Graphic designers are often hesitant to put human faces on book covers for fear of inappropriately influencing a reader’s imaginative response to a given character. If a designer does use a human face, it’s usually shot from behind, or partially cropped, or out of focus. But what happens when a book about a short-haired black girl appears with a cover featuring a long-haired white girl?
An Internet shitstorm, that’s what.
Australian novelist Justine Larbalestier’s YA novel, Liar, is about a teenage black girl who, in the wake of her boyfriend’s murder, is determined to stop her compulsive lying. But when the U.S. advance reading copy began circulating with a picture of a white girl on the cover, many Internet commentators began to complain about the misrepresentation. Some of them suggested that there was a form of subtle (or not-so-subtle) racism involved. Larbalestier responded to these concerns in a thoughtful post on her own blog, which has elicited 331 comments to date, and which also touches on the subject of race:
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 them. 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.”
Larbalestier has never written a book with a white protagonist, so Bloomsbury’s decision about the cover, which was made without the author’s final approval, is all the more curious.
Apparently, the public outcry worked. The Guardian is reporting that Bloomsbury has backed away from the ARC’s cover design, and will publish the book in hardback with a black girl on the cover. However, the justification for the original design remains somewhat odd:
[Bloomsbury] told US trade magazine Publishers Weekly that it regretted that its “original creative direction for Liar – which was intended to symbolically reflect the narrator’s complex psychological makeup – has been interpreted by some as a calculated decision to mask the character’s ethnicity.”
Larbalestier states in her post that Micah, Liar‘s protagonist, is “unstable,” but that her ethnicity is never in question. One wonders how Bloomsbury thought using a white girl’s image would “reflect the narrator’s complex psychological makeup” – unless this is an instance of a publisher trying to whitewash a blatantly poor design decision.