Posted on July 23, 2009 Posted by John Scalzi 36 Comments
While I’m off driving, you should read what Justine Larbalestier has to say about book covers, and specifically, her latest book cover, for her upcoming novel Liar. It’s a reminder, among other things, about what is in an author’s control as regards their book, and what is not.
Incidentally: Liar is a genuinely excellent book.
Interesting indeed. I work in a marketing department, I won’t say which. I bought a small crowd photo and used it in a brochure. This brochure was used widely in our American market. The source files went to Germany for translation and use in their market. Brochure was rejected as ‘unsuitable.’ Needed new pictures.
Why? We asked.
Immediate response. “That crowd photo has a black person in it. Unusable.”
“Oh,” we said.
First, let me second your last point: Liar is an excellent book. IMO, Justine’s best yet. For other potential readers who might be scared off by its YA classification: pay no attention, this book is eminently readable by people of almost any age.
Second, her post is spot on. The publishing industry needs to get hip to the fact that covers really should pay some attention to what’s inside the book, and not not just be something the marketing department thinks will help sell it. And the author’s opinion should definitely be one of the factors (and an important one) considered when choosing cover artwork. After all, it’s out there for all the world to see, with their name on it.
Thirded. Liar is great! Cover art…not so much.
I haven’t read the book yet, but this reminds me of the difficulties that Ursula K. LeGuin has had on several occasions with respect to her novel “A Wizard of Earthsea” and its protagonist Ged. There have been book covers done with Ged as a Caucasian, and also the Sci-Fi movie from a few years back that provoked her to write a short piece about what was changed against her wishes.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the artist is seldom told much about what they’re supposed to be illustrating.
It may be apocryphal, but I’ve been told that Elric was once illustrated as a buff black man.
I’ll put it on reserve at the library right away.
I’ve mentioned this in a comment elsewhere on Whatever. As a design nerd one of my favorite seminars at this year’s WisCon was entitled “Bad Cover Design.” There was an agent, a cover designer, and two writers on the panel. The panel could have gone on for eight hours, and we’d still have only scratched the surface.
My wife got to hang out with Tad Williams a couple of times, & the told the story about is book, Caliban’s Hour. He claims that he screamed when he saw the first cover because made it the book look like a bad romance novel. The main character (who was middle aged) looks like she’s in her early 20s, & she’s dressed in a flimsy nighty while a ripped muscular man comes in from a balcony. It had NOTHING to do with the book.
The only sci-fi book that I can think of with a prominent black woman on the cover, that is actually doing something which APPEARS in the book (a real rarity) is:
Ragamuffin by Tobias Buckell
Somehow the publisher got it right, and it’s a kick ass cover!
I have a book somewhere in storage with Elric depicted as black, but black (color) black, not as in melanistic / african native.
The first edition of Glory Road has an interesting cover, too, but few people notice that the main character is black…
I totally agree with Justine’s post, but probably for a different reason than the white-washing issue. “Discovering” that Micah wasn’t the white girl depicted on the cover threw me, but it wasn’t hard to readjust and get over the fact that the girl on the cover simply wasn’t Micah. I did feel like the image certainly conveyed the whole theme of deceit and Micah’s self-censorship/self-deceit.
What really threw me, was that neither the cover nor back matter of the ARC I picked up at BEA conveyed the book’s genre. Frankly, although I wound up enjoying the book generally once I got over the sudden appearance of the paranormal in the middle of the book, I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t felt that the cover, er, lied to me. Is this just a metatextual conceit (Oho! Even the book cover and genre category is a lie! We’re pushing the bounds between fiction and construction!) that I failed to completely appreciate?
So, I mean, not to dismiss the white-washing issue, which is clearly the more important, but how do these cover issues apply to genre as well as racial issues? Does the cover of Liar also white-wash the genre off the book as well?
In re ‘white-washing’ covers. I’m surprised Ursula le Guin has any teeth left, given the amount of grinding she’s done over the years about the dodgy racial and gender disconnect between a lot of the covers of her books, and the actual content.
But in one of those lovely moments of synchronicity, I’ve cracked open Orb’s lovely new edition of Robert Silverberg’s ‘Dying Inside’ — with an insightful new introduction by the author, and a very “un SF” cover.
And here’s what he had to say about the covers of the first two editions:
“Alas, that paperback edition’s cover featured a ghastly slimy monster, perhaps derived from the third paragraph of the novel (“that sneaky monster within me, that ailing monster, dying even more swiftly than I”) Unfortunately, the people who like to read novels like ‘Dying Inside’ tend not to buy books with slimy monsters on the cover, or even to give them a second glance when they see them in bookstores, and first paperback back edition did not sell particularly well.”
So, you learn from your mistakes and do better next time, right? Silly, silly me.
