Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Don't judge a book by its cover, but we do!

I've been thinking a lot about covers recently. For one thing The King's Bastard (cover art by Clint Langley) is up for a Ravenheart Award. (See here). YAY!


For another, I've had to prepare a resonance file for Solaris who are getting Clint to do the covers for The Outcast Chronicles. (Have seen a cover rough which I can't flash around yet. Very exciting! Go Clint!).

And then I came across these two posts. Malinda Lo talks about books and characters of colour and whether the covers reflect this. She says:

'A lot of commentary laments the low percentage of books with people of color on the covers (and yes, it is low), especially in comparison to the huge number of YA novels (fantasy and otherwise) featuring slim, attractive white girls.'

Did you follow the ruckus last year about Justine Larbalestier's YA book Liar's cover? The protagonist was coloured and they put a white girl on the cover. The book was re-released with a cover that reflected the character more honestly.

Melinda Lo goes on to say: 'Even if a book cover doesn’t echo the diversity within the book, that doesn’t erase the diversity. It hides it a little, yes, but the cover is not the story. The cover is an advertisement. (And in most cases, it’s removable.)'

And over at the Enchanted Inkpot they do a summing up of winter YA covers, analysing what is appearing from close-ups of pretty girls to iconic images. But these are all YA covers, I hear you say. What about fantasy covers?

Here we have the Orbit
2008 Vs 2009 cover trends. Swords are still big, but I suspect hoods will have made big gains. (I can't find anything for 2009-2010). And here's the Urban Fantasy analysis. Apparently Stilettos are out. LOL

So there you have it. Next time you go into a bookstore, take a look at the covers and see if you can spot the trends. Does it annoy you if the protagonist is coloured but on the cover they appear to be white?

18 comments:

Jim McCoy said...

This has yet to happen to me, but I think it would be a little insulting to minorities, and I'm not usually the type to get worked up about little things in racial issues, but c'mon!

If a person of color is good enough to be the protagonist of your book, they ought to be good enough to appear on the cover.

Lucius said...

I can't say I've read many fantasy books where the protagonist was explicitly a racial minority. Even those that did, still attempted to make the character an approachable character that readers of all races could project themselves onto.

After all, most people who purchase fantasy books are not members of a given minority. (Well, unless that minority is the social status of "nerd".)

In other news, Speed Racer has round eyes and a pale complexion.
I'm reasonably certain that there have been academic papers written on this, with an accusation about perpetuating negative stereotypes prominent.
Do the Japanese who produced and consumed the product care?
Not a bit.

Speculation that the artist doing the spec. fic. cover hasn't read the book is common. I've read any number where the picture on the cover had little or nothing to do with the contents of the book.
I agree that it shouldn't happen, but Political Correctness concerns are the least of the reasons why.

Anonymous said...

I think the most important point that Ms. Lo makes in her post is that publishers who choose to whitewash covers do so as advertisement. One must assume that publishers know their money-making business. They must feel that their sales numbers with white people on the cover justify the visual deception as opposed to the more honest alternatives. Aside from sending the subconscious, or maybe not so subconscious, message that being non-white just isn't good enough in their opinion, they are, in these cases, overlooking other alternatives. Why put the protag on the cover at all? There are plenty of awesome covers with no protag, but instead, dragons, tigers, and other such interesting critters. Colors, symbols, and inanimate objects are other options. If I were in such a position and of that mind, I would simply avoid the issue altogether.

Of course, one must also remember the saying, "Bad publicity is better than no publicity at all." Do you think the publishers of Liar didn't enjoy the attention last year even just a little bit? Yes, they eventually came across with a more honest cover, but one has to wonder if their sales of the book didn't spike even a little due to the controversy.

Covers are a major draw for me on a book. I'm almost ashamed to say that knowing I shouldn't judge a book by it's cover, but I do rely on the cover as a representative of the book. A great cover will suck me right in, at least to read the summary.

And so much of the purchase of a book depends on the reader's personal preferences. Dragon on the cover? You've got an immediate draw for the dragon lovers out there. Personally, I love to see illustrations for short stories as well. That's one thing about the new e-reading craze that I love - it's common to have a cover as advertisement for the story that is purchased alone as opposed as to part of a magazine.

Linda

MataPam said...

