Wednesday, August 12, 2009

One more reason not to judge a book by its cover

Authors do not control the covers of their books.

That might be common knowledge. I’m not sure. If you already knew that, I apologize for wasting your time. If you didn’t know, you do now.

Authors are asked for input regarding their covers, but publishers make the final call. My inner artist screams that writers should make that decision, but my outer pragmatist realizes that is unlikely (and, perhaps, unfair). Authors may produce the manuscript, but it’s publishers who risk their money to sell the book.

Sometimes writers and publishers disagree about what should be on the dust jacket. These disagreements rarely go public. Authors do not want to nip the hand that feeds them, so they swallow their misgivings and hope the publisher will want to work with them again in the future.

Then, there is the case of Justine Larbalestier. The first US cover of her novel Liar featured a white woman with long, brown hair.

Larbalestier’s complaint was simple. The book isn’t about a white woman. It’s about Micah, a black woman with short black hair who lies compulsively. (To Larbalestier’s credit, she did not discuss the cover until readers began to complain about it.)

Let’s briefly ignore the racial implications of the publisher’s decision. (Frankly, Larbalestier addresses it better than I could on her blog.)

Instead, I’d like to write about the artistic implications of the publisher’s cover selection. The publisher chose the white-woman cover because of its marketing potential, according to Larbalestier. (Publishers maintain — and I have no immediate evidence to disprove — that white faces sell more books.)

In other words, the cover had nothing to do with the book’s contents, but Bloomsbury thought it would sell. At best, that is dishonest to the readers. (To be fair, Bloomsbury has since issued another, more accurate cover for Liar.)

Larbalestier said the cover with the white woman confused some readers. They asked if Micah was also lying about her race.

When a cover causes readers to question the text, it is no longer a matter of what type of faces get better placement at bookstores, it’s about altering the book’s intent.

Hopefully, Larbalestier’s cover kerfuffle will cause publishers to be more thoughtful when selecting what images to accompany their books.

-Jason Lea,

P.S. I’m poorly suited to judge if the white-woman cover was effective from a marketing standpoint. I pick books based on author or content. I almost never pick a book because it “looks interesting.”

My co-blogger Tricia, however, often judges a book by its cover.

Things that Tricia hates on a book cover: science-fiction scenery, illustrations and faces.

And what does Tricia want on her dust jacket? Moody, nature scenes. In her words, “If there’s an empty lake with a rowboat, I’m there.”

P.P.S. Remember when I said someone should use Twitter to create an original piece of art?

No, well, I did. (You should pay more attention.)

The Royal Opera House is using its Twitter page to compose an opera.

No, it’s not book related, but I’ll be interested to see how it works.

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