Under the Covers

For the past few days I’ve been participating in a discussion (via email) with several colleagues in the children’s bookselling world about how exactly certain marketing decisions are made at publishing houses. In particular, what is the decision process behind designing covers? 

The discussion was sparked by this announcement from Bloomsbury earlier in the week: 

“Bloomsbury is ceasing to supply copies of the US edition of Magic Under Glass. The jacket design has caused offense and we apologize for our mistake.  Copies of the book with a new jacket design will be available shortly.” 

Original US Cover of Magic Under Glass

In what way, you may ask, is this cover offensive? Well, it features an image of the book’s heroine as a white girl with brown hair, when she is described in the book as having brown skin and black hair. According to this article in The Guardian, author Jaclyn Dolamore intended to be somewhat vague about Nimira’s ethnicity, but many readers, reviewers, and booksellers reacted negatively to this marketing choice, especially as it comes closely on the heels of a similar bruhaha surrounding another Bloomsbury title.

Last year Bloomsbury made a last-minute change to the cover of the young adult novel Liar,by Justine Larbalestier, due to an outpouring of protest by the bookselling community. The advance reading copies, the not ready for prime time preview copies sent out to reviewers and bookstore buyers months ahead of publication, featured (guess what) a photograph of a white girl who was supposed to represent the black female lead character. There was such an uproar online and elsewhere that Bloomsbury decided to change the cover, at not unconsiderable cost. 

This trend is not at all unique to Bloomsbury, of course. People have been complaining for years about the industry-wide “whitewashing” of children’s book covers. There seems to be some deeply ingrained belief in many publishing houses that having a person of color on the cover of a book automatically limits its appeal. Now, it’s true that I have shaken my head in dismay many times at parents or grandparents who dismiss my suggestion of a book featuring a non-white character on the grounds that their child “wouldn’t identify” with the book. Of course, these are often the same ones who won’t buy a book with a character named Lilly (with 2 Ls) if their child or grandchild is named Lily (with 1 L), so…. 

I think the underlying assumption (that white kids only want to read about white kids) is an insulting underestimation of  kids, who are growing up with more images of (and experience of) ethnic diversity than any generation before them. My goodness, can you imagine if the assumption was that kids of color will only pick up books about other kids of color? They would certainly, sadly, be very limited in their choices of reading material, wouldn’t they? (A discussion for another day, regarding actual content.)

I would bet my last nickel that the vast majority of kids today couldn’t care less what color the character on the cover is, as long as the cover intrigues them and looks like something interesting that they want to pick up. And, following that train of thought, my discussion with fellow booksellers (and now with you, dear readers) turned to the choice to market books as “girl books” and “boy books,” as evidenced by the book cover choices. [To be continued in Part Two.]

Published in: on January 23, 2010 at 1:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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