“Don’t judge a book by its cover”
We’ve all heard it, and if you’re in the business of publishing, then you know we all actually do judge them. Every reader who scrolls though long lists of books in newsletters from promotional sites, gets updates from Goodreads or browses their local book store, knows how important the cover is. The cover is what catches your eye. If it’s interesting enough, it will draw you in and you will pick up the book to read the blurb. Hence, everything is in the cover.
Recently, I have become more and more disturbed by the nature of book covers and what clearly sells. This post is exclusively about my own genre of YA fantasy, since that is where I have the most experience. I love fantasy. I always have, but something that already bothered me as a teenager has come back with a vengeance this past year, since I started paying attention again, and the outright racism is getting to me.
In all the searches and research I have done for my book, with all the books I have reviewed or are lined up to read, on all the sites I have subscribed to for notifications on promotions or new releases: I am absolutely horrified by the whiteness of their covers. If there is an image of a person on the cover, 99% of the time they are Caucasian and any “people of colour” are so pale they might as well be white.
When I was twelve, as a South African living the transition from Apartheid to a new era, I was already bothered by the whiteness of the popular literature I read. As a teenager, I felt the “fun” books I read did not reflect the world around me, but if I wanted diversity of characters and their backgrounds, I had to read heavy, African literature with all it’s social commentary and Post-Colonial baggage. This was one of the foremost reasons why I began writing. I wanted to read fantasy novels and light chick lit with characters who aren’t automatically Caucasian. I find it offensive and discriminatory how racist popular literature is, as though the only people who read have light skins.
Well, how about we turn that around? What if the reason “people of colour” don’t read has something to do with them not being able to identify with the books that are out there, rather than a lack of interest in reading? I honestly don’t believe that nonsense about there being “reading cultures” and “non-reading cultures”. We live in a globalized society. I’m sure, just as there are people all over the world who wear sneakers and love to eat at McDonalds, there are people everywhere who enjoy a good book, but I also wonder how awful it must be to walk into a book store and look at all those white faces staring back at a person who is Other.
For this reason, I judge “covers that sell”, because they are the visual proof that the publishing industry (whether traditional or self-publishing) is driven by a racist ethos which represents only a fraction of the world’s population. Book covers targeted to an “international audience” are discriminatory and show up that this industry has been left behind in another era. We focus so much attention on catering to minority authors, but does it really matter who the author is? Shouldn’t we rather distinguish who the books are written for? I think, perhaps that could open the industry up a bit—acknowledging that other population groups might be interested if we actually produce something they may want to read.
Much of this has guided my own decision to have a fantasy world where the dominant human race has skin pigmentation. It is the reason for the lovely brown lady on the front cover of my book. I want this to change, but in the twenty years that have passed since I first noticed this issue, nothing has changed and that really, really bothers me.
I am going to expand on this particular topic of racism in future posts. Since it is quite important to me, I would love to start a discussion on the issue. What do you think of the situation of covers in the genre of your choice? Does it bother you? And why/why not? Let’s get talking about the state of publishing and visual representations of human beauty. Are you okay with how things are? What would you rather see on a book cover? What do you really want to read?
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