Ain’t That a Shame

By Guest Contributor Justine Larbalestier, originally published at justinelarbalestier.com

liar USIn the last few weeks as people have started reading the US ARC of Liar they have also started asking why there is such a mismatch between how Micah describes herself and the cover image. Micah is black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short. As you can see that description does not match the US cover.

Many people have been asking me how I feel about the US cover, why I allowed such a cover to appear on a book of mine, and why I haven’t been speaking out about it.

Authors do not get final say on covers. Often they get no say at all.

lair AUSAs it happens I was consulted by Bloomsbury and let them know that I wanted a cover like the Australian cover, which I think is very true to the book.* I was lucky that my Australian publisher, Allen & Unwin, agreed with my vision and that the wonderful Bruno Herfst came up with such a perfect cover image.

I never wanted a girl’s face on the cover. Micah’s identity is unstable. She spends the book telling different version of herself. I wanted readers to be free to imagine her as they wanted. I have always imagined her looking quite a bit like Alana Beard,** which is why I was a bit offended by the reviewer, who in an otherwise lovely review, described Micah as ugly. She’s not!***

The US Liar cover went through many different versions. An early one, which I loved, had the word Liar written in human hair. Sales & Marketing did not think it would sell. Bloomsbury has had a lot of success with photos of girls on their covers and that’s what they wanted. Although not all of the early girl face covers were white, none showed girls who looked remotely like Micah.

I strongly objected to all of them. I lost.

I haven’t been speaking out publicly because to be the first person to do so would have been unprofessional. I have privately been campaigning for a different cover for the paperback. The response to the cover by those who haven’t read Liar has been overwhelmingly positive and I would have looked churlish if I started bagging it at every opportunity. I hoped that once people read Liar they would be as upset as I am with the cover. It would not have helped get the paperback changed if I was seen to be orchestrating that response. But now that this controversy has arisen I am much more optimistic about getting the cover changed. I am also starting to rethink what I want that cover to look like. I did want Bloomsbury to use the Australian cover, but I’m increasingly thinking that it’s important to have someone who looks like Micah on the front.

I want to make it clear that while I disagree with Bloomsbury about this cover I am otherwise very happy to be with them. They’ve given me space to write the books I want to write. My first book for them was a comic fairy book that crossed over into middle grade (How To Ditch Your Fairy). I followed that up with Liar, a dark psychological thriller that crosses over into adult. There are publishers who would freak. No one at Bloomsbury batted an eye. I have artistic freedom there, which is extraordinarily important to me. They are solidly behind my work and have promoted it at every level in ways I have never been promoted before.

Covers change how people read books

Liar is a book about a compulsive (possibly pathological) liar who is determined to stop lying but finds it much harder than she supposed. I worked very hard to make sure that the fundamentals of who Micah is were believable: that she’s a girl, that she’s a teenager, that she’s black, that she’s USian. One of the most upsetting impacts of the cover is that it’s led readers to question everything about Micah: If she doesn’t look anything like the girl on the cover maybe nothing she says is true. At which point the entire book, and all my hard work, crumbles.

No one in Australia has written to ask me if Micah is really black.

No one in Australia has said that they will not be buying Liar because “my teens would find the cover insulting.”

Both responses are heart breaking.

This cover did not happen in isolation.

Every year at every publishing house, intentionally and unintentionally, there are white-washed covers. Since I’ve told publishing friends how upset I am with my Liar cover, I have been hearing anecdotes from every single house about how hard it is to push through covers with people of colour on them. Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA—they’re exiled to the Urban Fiction section—and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all. How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white? Why would she pick up Liar when it has a cover that so explicitly excludes her?

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.”

Are the big publishing houses really only in the business of selling books to white people? That’s not a very sustainable model if true. Certainly the music industry has found that to be the case. Walk into a music store, online or offline, and compare the number of black faces you see on the covers there as opposed to what you see in most book stores. Doesn’t seem to affect white people buying music. The music industry stopped insisting on white washing decades ago. Talented artists like Fats Domino no longer needs Pat Boone to cover genius songs like “Ain’t That a Shame” in order to break into the white hit parade. (And ain’t that song title ironic?)

There is, in fact, a large audience for “black books” but they weren’t discovered until African American authors started self-publishing and selling their books on the subway and on the street and directly into schools. And, yet, the publishing industry still doesn’t seem to get it. Perhaps the whole “black books don’t sell” thing is a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I hope that the debate that’s arisen because of this cover will widen to encompass the whole industry. I hope it gets every publishing house thinking about how incredibly important representation is and that they are in a position to break down these assumptions. Publishing companies can make change. I really hope that the outrage the US cover of Liar has generated will go a long way to bringing an end to white washing covers. Maybe even to publishing and promoting more writers of color.

But never forget that publishers are in the business of making money. Consumers need to do what they can. When was the last time you bought a book with a person of colour on the front cover or asked your library to order one for you? If you were upset by the US cover of Liar go buy one right now. I’d like to recommend Coe Booth’s Kendra which is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Waiting on my to be read pile is Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger, which has been strongly recommended to me by many people.

Clearly we do not live in a post-racist society. But I’d like to think that the publishing world is better than those many anecdotes I’ve been hearing. But for that to happen, all of us—writers, editors, designers, sales reps, booksellers, reviewers, readers, and parents of readers—will have to do better.

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* I didn’t see the Australian cover until after the US cover was finalised.
** Yes, another protag of mine who looks like a WNBA player. What can I say? I’m a fan.
*** If you’re interested, I imagine another character in the book, Sarah, as looking like a younger Rutina Wesley, who’s not a WNBA player.
**** And most of those were written by white people.