Color-Struck Covers

Is the publishing industry really ready to depict black characters?

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The word “whitewash” is rarely considered in a literary context, but Bloomsbury Children’s Books recently got an earful of the word. The publishing company made an unwise decision to publish the novel Liar, a story about a black woman, with a cover portraying a lily-white woman. As Felicia Pride of The Root noted on her blog, the concept for Liar’s original cover art is indicative of a wider issue of ethnic representation within the publishing industry.

The problem is bigger than Liar. But the novel, a psychological thriller by white Australian writer Justine Larbalestier, was as good a place as any to bring attention to an issue long-ignored in publishing.

Ironically, there’s a parallel between Liar’s protagonist, Micah—a pathological liar loose in modern-day New York—and a risk-averse publishing industry set in the same locale: Both are similarly challenged by the weight of reality.

Yielding to an online uproar, Bloomsbury recently agreed to change its previous cover design; the release date has been pushed back until October.

“We regret that our original creative direction for Liar—which was intended to symbolically reflect the narrator’s complex psychological makeup—has been interpreted by some as a calculated decision to mask the character’s ethnicity,” Bloomsbury said in a statement to Publishers Weekly. “It is our hope that the important discussions about race and its representation in teen literature continue.”

Bloomsbury’s tardy apology reflects the monochromatic thinking that persists in the publishing industry—and it’s just as obvious in the revised cover as it was in the blonde-blue-eyed original. The new cover shows a black woman, but her light skin is at odds with Micah’s dark skin and short, natural hair.

Did anyone at Bloomsbury even read the book? As Larbalestier tells it, missing the mark on ethnic or cultural accuracy is common for publishing companies. Although she considers the cover change a “victory,” the author is still mindful of the difficult road ahead.

“Publishing is very white,” Larbalestier told The Root. “Many white people never think about issues of representation, so it's an extra battle to get them to even realize that there's a problem and that they're contributing to it.”

A book cover reflects its own universe; for publishers, it’s also the marketable interface between the author’s vision and the dictates of the marketplace. And when their idea of the marketplace involves a demographic those publishers don’t really understand, it’s no surprise that books with black people in them aren’t always books with black people on them.

Still, the publishing industry is slowly coming around to the fact that there’s more than one market of readers in America. Case in point: In December 2006, the Wall Street Journal reported that book clubs aimed at African Americans were expanding in popularity, as traditional book clubs are in decline. That same month, the Black Expressions Book Club boasted 460,000 members, handily surpassing the membership of the more well-known Book of the Month Club, with 345,000 members. In 2007, black consumers spent about $270 million on books, according to Target Market News, a Chicago-based organization that monitors black consumer spending.