In a bookstore, a good cover or clever title is what makes me pick up a book by an unknown writer. False advertising, as in a picture that has nothing to do with the story, annoys me even if I'm enjoying the book. If the book isn't anything like what I expected from the cover and first couple of pages, I'm seriously pi**ed.

Synova said...

I was looking at romances yesterday at the book store (I figured I was about "up to" reading the thin category sort) and I did notice the race of those on the covers because the rack with the monthly category releases had two spots for what seems to be a separate black romance imprint. I'm as likely to pick the romance with the black couple on the cover as not on the rare occasions that they show up, and certainly have, but there was something about the separate imprint that seemed to say "not for you."

That's a problem.

But there are too many subtle ways of making a cover inclusive no matter the race of the cover models, if inclusiveness is the goal, for me to conclude that it can't be done.

Chris L said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris L said...

WARNING: actual product colour may vary from that shown on box.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Jim,

I know Ursula le Guin was most annoyed when she wrote the Earth Sea books and the main character was portrayed as white, when he was brown.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

LOL Lucious, yes we all belong to the subspecies 'Nerd'.

And the portrayal of Asian characters in Manga is accepted.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Linda, I love beautiful artwork so a great cover will sell me on a book. I have even bought books for their covers. (call me shallow!)

Yes, Lo's post raises all sorts of issues. When there kerfuffle over Justine's book was going on I was thinking, wow, what great publicity.

Interesting point you make about the e-books have individual illustrations for stories.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Mattapam,

Good point. If the book fails to deliver on the cover, it is infuriating.

In general, we poor authors have very little control over what happens with covers.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Synova,

Romance is a world of its own. There are specific lines for stories about where both protagonists are black, there are romance lines where both characters are religious, and there are cowboy romance, Nascar romances, Army Seal (?) romances.

What ever rings your bells, the romance publisher will supply it.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Oops, I think that was Navy Seals (would make more sense).

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

LOL, ChrisL.

Synova said...

People don't like the taste of medicine.

That is the thought I have after skimming Malina Lo's post which seemed not to be merely about cover art but content. If the cover represents medicinal content then *of course* it's not going to *sell* anything. Perhaps the skinny white girl on the cover signals "this is fun" while the pretty black girl on the cover of _Liar_ signals something more serious or even tragic. (The title probably contributes as well.)

I suppose when I say that there are subtle ways to signal inclusiveness in the cover art so that it shouldn't matter at all what color the characters on the cover are, I think that's what I'm talking about more than anything. The signals are "this is not medicinal."

I'm thinking of the cover art on Jane Lindskold's new series which is fantasy based on Asian or Chinese folklore rather than European and there is nothing in the cover art that signals "now we're going to expose you to deep important thinking about what it means to be Asian, get ready to take your pill". It signals adventure and an exploration of Asian mythology because that's what it is.

Put a blaster in someone's hand and a 'sploding spaceship in the background and no one is going to think that the story is going to include a scold.

YA is likely different. It tends to be sort of self-conscious, a bit concerned with either being literary or transgressive or in some way a crusade against injustice. At least that's how the covers look to me. I don't suppose teen-vampire-angst presents itself as medicinal but I doubt that teen-vampire-angst is winning any literary awards either. (But I do bet it would sell as well with "vampires of color" on the covers.)

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Synova said:

YA is likely different. It tends to be sort of self-conscious, a bit concerned with either being literary or transgressive or in some way a crusade against injustice. At least that's how the covers look to me. I don't suppose teen-vampire-angst presents itself as medicinal but I doubt that teen-vampire-angst is winning any literary awards either. (But I do bet it would sell as well with "vampires of color" on the covers.)

Good points. I must admit I want to have fun. I've had enough angst and worry in my life and I've come through it with a positive attitude and my family in one piece. So I just want to have fun. Call me shallow. I don't care.

Kate Paulk said...

To be honest, I don't care what's on the cover of a book once it's attracted me enough to look closer. If what's in the pages hooks me, the cover doesn't matter.

On the writer side, I'm a bit fussier, but the key thing is still "is it going to interest people enough to look closer."

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kate,

Once I start reading the cover doesn't matter. Although, if there's a clinch on the cover, I'll hide the front cover when I'm reading on the train. LOL.

But I really do appreciate good design.