“Alas, Ballantine went to the other extreme in designing the cover illustration: instead of a painting of a repellent monster, the second edition featured a drab pencil sketch of a man’s head inside a box, with the Manhattan skyline below it. It was the sort of illustration that wouldn’t even get a first look, and, once again, sales were poor, though Ballantine put the book out again in 1980 with the same dreary cover illustration and the same dreary sales results.”
I find it irksome the way they blame it on the readers…claiming that dark faces on covers don’t sell. I doubt this is actually true, given that Hollywood, catering to an audience that one would guess is less educated than book reading public, now thinks that someone like Wesley Snipes can sell a movie on a poster.
@ #8 Christian. That cover is truly kick-ass. Adding another 2 books (Liar and Ragamuffin) to my list now.
Well, anyone pass on ‘The Matrix’ or ‘CSI’ because of Laurence Fishburne’s melanin-rich face on the posters? Did Michael Dorn or Avery Brooks ‘hurt’ Trek?
But as to your wider point, your right: It’s funny (and sad) how often folks use “they aren’t ready for whatever” as an excuse for their own cowardice and/or bigotry.
@George: That may be the cover I was thinking of. Now that I consider it, I’m not sure the person who told me about the incident stated that he was black as if he were a Person of Color. I’ll ask her tomorrow when we drive to Confluence. She did say he was depicted as muscular, however!
@Steve: Hollywood, too, is rather guilty of the whitewashing effect and blaming the viewers. Speaking as a part Asian, I would have been jumping up and down and doing roll-falls with joy over a casting of Avatar that didn’t prove that – even now – they Just Don’t Get It.
But that’s a diatribe in and of itself and I don’t want to give John another reason to hit me over the head with my own cane this weekend.
I was similarly disappointed in the cover of Jay Lake’s “Green,” which I really enjoyed. The main character on the cover is a pretty white girl, whereas in the book she adamantly is not.
While all the points made are unfortunately true, I remember the covers of the 50s, 60s and 70s when you had a 50% chance (at best) that the cover had anything at all to do with the story itself. That said, it is undeniably correct that, as in many other matters, the fight is not over yet. The positive is how much has been won in a relatively short time.
A sad statement but still so strangely true. Being spoon-fed by those who know so much better then us seems to be part of the modern world. Enough already. Some of us actually grew up.
The first edition of Glory Road has an interesting cover, too, but few people notice that the main character is black…
Not the main character in Glory Road. Early in the book he comments that he is the same brown color as a southeast Asian in his face. That strongly implies that he is a caucasian with a suntan from being outside in Vietnam, not an African-American.
David Drake once commented about one of his Northworld books: “They [the assistant editor and a marketing type] were about to show me the cover of the 2nd book and then they paused. It’s cold, primal, and it has a tank. Your book has a tank in it, right?”
His reply: “No, actually. It didn’t. So I put one in.”
Truth in advertising… even from a retrospective point of view.
Fortunately, it’s not always the case that skin color gets white-washed. I don’t know if it’s a particularly British thing, but I do recall that the covers for Colin Greenland’s Tabitha Jute novels as published in the UK featured the titular main character pretty much exactly as described in the book, said covers being by Jim Burns. A good example is here: http://bit.ly/XbseA
I just finished re-reading Octavia Butler’s “Dawn” yesterday, so this was a timely discussion to be directed to (thanks for the link – I’ll have to add Justine to my to-read list and blog-roll). I first read “Dawn” for Introduction to International Studies in college, and although the edition most of us read had a more recent cover with a black woman on it, we discussed the early covers featuring white women and how deeply, deeply ironic this was given the story itself, which is about the assimilation of an entire species.
That more recent cover, by the way, would probably fit Christian’s criteria above, though it’s a bit abstract so it possibly isn’t something she’s doing in the book. Actually a Google image search shows a lot of her covers have black people on them, although being that it’s Octavia Butler (and these are more recent editions) we could be talking about an exception that proves the rule kind of thing.
Cover I have: http://www.sharoncullars.com/Pictures/dawn.jpg
Old Cover: http://bfar.us/eBay/2009/DawnHCFC.jpg
Particularly strange Spanish cover: http://www.librodot.com/illustration/book/butler_xenogenesis1.gif
Whups, too many links. Sorry blogdudemanface!
It’s all right. I just liberated it.
Well, we know Scalzi’s own OMW-iverse novels have German covers that have very little to do with the contents; they’re re-using the cover art from the Star Fraction.
I have to say though, I tend to make my buying choices based on whether the spine of the book entices me to take it out and read the blurb, then the blurb persuades me to read the first page or so.
Note to publishers: As a reader, I am irritated by book covers that don’t match up with the content.
