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folklorefanatic ([personal profile] folklorefanatic) wrote2009-07-30 03:27 pm

Justine Larbalestier and the Case of the Whitewashed Book Cover

IMPORTANT NOTE: I’m so pissed off about this and various episodes of -isms this month that I had to take a step back. When I returned, this post was what came out. I hope you’ll be able to forgive me for my sarcasm. I’m trying not to throw things in frustration here, so I’m writing something for the sake of my furniture’s well-being. After all, I don’t even own most of it.

Somewhere in the Seedy Underworld of Teen Lit…

Most of you who follow the same blogs as I do will have heard about Justine Larbalestier’s upcoming YA release, Liar and the controversy surrounding it, so you can skip a few paragraphs here.

For the rest of you fortunate enough to have not heard the latest piece of rage-inducing publisher!fail, let me give you a not-so-quick summary.

The protagonist of Justine’s novel, Micah, is biracial and looks black with short, curly hair (described by Micah as “nappy” –  I can’t bring myself to use that word regularly since the whole Don Imus imbroglio). Micah is also a pathological liar. The book is her point of view on the unfolding of a crime.

Now, one would presume that of the many subjects she could possibly lie about, possibly the one thing she really wouldn’t lie about to other character’s faces (or to the readers) is her appearance. I mean, she’d have to have a lot of makeup for that sort of thing. Right? Right?

(Yeah, I know you’re all hopeless cynics. Quiet! I order you to be quiet!)


*cue ominous music to indicate YET ANOTHER episode with Publishers of Apathetic or Ill-Intent*

What’s this white, straight-haired girl doing on the cover of the U.S. edition? Why is it so offensive?

As to the first question, many, many other people are wondering about the answer to that one besides just me. As to the second one: O HAI THAR WHITEWASHING.

Perhaps some (white) people have never noticed this, but there aren’t many black faces on books outside of the “African-American Literature” section. The sales and marketing people at major publishing houses erroneously believe that books won’t sell if they have black people on the covers. There is also unconscious bias at play in our standards of beauty as well, which doesn’t help. Both are undoubtedly part of what happened here — Bloomsbury wanted to feature Larbalestier’s book as their main release this fall, and they rolled big on the release being a hit and didn’t want anyting to potentially cost them customers.

I have yet to see any research bear these theories out, but I don’t have their numbers to study. What I *do* have is a firm moral line in terms of dehumanizing people that I will not knowingly cross for any reason. This goes beyond the pale. I don’t care how scared you are about print media dying; one non-serialized book will not save your companyif you’re headed for bankruptcy, and in any case, it’s not worth selling your soul to save your job. But that’s just my opinion.

I’ve never been chewed up and spit out by the corporate machine. Well, that’s not ENTIRELY true; I have worked at Blockbuster and Target and for my university’s corporate whatever. But I was never high enough in the food chain to have to weigh my scruples against my paycheck. But being unethical in general and knowingly perpetuating racism in art because “that’s the ugly truth,” “that’s just the way the world works” or “we can’t make consumers politically correct” are two entirely different things. I can’t even contemplate staying at a job where I knew this kind of stuff was happening unless I planned to change it, right then, right now.

As you’ll read in a minute, they didn’t even have to use a person at all. Putting abstract art on a book because you want to avoid using black people is awful, but no one would have called Bloomsbury on it and been able to prove anything. It’s not nearly as bad as pulling a bait-and-switch, thinking that no one would notice or care when they picked up a novel with a white person on it and discovered it was actually about a black person.

I can only imagine pre-ordering this for my friend who reads YA and having her open it in front of me, too late to replace it with something else. “So…how’s the family? Oh, and I bought you a book about a white girl who’s actually just pretending to be black, or at least I think that’s who she is. Actually, I have no idea. Wait, don’t you want my present? WHY DON”T YOU LOVE ME?”

White-washed U.S. version of Liar

White-washed U.S. Edition of Liar

 I will gladly admit that it is a striking image. Arresting. It makes you stop and look at the way her hair is covering her mouth.

