The Bloomsbury Whitewash and other book cover issues

In a parallel argument to the ‘No Gays Please’ attitude to most YA texts, this week the Guardian discussed the whitewashing of book covers in order to prevent the cover harming the book sales.

But Larbalestier believes the issues of “whitewashing” of covers, ghettoising of books by people of colour, and low expectations for these books are industry-wide. In 2004, Ursula Le Guin asked why “even when [my characters] aren’t white in the text, they are white on the cover … I have fought many cover departments on this issue, and mostly lost. But please consider that ‘what sells’ or ‘doesn’t sell’ can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If black kids, Hispanics, Indians both Eastern and Western, don’t buy fantasy – which they mostly don’t – could it be because they never see themselves on the cover?”

– The Guardian.co.uk

Book covers can easily make or break a book’s sales. In South Africa, for example, putting Christmas themes of snowy trees, mistletoe and Santa will instantly kill that book’s chances here. Likewise, photo-realistic covers like these tend to do very well:

But covers like these usually flounder:

The reason people judge books by their covers is that they only have so much time to read and so much money to spend. It is quite sensible when you think about it. And a book’s jacket has to help it stand out amongst thousands of others, especially in the crime and romance sections. Jacket treatment is so important and yet the author has almost no say in it. Only mega-authors get a say in their book jackets, or re-treatments of their jackets for different countries. We usually get the UK jackets, which is more than a small mercy considering American jackets for books.

With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that Bloomsbury might be whitewashing their jackets, but that doesn’t excuse it. It is offensive to suggest that black people don’t buy enough books to be represented, and that white people won’t buy a book because it has a black person on it. Looking through my extensive collection of book jackets while creating this post, I realised how many have white people on them, especially ‘literary’ titles. But then again, its just white people writing about white people, and having a black character on the front cover where there isn’t one in the book is just tokenism. It is worth noting that this isn’t the entire industry doing the same thing; look at these titles:

So in this case, while I don’t doubt Bloomsbury was in the wrong, I don’t believe they’re the only ones to whitewash a cover. They should get credit for acting quickly when shown that their decision was misinformed. However, I don’t think its fair to see it as indicative of an entire industry. I do think there’s definitely room for more representative covers, especially in YA and fantasy titles. (Unless its Game of Thrones, in which case everyone is lily-white or an Oriental savage. Dull.) But at least there seems to be some representation. So, support authors who write characters who aren’t just white and tormented, because as readers we vote with our money and that’s ultimately what the publishers seek.

For further information and advice on book covers, head on over to “8 Mistakes That Will Absolutely Kill Your Book” at Huffington Post

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Darryl Fleming says:

    Very interesting post Zo, how did you find out which book covers sell more vs the others that don’t?

    Also who are the predominant readers in society?

    Why do you think people prefer the photorealistic covers?

    1. mudkipzo says:

      Friend Darryl,

      Luckily I have access to interesting data on book sales as part of my job. Talking to many store managers and booksellers has given me some of the insights I am lucky to be able to share.
      I think the photo realism covers are more appealing because the drawn covers just look so childish. While I cannot pretend to understand aesthetics as a general whole (art has been struggling with that since day one), I believe that the photorealism covers look much more professional, and not like they were done by the self-publishing website Createspace.

      Across societies the predominant readers are usually those with the money to buy books, but this is changing as ebooks and book piracy influence the markets. Since YA is the fastest growing market, we can assume more teens are reading than ever before, making them a powerful market to sell to. One of the growing markets in SA is the African romance market, currently monopolised by Sapphire, a local publishing house. They buy manuscripts for about R30k because they know the book will do well. Judging by the constant bestsellers in the SA fiction list, we are more local non-fiction than anything else, and that is written more for a mindset than a racial group. Check out this page with the top sellers, and I think it tells you a great deal what the SA bookbuying market wants. Fascinating stuff 🙂

  2. Darryl Fleming says:

    It makes sense with most of the book buyers supporting the industry being 30 somethings (looking at your recent post). Savant would actually appeal to that grouping I imagine :)!

    1. Zoe Kara Hinis says:

      Haha! I’m thinking of dumbing down Savant a little for the young adult market, but we’ll see when its finished. I’m planning to wrap it up by end of October so that I am freed up for Nanowrimo. Thanks for being its number one fan 😉

  3. Pingback: The Book Armada

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