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Bloomsbury and the Whitewashing of Book Covers

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

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.

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