It’s also a stock photograph. Presumably, with all of the starving artists out there in NYC desperate for work, Bloomsbury could have found one black teenage girl with short hair and a photographer to take a few pictures of her in an hour without spending a fortune.


[In Which The Poster Rants About the Stupidity of Book Covers in General]

[Now, I've never been a fan of novels with either photographic covers OR covers with faces on them. For me, photography implies non-fiction, something I'd find in the discount section of my local Barnes and Noble, a discount book that someone spent little time designing or caring about, so why should I care enough to read it unless the plot is to die for? And I mean "I literally will not survive if I don't want out of the store with this book in my arms this second" to die for.

Not exactly the kind of associations or expectations one wants to cultivate in a finicky reader.

I know -- judging a book by its cover is incredibly shallow. I'm secretly ashamed deep down inside, I promise.

The second problem I have with some covers --  the ones with faces on them -- is that they color (HA! Not in this case!) my perceptions of the fictional people they are supposed to represent. I want to imagine characters based on the author's descriptions, and with a face or faces on the cover, it's difficult to do that, especially with faces I find distasteful, unrealistic or too beautiful to fit, or incongruous with the author's vision. The damn cover image will pop up in my head at various intervals, and I'll see it every time I close the damn book.]

All this notwithstanding, faces of color are hard to find on novels, particularly children’s literature and YA. The sea of white girls that accosts me whenever I browse the Teen Lit section at my local store branches, cut-off heads and voyeuristic angles notwithstanding, is indicative of the kind of mindset we’re fighting against here; the publishers have found a ‘look’ that sells, and so they assume it’s the only look that will sell.

I don’t think they expect much out of teenage readers, and I’ll be damned if they think girls like anything besides pastels. My mom refused to buy me anything that looked like it imposed stereotypical desires on girls. Hell, she made me pay for the Babysitter’s Club, Nancy Drew, and Sweet Valley series on my own. The covers on those were godawful. Don’t they understand that people who read (or used to read) a book a day or more often buy books not because of the covers, but in spite of them?


Writer vs. Editor(s), & Publishers, Privilege,  Donald Trump, the World, etc.

Justine was receiving so many questions and concerned speculation over the stark difference between the cover girl and Micah’s self-description that she finally gave in and wrote a daring, honest explanation of the cover art process from her side of the fence.

I think her post should be a call to action for authors to demand final author approval of cover art. The cover defines a book in many ways. It’s the first and last shot to convince a reader to give the story within a chance. Sure, there are some authors out there who probably have no taste and no sense of what would make a good cover. That doesn’t mean that they can’t pick a good choice over two or three or thirty bad ones. Honestly, I can’t always imagine the perfect cover for my stories, but I can recognize attractive cover art when I see it, and I’m pretty well-versed in successful cover copy, enough to identify genre, possibly author and title without the full context.

You know the  black and white hands holding the red apple? I think that one did pretty well.


…Yeah. Back on topic. And the topic is Racism. NOT COOL, BLOOMSBURY. SO NOT ON.

Justine wanted a cover with the word “liar” spelled out in human hair, but Bloomsbury rejected it. The publishers sent her other drafts of non-black girls. I think this was the point in her post when I realized that a “consultation clause” is just a nice way of making the authors believe they have influence over the cover design, when all they really have is the option to look at all of the options, spot the worst one, and make bets on whether or not the publisher will roll with it.

So. She received many, many pale girl options. They didn’t work. She rejected all of them. They went with this one, despite her repeated protests. Apparently, her contract with Bloomsbury did not include final author approval of cover art. That blows.


To the Failboat, Batman!

Larbalestier did the best she could to promote the cover (presumably with a sour taste in her mouth while doing so), because the book is her work, and who wants to shoot themselves in the foot?

Q: Who in the hell would WANT to shoot themselves in the foot?

A: Bloomsbury does.

In the above ‘article’ that reads like part-press release, part CYA media spin, the editor Melanie Cecka claimed that (Surprise!) they meant to confuse readers all along! This protagonist always lies, so she may or may not be lying about her race!