Seriously, reusing the covers from The Star Fraction? Scalzi’s work is really nothing like Ken Macleod’s. I don’t know which would bother me more, a cover that had nothing to do with jmy bok, or reusing someone elses cover.
Lary Niven told us once that the absolute best cover he ever had was the one for “The integral trees”. That’s because the artist actually read the book first, then asked niven several questions before painting the artwork. (of course it helps that Michael Whelen is simply that good) The point however, was how unusual it was for the artist to have even read the book. and yes, the original is hanging over Lary’s fireplace.
Run free, little comment! Run free!
The whole cover issue is another reason I like e-books, by the way. No cover to embarrass me on the bus (though I do tend to get interrupted by people who’ve never seen a Kindle before), and when I’m browsing online, the cover is just a little image to the side and is easy to ignore. I had no idea what the cover to Little Brother looked like until after I’d read it, which was funny because if I’d been browsing in a used bookstore, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up at all.
Hm, my cover of Parable of the Sower features a black woman: http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/b/octavia-e-butler/parable-of-sower.htm
It drives me nuts when the covers feature someone not even close to the protagonist. For example, my cover of “A Civil Campaign.” Who are these people? ‘Cause I don’t see no short dudes anywhere in this shot. http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/images/n1/n9134.jpg
(Though to be fair, Google found me one shot that appears to be Mark from behind. On the other hand, he’s getting married and I don’t recall him doing THAT in the book either… http://images.contentreserve.com/ImageType-100/0887-1/%7BC39C7DDF-CA35-457A-ACBC-157D51A290D1%7DImg100.jpg)
I haven’t read Liar, but it sounds like the publishing folks are trying to fudge this because of the title. Meanwhile I thought, “why would a white character lie and claim to be black in this day and age?” I think I would have assumed right off that the publishers were being idiots than assuming Micah was THAT much of a liar.
How much would it cost to get some solid data on whether putting a black person on the cover does in fact lower sales?
I have some respect for professional shop-wisdom, but on this particular point, attitudes have changed significantly within the span of a career; it wouldn’t be surprising to findthe publishing industry using a rule that was once correct but is now outdated.
From way, way back in the 1970s:
Aside from the lack of holsters, this accurately depicts the contents of the book, both the characters and the hideous clothes we are told they wear.
I believe there were two sequels to this so showing a black character on the cover couldn’t have been too much of an impediment to sales.
@30 – the problem is that you’d need to have two editions of the book on sale with two covers to really know. If the editions were separated in time by a decade or more that would skew things. Sure, you could say “if 100 mid-market authors with white people on the cover outsell 100 with black people by a statistically significant amount race affects ssales… but you’d still have other differences in t he covers… some might be welll done, others not, some might convey a romance novel impression others not, etc.
Frankly, I felt more misled about Liar than usual, thanks to the author herself. She posted on her blog about how terrific the US edition cover was: http://justinelarbalestier.com/blog/2009/04/10/the-usian-cover-of-liar/
Lots of squeeing about the “pretty cover,” and then came the backlash of people reading the book and going “WTF?” about the cover. While I’m assuming that her second post on the subject reflects her more honest feelings, the initial enthusiasm she showed for the cover, specifically, left a bad taste in my mouth.
Well, as she pointed out in the later blog post, it’s not exactly politic of her to slam the cover right off the bat. And it’s not that it’s not pretty so much as it’s misleading.
Actually, the squeeing was clearly all from people in the comments, not from Larbalestier herself. And every single thing she says about the cover in that post is VERY careful to make it clear that she’s conveying other people’s compliments or business evaluations, and that she’s thankful for all the praise and the publisher’s confidence in her book … or at least in its cover. Read it over again, she very clearly never actually says anything positive about the image itself.
A troubling situation, and unfortunate that it’s made a very good author’s newest book more a subject of “controversy” and crisis-mode reporting than of straightforward literary evaluation.
Here, for interested parties, is the infamous Elric cover that Deborah (comments #5 and #15) and George William Herbert (#9) were referencing:
The male character’s appearance is open to interpretation–Middle Eastern/Central Asian would seem most in keeping with the armor design, although I’ve also seen Latinos and lighter-skinned African-Americans with that general skin tone and cast of feature–but the guy is unmistakably Of Color, not only ethnically but–more importantly, in this context–in the sense of being melanically gifted; he also seems to be a good deal brawnier than Moorcock’s description.
Note, too, that his short copper-colored sword bears no resemblance whatsoever to Stormbringer; the only explanation that makes anything resembling sense is that the publishers rummaged through the slush pile for the first remotely suitable picture of a fantasy warrior they could find (perhaps prompted by the character’s white-blond scalp hair–unless that’s supposed to be the veil to his helmet.)