Here at Follow the Reader, we tend to think readers are smart, with fascinating habits. But dare we admit that some readers are so unadventurous that they’re, well, not-so-smart? Heck, I’ll even go one step further and suggest that more than a few of these folks can be found in some dominant social groups. Yes, I’m talking about white readers who read only white writers, men who read only books by other men, liberals and conservatives who read only books by those of their own political persuasion — and publishers who think that books with black people on the cover don’t sell.
We all live in a bubble to some extent, so when publishers pander to this clannishness, it’s often chalked up as good business. That is, until dirty secrets finally get out, and the publishers don’t look so smart after all.
Yes, I’m thinking about the jacket of the YA novel Liar by Justine Larbalestier, with its tight closeup of a white girl with long blonde locks, even though the book has a black tomboy protagonist with short, “nappy”hair. According to Larbalestier’s blog post about the situation, Bloomsbury Children’s Books whitewashed her novel despite her sincere concerns that the cover image would confuse her readers and undermine her story. It was a pretty hot topic in our #followreader discussion on Twitter last Thursday, which explored examples of book marketing FAIL.
Signs of a shifting power balance
In the past, when publishers held most of the power, this sort of author-publisher disagreement was swept under the rug unless the author was a bestseller with an über-agent who could quickly land a new deal. But in the world of blogs and social media, readers can now deliver pointed market feedback well before a book’s pub date, and authors can point to a gathering community consensus to advance their concerns, as Larbalestier did. (Though to be fair, I should mention that Publishers Weekly has reported that some booksellers don’t have a problem with the jacket.)
Since Liar is due for release on September 28, Bloomsbury still has time to fix the jacket–although there are likely to be significant costs and possibly some delays if a change were made at this point, given the book’s 100,000-copy announced printing. But so far the house has shown no sign of a proactive reponse to the mounting reader feedback on Larbalestier’s blog and at the young adult blog Editorial Anonymous (where there are 82 comments so far). Instead, Liar‘s editor has defended the cover, according to Publishers Weekly, arguing that
Micah, the unreliable narrator, could have fibbed about her own appearance. “The entire premise of this book is about a compulsive liar,” said Melanie Cecka, publishing director of Bloomsbury Children’s Books USA and Walker Books for Young Readers, who worked on Liar. “Of all the things you’re going to choose to believe of her, you’re going to choose to believe she was telling the truth about race?”
Yet if reader and bookseller outcry isn’t enough, what would change the publisher’s mind?
Publishing’s race problem
According to the Larbalestier, the underlying issue is that Bloomsbury has had a lot of success with books with girls on the jacket — though not black girls. And as she fairly points out, this is not just Bloomsbury’s problem:
Since I’ve told publishing friends how upset I am with my Liar cover, I have been hearing anecdotes from every single house about how hard it is to push through covers with people of colour on them. 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.
Over the past 20 years, I’ve heard plenty of variations on this story. But I just can’t believe that, at a time when there are two widely admired black girls in the White House, these outdated ideas still hold water.
What to do?
For starters, Bloomsbury should start by admitting they screwed up, and by changing the book jacket, whatever the cost.
For everyone else, the simplest solution is to examine your prejudices and start reading more promiscuously. If you’re not sure what I mean by that, just read Inkwell Bookstore’s very smart blog entry about unenlightened white liberal readers:
They listen to world music, they donate money to Darfur, and they campaigned en masse to make Barack Obama the President of the United States. Still, I dare you to try and push Chester Himes’ If He Hollers Let Him Go on a fan of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays. Both books deal with the slowly crumbling mental states of misfit Los Angelenos, both books make frequent and poetic use of dream imagery, and both books garnered their authors considerable critical acclaim at the times of their release. So what keeps Mr. and Mrs. Whiteperson from picking up Himes’ novel while they wait the requisite 7-10 years for Didion’s next? You know the answer. It’s the pigmentation of the author and his protagonist. Simple as that.
So if you’re white and haven’t read a black author in a while, why not visit White Readers Meet Black Authors, a fun and intelligent blog by author Carleen Brice? It will cater right to you, with plenty of great book recommendations.
And wouldn’t it be cool if a consortium of male bloggers took a cue from the open-minded gals on the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit, who are hosting Carleen on a blog tour? (In classic web style, Carleen has returned the favor by hosting them on her personal blog, the Pajama Gardener.)
Finally, those of you who want to set me straight on my blogging or reading tastes, or to share your recommendations about smart multicultural and mixed gender book blogs, can do it in the comments area below.