Oh, wait. Justine directly contradicted this.

I worked very hard to make sure that the fundamentals of who Micah is were believable: that she’s a girl, that she’s a teenager, that she’s black, that she’s USian. One of the most upsetting impacts of the cover is that it’s led readers to question everything about Micah: If she doesn’t look anything like the girl on the cover maybe nothing she says is true. At which point the entire book, and all my hard work, crumbles.

The best thing to do when you’ve committed a racist act is to admit that you did something wrong and try to fix it, and if it’s impossible to fix — which I don’t think it is — you promise to try and do better the next time. You don’t treat your PR department like this is a presidential election and use the most plausible misdirection you can find that contradicts your author’s own statements just to avoid the appearance of being bigoted. Why? Because guess what? It won’t work.

I don’t buy the BS Bloomsbury is spewing, and I won’t be buying the American version of the book. I’ll be ordering the Australian version with the infinitely superior cover here.


Oz Does It Better

Aussie Edition of Liar.

Aussie Edition of Liar.

The Australian book cover is Made of Win. Not only is it simple yet creepy, it evokes both the imagery of blood and of those hungover t-shirts with the fuzzy words that make you question your sanity/eyesight when you try to read them at 7:30 in the morning.

An additional bonus: adults won’t be embarassed to read it, thus, there is a wider potential audience, thus, a wider potential market!

I really, really don’t understand why it is so difficult to contract cover art for all versions of a book. Come on, lawyers, make it happen. International variety is only fun if it’s good.


But what about Justine’s U.S. sales? Don’t you care what happens to her career? What about the [insert random staff person at Bloomsbury who will be paid regardless of any loss in book sales]? What about the white people?

Some bloggers are concerned about what this will mean for Justine’s sales here in the U.S. Here’s my response to those concerns.

The key to the decision to buy elsewhere for Justine is whether or not people actually state their reasons for doing so. I have no doubt that Liar will sell more than half of the print run regardless of controversy, and print run numbers are usually inflated (IOW, probably they’re printing more like 60,000).

Justine has a dedicated audience. Bloomsbury knows this. She and her husband are both excellent writers. I don’t want to hurt her career — which is why I bought a copy of How to Ditch Your Fairy yesterday (despite Bloomsbury being the publisher) and will definitely follow through on ordering an Australian copy of Liar, no matter what the effort. (What good does it do to give Bloomsbury any money at all? It makes a difference to me what titles pay them.)

That being said, if the only reasons Bloomsbury will listen to have dollar signs attached to them, then consumers have to speak to them in a language they will understand. As long as they know why we make the choices we do, I think the best thing we can do now is to speak with our wallets.

No one has called for a boycott of anyone or anything (yet). But it’s important to keep in mind that boycotts in general affect innocent parties as well — which is precisely the point. The affected people and the people lower on the food chain force the corporations to change their practices.

Someone else cited this example on LiveJournal during the RaceFail debate when people complained about others saying they would not buy more Tor books, and I think it’s apropos, even if the scale of action is nowhere near the same:

E. M. Dixon and MLK Jr. did not ask the permission of elderly, infirm, and disabled people of color before they started the Montgomery Bus Boycott. People lost their jobs, the White Citizen’s Council convinced they city to fine taxi drivers for charging bus fare in stead of normal fare, walking citizens faced fines and arrest, and white people beat some of them just for being on the street.

But it worked.



I will not be silent. I will not stand by and let greed shape the international psyche of children of color when I can do something about it. I will not let this story drop.


If you feel so inclined, here is the contact information for Bloomsbury. I recommend spending some real postage, as emails can be deleted far too efficiently.

Bloomsbury Publishing
Distributed by Macmillan
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010

Melanie Cecka: melanie.cecka ~AT~

Marketing: marketing ~AT~
Publicity: ~AT~

F: (212) 780-0115 or (212) 982-2837

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Originally published at Folklore Fanatic. You can comment here or there.