Prize Bucket.

6)Book Loan Program at Color Online. For all active members at Color Online, I will loan you a book. Just pay for return shipping. I run a library with more than 3000 books. Our collection is 90% women 80% POC.

I want books in readers hands. If you commit to read and review, I'll send you the book.

I think I have effectively addressed the access issue.

Hope to see you soon.