Update: Victory! Justine's publisher has replaced its whites-only cover with a gloriously brown one.
YA author Justine Larbalestier has gone public with her disappointment over her US publisher Bloomsbury's cover art for her forthcoming novel Liar. Specifically, Justine is upset that the cover shows a white girl, and the book is about a black girl. She took this up strenuously with her publisher but was overruled.
It's a rare author who gets final say in her cover, many don't get any say at all. I'm generally OK with this, since I figure the point of the cover is to convey to the reader, "this is this sort of book, and if you like this sort, you'll like this." And I figure that cover designers and art-directors who do hundreds of covers a year know, in a much more fine-grained way, what the psychology of covers is. It helps that Irene Gallo, Tor's art director who oversaw the covers of all my Tor books, is terrific, loves my work, and always does a good job, and that HarperCollins in the UK have also been kicking all kinds of ass on this score.
But Justine's right about this one, because, as she says,
This cover did not happen in isolation.
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 them4 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."