Justine Larbalestier wrote the young adult novel Liar, just published by Bloomsbury USA. As many of you know, authors have very little say in what the covers of their books look like, and the one that Bloomsbury picked is not one that Larbalestier is happy with. This might be a simple case of disgruntlement accompanied by little violins if it weren't for the fact that Larbalestier has a very good point for why she's unsatisfied with the cover of Liar: Her protagonist, Micah, is:
You probably see where this is going. Check out the cover girl:
The US Liar cover went through many different versions. An early one, which I loved, had the word Liar written in human hair. Sales & Marketing did not think it would sell. Bloomsbury has had a lot of success with photos of girls on their covers and that’s what they wanted. Although not all of the early girl face covers were white, none showed girls who looked remotely like Micah.
I strongly objected to all of them. I lost.
The author is clear that aside from the cover, she's happy to be working with Bloomsbury USA. She's privately campaigning for a new cover when the book comes out in paperback. And, she writes:
Covers change how people read books
Liar is a book about a compulsive (possibly pathological) liar who is determined to stop lying but finds it much harder than she supposed. I worked very hard to make sure that the fundamentals of who Micah is were believable: that she’s a girl, that she’s a teenager, that she’s black, that she’s USian. One of the most upsetting impacts of the cover is that it’s led readers to question everything about Micah: If she doesn’t look anything like the girl on the cover maybe nothing she says is true. At which point the entire book, and all my hard work, crumbles. ...
This cover did not happen in isolation.
Every year at every publishing house, intentionally and unintentionally, there are white-washed covers. ... 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?
Bloomsbury USA, for their part, address the cover in a recent Publisher's Weekly article:
Recently, I went with my aunt to the Motown Historical Museum where the tour guide told us a story about the Motown Records and Berry Gordy that I'd never heard about. Namely: in 1959, when Motown opened its doors (more accurately: its door), radio stations had a habit of ignoring albums with black faces on them; they were ghettoed as "race records." It occurred to Gordy that he didn't have to feature the faces of The Miracles and Barrett Strong and their ilk on album covers. So early Motown album covers were face-less. A white man would carry them to the radio station, suggesting it for play.
The radio people looked at the album. They looked at the messenger. They played the record. And when the "Money (That's What I Want)" and other songs became big hits, listeners called the radio station asking for more from these artists. So there was a market for these artists--who, it was revealed, were black people. And it was too late for the radio station to ignore them. The demand for this music was there.
This was fifty years ago.
It looks like this battle is still being fought in literature, and perhaps in young adult literature in particular.
I agree with Angry Black Woman:
I am very glad that this conversation is happening, but not in the way (Bloomsbury USA) seems to think it is. I’m glad that we are finally getting a glimpse behind the curtain, an insight into the way racist thinking pervades the still almost-entirely-white publishing industry. I am also glad that we are seeing the vast disconnect between multi-cultural, engaged, and online YA readers and the apparently clueless people publishing books for them. It has been heartening to read the multiple posts by librarians and bookstore buyers who have expressed their desire for more black and non-white faces on book covers, because their readers are hungry for them.