I feel a rant coming on.

Sonje Jones has been documenting on her blog the various stages in the (apparently endless) process of conventional publication, including the fact that authors have no control over (or even any real input into) the covers of their own books. (Well, authors on the lower levels – I'll bet Stephen King and JK Rowling get a vote).

In most cases, this is probably at least annoying, but not a disaster (though I did really like the cover that Sonje commissioned herself – which was rejected).

But here comes the lunacy. She linked to this post by Justine Larbalestier. To quote Sonje:

You really should click on that link and read the story in its entirety, but to sum up, the publisher, Bloomsbury, decided in their infinite wisdom to put a picture of a white girl's face on a book in which the protagonist is a black girl. Larbalestier, of course, disagreed strongly, but she ultimately had no say in the matter.

I can't think of a more telling instance of marketing and integrity going in opposite directions.

I had naively assumed that the inexorable process of non-white characters becoming white, of gay characters becoming straight (or being "gay" in theory but never acting on it), of trans characters becoming cis... (and of everybody becoming thinner, etc.) – I had assumed that this didn't start until you got involved with Hollywood or TV. Apparently not.

The thing about the Liar situation, though, is that even from a business standpoint this is a terrible plan. The point in business, after all, is not primarily to get your product into the consumer's hands, it's to create a positive experience where consumers will come back and buy more, and tell their friends, give good reviews online, etc. Selling that first book by duplicity may get you a little money today, but will that reader have a positive experience, when they realize they've been gamed? And not only gamed but treated with contempt. After all, what is this publisher saying about the reading public by this sort of thing?

I'm sure there are some sort of statistics that show this will pay off, at least in the short term. And I am not saying anything about what the book should have on the cover. For one thing, I haven't read it, and for another I'm no designer. But I do know this: Just because the book is called Liar does not mean the cover should be a lie.

Oh, and I know one more thing. I am not going to cede control to people who would almost certainly think that Jan Sleet should be shorter, and blonder, and with more cleavage. And without the cigarettes, of course. And maybe tone down the atheism. And maybe Vicki is just going through a phase and ends up with a boyfriend. And Ron should swear less and take a bath and stop punching people (and be blonder, too). And let's not even start on starling or The Golden.

To quote Sonje again: "I'd rather go down in flames with something I love than float along in a lifeboat covered in shit."

On another subject, more of Stevie One is posted. The new part starts here.

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5 Responses to I feel a rant coming on.

  1. Maggie says:

    That’s infuriating. The whole point of the cover image is to both invite readers to open the book and start reading, and to give the reader some basic idea of what the book is about. Yes, it’s a marketing device, too, but the book’s not necessarily going to find the right audience if the cover doesn’t adequately portray what’s inside the book.

    That’s one of the reasons I’d consider self-publishing; to have total control over cover design, characters, etc. My story is the way it is for a reason… and I’d be annoyed if someone changed it… or designed a cover that was misleading.

  2. sonje says:

    The hardback cover of Liar is really, really bizarre. I just don’t get it–for all the reasons you cited. (It should be noted that Bloomsbury did put a black face on the paperback cover.)

    I wonder about JK Rowling (and Stephen King early in his career). I’m sure Rowling did not have cover approval of the first HP book, and all of the covers were clearly done by the same illustrator (different illustrators for UK and US versions, but each country’s covers remained with their illustrator through-out…I think; I know the US one did). Perhaps she got approval at some point, but maybe not–maybe she didn’t feel the need to push for that since she was already happy (I assume) with the covers.

  3. Tiyana says:

    Yeah…the whole “whitewashing” thing is just not cool. I know some of the authors I follow, like Martha Wells, N. K. Jemisin (she had a pretty good post on this), and the folks at The Night Bazaar bring this up every now and then, showing examples and whatnot. (Funny, most of them always mention Larbalestier’s case, too, heh.)

    I’m glad to see they didn’t do this with Myke Cole’s new novel, though.

    Anyway, it’s too bad authors who traditionally publish don’t have more say on their covers. I mean, after all, they’re the ones who know their characters and worlds best. Even so, not all published authors will have this kind of horror story.

  4. Yes, it’s both true and sad. And I agree: I suspect that A-listers likely get more say in the cover process than midlisters. Heck, if an A-lister negotiates that into a publishing contract… if you want A-lister on your lists, you say “Yeah, whatever you want, Mr. King/Ms. Rowling”.

    Round about… what… a year… 2 years ago? I can’t recall exactly when, there was a big hullaballoo in the SF&F corner of the blogosphere about whitewashing and other despicable practices like this that came to be called “RaceFail”. Search that phrase and you’ll find a whole sea of posts and opinions.

    And despite that extended introspective look… the SF&F genres are still trying to catch up to the reality that this is not okay.

  5. Maggie: Of course, this ties into what we were just talking about over at your blog (http://bit.ly/wJDtgg), our unhappy experiences at being edited badly. And this is not the same as needing absolute control. It’s more having a veto power over things (edits, covers, promotion) that are just stupid or wrong. Nothing I produce is sacred and untouchable, but as you say it is the way it is for a reason, and there may be reasons that some changes shouldn’t be made.

    Sonje: I know that the publisher did relent for the paperback, and that’s a good development, but doing the right thing only after you’ve been publicly embarrassed and when you’re facing possible financial repercussions doesn’t really count. (We might think of that as the Rush Limbaugh rule. 🙂 )

    Tiyana: I’m not surprised this case is referred to so often. The general phenomenon is quite widespread, as you mention, but this example is so extreme that it is pretty much indefensible.

    There are always “rules” until somebody breaks them. The rule that white people won’t buy books with a Black face on the cover makes me think of the conventional “wisdom” that used to prevail that movie audiences wouldn’t see an action movie with a female lead. And then there was Alien. Mainstream audiences wouldn’t see a movie about two men in love. And then there was Brokeback Mountain. Actors and athletes were always told they had to stay in the closet until some didn’t (and the world didn’t end and neither did their careers).

    Stephen: I confess I find this sort of thinking particularly annoying in the SF&F field (and I don’t say that in a finger-pointy way, since I have one foot in those genres myself). If you can’t step out of our world, with its assumptions and prejudices, to imagine and create worlds that are based on different ideas, your fantasies will be very cramped. (Which is completely different from writers consciously using other worlds to comment on ours, BTW.)

    I still remember reading Starship Trooper and realizing, more than halfway through, that the main character was dark-skinned. This hadn’t been mentioned before, because Heinlein was (subtly) showing that in the future world, skin color didn’t matter. That blew my mind (as I talked about here: http://u-town.com/collins/?p=27).

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