Saturday, May 28, 2011

Why Authors Should Be Involved

I always knew that authors don't often get a say when it comes to their book covers. That's pretty much a fact of life. And anyone who's ever read a book will eventually stumble upon one that has a cover that is in no way related to the book. When I see those, I often wonder how that happens. Was the illustrator told nothing about the book? Does someone tell them what to draw? Do they read the book or gloss over it and then come up with something on their own? The cover illustration process is not something I'm familiar with. But I've also never bothered because, again, what does it matter if I get no say in the matter?

However, what I didn't know about until today was "whitewashing." I suppose I should have - I remember actually reacting to the cover of Maurice Broaddus's King Maker, thinking, "Holy cow, a black guy on the cover of a fantasy book!" But overall, I didn't. Whitewashing, for those of you who don't know (like myself five minutes ago), is when the main character(s) of a book are decidedly NOT white, and yet the cover features said character(s) with white representations. I first read about it at Calico Reaction's journal and then headed over to The Book Smugglers for more info.

My initial thought was, "Seriously? Are we really still doing this?" The racism thing, I mean. Because let's face it - it is racism. In a really lame way. The claim the publishers make is that when there are people of color on the covers, the books simply don't sell as well. Frankly, I'd like to see the hard data on this. Then again, it's going to be kind of tricky to get a decent amount of data since there's such a small percentage of covers that feature non-white characters.

Though we're not supposed to judge books by their covers, the simple fact is that we still do. The cover is what first catches our eye. But does it really matter if there's a brown-skinned girl on the cover vs. a white-skinned girl? Yes, I think it does. But not in the way the publishers are thinking. If I open up a book and I'm reading along, I'm going to notice that, hey, this character is actually supposed to be Japanese - what's with the blond chick on the cover? Or with the example on The Book Sugglers blog of Esther Friesner’s Sphinx’s Princess, the girl is supposed to be - duh - Egyptian. To me, those look like major mistakes. It makes the publisher look stupid in my eyes. In my mind, I think, "Way to not pay attention to the book, guys." Incorrect covers always look stupid. And now that I'm aware of this issue, I shake my head and still can't believe the blatant ignorance of the publishers - especially when readers freak out enough to actually force the publishers to release a corrected cover. Shouldn't that be some sort of wake-up call to them that a great many people are over such issues? That we just want good books and we don't need our intelligence insulted?

As mentioned on The Book Smugglers, the other claim is that white readers won't be able to relate to the books if there are people of color on the covers.'s okay to slap a white person on the cover even when I'm going to read the book, the author will let me know the main character has brown skin and dark hair? If that's the case, shouldn't that mean I'll suddenly not be able to relate and I'll put the book down anyway? Hmm. Nevermind the simple fact that technically I can't relate to living on a spaceship, hooking up with a shape-shifter, being chased by demons, or traveling through time. If you're going to be racist, shouldn't you at least be racist in a more logical manner (if such a thing exists)? Everything from fantasty to SF to half the romance genres out there have situations that are so far from relatable, it's ridiculous. Yet we read them because why? They're interesting, fun, and we suspend our disbelief. That's the whole point of reading. Anyone read John Scalzi's Old Man's War? Excellent book - and the main protagonist was green.

"So Nicole, are you saying covers don't influence you at all?" Oh no, don't get me wrong, they can and sometimes do lure me in or turn me off. But not because of someone's skin color. That's old, old news (at least, I think it should be). I tend to roll my eyes and wonder when people are going to get over it. Sure, I'm not going to go out and buy books by, say, Kiki Swinson, but it's has nothing to do with the cover - I'm just not a reader of the urban fiction genre and I'm not the target demographic anyway. Even if the characters in urban fiction were white, I still wouldn't be into it. And the same can be said for horror and religious fiction. I've sampled, but I just can't get into it. What covers do turn me off? Fantasy and SF covers that look like they're still being churned out of the 70s and 80s (sorry Mercedes Lackey, but I'm just not diggin' it - but I know it's not your fault).

But that's getting off topic. I'd like to think that publishers would get over their stupidity when it comes to this particular topic and just create covers that make sense. A few outcries have already changed things, as has time, so here's hoping that they'll realize all we want are covers that look good with great stories inside of them. And for heaven's sakes, let the authors have just a little bit more input when it comes to the covers - especially when they see that their character(s) look nothing like the do in the book.

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