Black Faces on Covers Don't Sell Books?
Is literary fiction by black writers hard to promote? A look at recent instances where race and literature collide.
Black Faces on Covers Don't Sell Books?
Looks like book publishing isn't all that post-racial, but we already knew that. A controversy has been brewing regarding the book cover for "Liar," a young adult novel by Justine Larbalestier that's set to publish at the end of September by Bloomsbury Children's Books. The cover (see right) features a young white girl whose faced is partially covered by her long straight hair. The problem? The book's main character is black. And actually, as the author, who is a white Australian, explains on her blog, "Micah is black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short." Yes, nappy. Larbalestier also provides several reasons why Bloomsbury's actions are wrong on so many levels:
Every year at every publishing house, intentionally and unintentionally, there are white-washed covers. 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. 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?
The notion that "black books" don't sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them. Until that happens more often we can't know if it's true that white people won't buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with "black covers" don't sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with "white covers."
Are the big publishing houses really only in the business of selling books to white people?
Hmm, great question. The seemingly obvious answer is, no of course not! But it's incidents like this that make you wonder. Especially when Larbalestier’s publishing company had this to say to Publishers Weekly: "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?"
Even teen bloggers are sniffing through this crappy explanation. Yet I can't say I'm surprised by such ridiculous reasoning. The publishing world is in an incredible state of denial and delusion. And until it decides to come clean about its issues, including its unprogressive treatment and understanding of race, we'll continue to see white faces where ones of color need, should, and deserve to be.
Is it Hard for Black Literary Fiction to Find an Audience?
Amazingly enough, the Wall Street Journal recently ran a profile of Victor LaValle whose new book "Big Machine" drops next month. In the piece, Chris Jackson, editor extraordinaire (It’s hard to name another black male editor of his stature in book publishing) asserts the fact that it's a hard road to publish and promote literary fiction by black writers. He says, "Black writers don't have a support network that helps them publish their short stories, and the encouragement they get is often for familiar material." I agree.
I would also point to the above cover debacle to provide additional explanations. Often, publishers don't know what to do with literature that doesn't fall into a box—street lit, erotica; you get my drift—especially when it's by black and brown people. LaValle's highly imaginative pen doesn't lend itself to any of these categories. His friend and fellow author Mat Johnson described what LaValle’s does as “horror movies with literary fiction.” LaValle is surely not the only writer facing this predicament. What's the answer? I don't necessarily have it. Or perhaps an answer doesn't suffice. Perhaps finding ways to connect great literature with audiences is a movement that requires the participation of publishers, authors, writers, and readers alike.
Black Boys Read?
We've all heard it. Black boys don't read. I still hear it to this day and refuse to drink the Kool-Aid. I will reiterate and reword what I said above: we need to find creative ways to connect books with people of all ages, period. And black boys are no different in that regard.
Dr. Alfred Tatum is doing his part. The University of Illinois Chicago professor is the director of the African American Adolescent Male Summer Literacy Institute, a four-week program that allows a dozen young men to study reading and writing on the college's campus. A recent profile in the Chicago Tribune describes the initiative's impact:
Tatum's institute is equal parts writing group and book club. But it's also a support group that instructs the boys to re-imagine and redefine themselves. Here, there is no need for the macho affects the boys are too often taught on the streets. They applaud one another and sometimes are unabashedly giddy about the written word.
Tatum makes a point that should be shouted from the mountain tops:
"Black men have always written to contribute to a healthy psyche or self-definition or even a better humanity," Tatum said. "Writing provides a road map for becoming and doing."
The program seems promising. Why aren't there more like it?