Alright, everybody. Check your privilege at the door, ’cause we’ve got some important things to talk about today. If you’re like me (a middle-aged white dude or dudette) this conversation might make you a little uncomfortable, but that’s okay, you can deal with a little discomfort, right? I see you nodding an enthusiastic agreement (or is that a seizure? either way, we’re moving forward. Tallyho!).
A couple weeks ago I did a cover reveal for my forthcoming novel, Mind Breach. Overall, it was very well-received. But, as is the case with most parties I’ve ever been too, somebody just couldn’t resist tinkling in the punch bowl. They sent me an email that could be distilled as follows:
“You’ll sell more books if you put a white girl on the cover.”– Probably A Well-Meaning Fan
Here, alone in my office, I expressed my frustration with a range of indignant hand-gesticulations and incoherent babbling. After working myself into a white-hot lather, I succumbed to the emotional exhaustion and took a nap (yes, I process most, if not all, my problems like a toddler). When I woke up, the anger had subsided, leaving me able to objectively analyze why this email had elicited such a visceral response.
The results were troubling because it brought to the forefront of my mind a problem I’d largely been ignoring (such is the convenience and villainy of white privilege, I suppose):
“Covers with people of color on them don’t sell.”
We’ve heard this one from the marketing teams at big publishing houses for a long time now. Without access to sales reports, we’ll just have to take their word for it—they are the experts after-all. Problem is, that adage is probably true; people of color on covers don’t sell books.
But the question you should be asking is: Why?
Trying to answer this leads to a Chicken or the Egg type puzzle. On the one hand, sci-fi/fantasy is a fairly homogeneous group dominated by people a lot like me (middle-aged white guy) with a fair smattering of people like my girlfriend (middle-aged white ladies). Common wisdom states people like reading about themselves, therefore you’d better put some white people on the cover. But, by that logic, the community is self-selecting the type of reader welcomed within the hallowed walls of fandom, and utterly ignoring everybody else.
So sure, the primary reader of sci-fi/fantasy is a white guy or gal precisely because that’s the demographic publishing houses are selling to.
Which, in fairness, is not always the same audience the author is writing to. Ursula K. Le Guin has populated her books with people of color for decades now, and even she (beloved Grandmistress of Sci-Fi that she is) has difficulty convincing the publishing houses to put people of color on her covers.
Le Guin has written frequently on this topic in the past, and summarizes the situation as follows:
“In a way it’s self-fulfilling, for if no one in America ever sees a book with a person of color on the cover, a book with a person of color on it may look quite strange, unfriendly, to something like 77% of possible American readers… Oh, it’s something about Them, it isn’t about Us, I only want to read about Us.”-Ursula K. Le Guin (Knowing a Book by its Cover)
So here’s the real question we should be asking ourselves: Do books with people of color on the cover not sell because nobody wants to read them, or because there are so few on the shelves that they look strange and out-of-place when we do see them?
Wait, I see you over there, arms crossed and shaking your head. You don’t believe me, do you? Think I’m making mountains out of moles or something (<—pretty sure that’s how the phrase goes).
I’m as contrarian as the next guy, so the preempt your protests I went on a little field-trip to the bookstore (which was really just an excuse to get out of the office for a few hours).
At Barnes and Noble I carried out one of the most tedious, and possibly lamest, tasks of my life. I rifled through 1,500 books in the sci-fi/fantasy aisle marking every time a white boy or girl appeared on a cover versus a boy or girl person of color.
From the outset I predicted there’d be an 80/20 split in favor of whites. Which would’ve been an incredibly lopsided result, but as it turns out, I was wrong. Very, very wrong.
Here are the results:
Of the 1,500 books polled there were 594 ethnically recognizable people featured on the cover. Of those 594, 248 were white males (42%) and 294 were white females (49%). 18 were a male POC (3%) and 34 were a female POC (5%). Meaning that people of color only represented 8% of the results.
Consider for a moment that I live in Oakland, CA where (according to the 2010 Census) white people only make up 25% of the population and you start to get an idea of how bonkers this result is.
I have to admit I’ve been swimming in a kiddie-pool of my own ignorance for years now. At the bookstore, those covers splattered with white people are directed at me; I never even noticed the utter lack of people of color.
I’m part of the problem because I didn’t even recognize that there was a problem.
This whitewashing of book covers has gotten so extreme that it’s become the rule (and not the exception) to put a white person on the cover even if the main character of said book is a person of non-white background.
Here are two classic examples of books with main characters clearly defined as being of color and the resulting covers. Note that in both of these instances, uproar and indignation from the readership and author eventually lead to new covers being released.
If nothing else this proves change is possible, if we demand it. Which is frustrating because it’s what…2015 or something? We shouldn’t have to remind the publishing houses that the world is not a white sugar-coated candy shell. It’s a thousand times more diverse and colorful than 90% of covers would indicate.
The world is shrinking a bit more everyday in terms of inter-connectivity. The lines that divide us are thinner than ever, but they still exist. It’s about time we let go of the antiquated idea that white people are the only market for sci-fi/fantasy.
Want to prove this to the publishing houses? There’s only one way to do it (actually there are probably more ways than just the one, but I’m lazy so you only get one action step): Support those authors and publishing houses forward thinking enough to put people of color on their covers. Show them that there is a market for diversity, and that white people on covers are not the only way.
Maybe then I won’t have to field emails from people wondering why there’s an Asian woman on the cover of my book (hint: it’s because she’s Asian!).
Don’t know which books to start with? Try some of these out…