March 1st, 2010


What authors can and can't do (more on whitewashed covers)

Disclaimer: I want to draw some attention to the risks we sometimes expect/demand of authors, and I'd really like readers to think about whether they'd take those risks themselves. But yes, since this is about books featuring POC protagonists, and since I shall at some point be writing books, I have a vested interest in the matter; I am not at all unbiased.

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All of this background basically says that whitewashing of covers is an ongoing issue, it's not always a simple one, and it won't magically go away. The argument that "covers showing POC don't sell" won't disappear this year, or next -- or probably at all without readers speaking up. We're going to see many more reasons to be angry before we see a real change in publishers' assumptions. But... who exactly should we be angry with?

In responses to Dolamore, and some references to Healy and Jemisin's posts, I've seen this underlying assumption that the authors should be speaking up against their publishers in public; one comment was that they should "have the readers' backs" and not "side with" the publishers**.

And I think this assumption is deeply problematic. Yes, Le Guin and Larbalestier have been speaking up, and it is wonderful that they are using their positions to speak up for us. But they are exceptions (to some extent) to some fairly overwhelming tendencies:

1) Writers have no say in their covers. (And often even their titles)

For some good reasons -- writers often don't know anything about marketing. And for some reasons I think are pretty bad, too, especially:

2) Writers are a pretty fragile part of the publishing ecosystem.

And being labelled a "troublemaker" can spell the end of your career. It's often not clear to people who aren't involved in anti-racist work that "this cover enforces cultural racism" is not the same comment as "I don't like this cover", or even "this cover is inaccurate". So even established authors can't argue with their publishers about whitewashed covers without real risk.

3) Covers are designed to sell.

Not to be true to a book. Not, sadly but clearly, to be ethical.
What this means? Is that a debut writer generally will not accomplish anything by arguing about a cover, because they have little say in how well it'll sell.
And remember, Ursula Le Guin was mostly losing this argument as late as 2004.

What it also means -- what we've seen clearly -- is that readers can accomplish change. Because we're the ones they are selling to. (Real readers, at least. Anglophone Americans are unlikely to change a German publisher's mind. I think we need to be potential customers for our outrage to count as actual marketing feedback.)

4) What writers do best is write.

Every writer I've mentioned above is working towards a world in which there is more diversity in fiction, in the most direct manner possible -- by writing it.

And! By not ruining their chances to sell the next book with ineffectual protest. This is where I think it's most misleading to talk about the author not having the readers' back -- they do. They're showing it, in a way that will change someone's life, by writing the next book.

And some of them also show that they have our backs by speaking out -- but they are, necessarily, the ones who can speak out without killing their careers. Their actions are the exception, not what we should expect of everyone. So let's not sabotage the people who are writing the books we want to read because they're not blithely sacrificing their careers in the process.

I have been behindhand with book buying 'cause of moving house, but I will (very soon!) be buying Magic Under Glass, Guardian of the Dead, and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. And I hope you will too.


** I am not linking to these complaints, because I'm not interested in calling out people who were speaking from genuine anger that I happen to think was misplaced. I don't want to turn this into a fight; they and I mostly have the same goals.