Does Color Matter?

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Recently I came across a blog post by author Kenya Wright titled “To have a Black Woman on the Cover or Not….

In the post, Wright talks about making the decision to put a black woman on the cover of her novel, Fire Baptized. She says she got advice from people telling her that if she took the black girl off the cover she would get a bigger audience.

That really got me thinking! As most of you probably know (based on the picture of yours truly here on this blog…), I am (big revelation here) black, as are many of my characters because…well, my family is also black and most of my characters are (sorry, mom!) based on them. And the thought of someone making the decision to not buy one of my books because it featured a black woman on the front? #faceplants.

Wright also says: “…This is what many publishers and authors wonder when their heroine is ethnic. They battle with if readers are really going to purchase a cover with a black woman on it or not.”

I heard about this issue a few years ago when the US cover for Justine Larbalestier’sLiar” appeared. The novel features a black protagonist but there was a white character featured on the cover. The publisher eventually changed the cover—perhaps because it stirred such a huge debate.

Larbalestier vents her frustrations in a blog post titled “Ain’t That a Shame.” You can see the original cover (and read the post in its entirety here). But here is some of what she says:

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?

What say you, folks? Do you buy books with people of color featured on the front? Do you agree that “black covers don’t sell?” Does color matter? Is this something you’ve ever even considered before???

And to authors of color: what’s been your experience?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!


40 thoughts on “Does Color Matter?

  1. I’m a little late to the party here, but thanks for coming to mine, Quanie 🙂 Seeing what Justine Larbalestier said about whitewashed covers in every publishing house really solidifies my decision to self publish. The fact that publishers may not promote “black books” as diligently as “white books” is offensive. We need to stop segregating books like we segregated people. Give people a chance to discover a good story! Oy.
    Dee Connell recently posted..Anatole Broyard’s secret and why diversity in publishing still mattersMy Profile

  2. I think when it comes to trying new authors people do pick up books with covers that reflect themselves, all the more reason for publishing houses to make every effort to introduce audiences to new writers. Dorothy Koomson has some beautiful covers and because she’s familiar to the UK audience through TV bookclubs her books sell well.

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  4. Honestly I have to admit I do judge books by their covers. I am open to books about all different kinds of cultures, people, religions and whatnot but since last year I’ve made a large focus on non “default”characters. When people of color aren’t on the covers, it makes it really hard to discover books that have people of color as main protagonists,.That may appeal to a larger market but when reaching out to readers like me, I’ve passed many books that I loooove now, but initially looked over because I didn’t know they were about people of color.

    As an aspiring writer myself, I battled with my first book cover. I wasn’t going to put a women of color on the cover because I was afraid. But I thought to myself, what am I so afraid of? Other brown girls like me being able to identify with book covers like many young white girls can?I got over the fear and put my main protagonist front and center on the cover. And although the book isn’t out yet, I’m in love with it!Hopefully readers willl love it like I do!

    • Well, I can’t wait to see your book cover and I’m optimistic that conversations like this will open people up to discovering new types of books, no matter what kind of skin color the person on the cover has.
      Quanie recently posted..Does Color Matter?My Profile

  5. Hey Quanie,

    Interesting topic and thanks for bringing it up. As an African-American novelist considering my cover, I also wondered what kind of cover to choose. I thought of the diamond company (DeBeers?) and one of their marketing campaigns where they advertised their diamonds on silhouettes because they wanted everyone to see themselves in the diamonds, and not just one group to identify with their product. You did that on your jazzy cover. I don’t know if it was intentional, but I remember thinking that was a good choice. Unfortunately, an African-American image is relegated to the “urban” section when usually we write about themes and human conditions that everyone can identify with. Even when it’s specifically about the “black experience,” it’s still a relevant piece of literature and can be enjoyed by everyone, but booksellers do not see it that way.

    A friend of mine goes into bookstores and takes her books out of the urban section and places them in the other fiction section. But we can’t cover all the bookstores all the time. This is a problem that occurs across all media, magazine covers, television commercial ads, etc. All we can do is continue to tell our stories, demonstrate good sales, and prove that we’re relevant. The industry understands green (dollars) far better than anything else.
    Burnita recently posted..SERIOUS BLOGGING!My Profile

    • Burnita, this is perfect: “Unfortunately, an African-American image is relegated to the “urban” section when usually we write about themes and human conditions that everyone can identify with.” So true! And you know, for my Jazzy cover the silhouette was actually not my first choice? I wanted an image of Jazzy on the cover but it didn’t work out. And because my release date was fast approaching, I went with the silhouette because of a lack of time. But I am happy with the current cover. I’ve been fortunate enough to get good feedback on the book from people of all nationalities, so I’m happy about that as well. And you’re right: “all we can do is continue to tell our stories, demonstrate good sales, and prove that we’re relevant.” I’ll add to that: and support one another (through social media, book reviews, etc).
      Quanie recently posted..Does Color Matter?My Profile

  6. Goodness, I never knew! Of course the cover should feature the accurate race/age/’tone’ of the protagonist. How strange to see a white girl on the cover only to realize the story is about an African American girl. I have picked books out because of an Asian character or a striking face of an African girl on the covers. I don’t put books away based on the race of the protagonist on the cover. I put them away based on the artistic quality of the covers, and the title, and the generic feel of the story.

    • You are so right! A bad cover, no matter who is on it, can certainly turn you away. I’ve bought books for several reasons: sometimes because of the cover, sometimes because of the blurb, and sometimes just because of the first few paragraphs. It all depends on what kind of mood I’m in while book shopping.
      Quanie recently posted..Does Color Matter?My Profile

  7. Oog. This is something I’m going to have to deal with, and deal hard, if my current book gets published. I’d like to have the main couple on the cover, and said couple is an interracial lesbian duo. One of the women is white, the other would look Arab or Indian if she was from Earth. I’ve already been preparing myself for a battle over the cover with a publisher, and I don’t even have an agent yet. -_-

    I am bound and determined, though, to not let this book’s cover get whitewashed. Here’s hoping it doesn’t become an issue… though I don’t know if I’m *that* much of an optimist.
    Mason T. Matchak recently posted..What do you Fear?My Profile

    • Unfortunately, sometimes when you’re with a traditional publisher they do get the final say on the cover, even if the author feels the cover doesn’t accurately represent the characters or story. So I hope that when it’s your turn you get the cover you truly want. Best of luck to you.
      Quanie recently posted..Does Color Matter?My Profile

  8. I read Phyllis Bourne’s books recently and loved it! I think what the first commenter says is true–I’ve often felt like I’m not supposed to read books with characters of color on the cover because they were written specifically for readers of that color, even though they aren’t. But Medeia Sharif’s books have Indian characters on the cover and the subject matter is very cultural…and the books are very enjoyable. I find I learn a lot by reading books about other cultures. I just feel an element of not being allowed to buy books unless the characters are white and I don’t know where that comes from. I think there is a HUGE push for diversity in fiction now and these perceptions will continue to change, but we have to keep breaking down those barriers.
    Stephanie Faris recently posted..Writers Don’t RetireMy Profile

    • Hi Stephanie, thanks for stopping by! You’ve actually given me some new authors to look at, so thanks for that too. And if you like romance, try Brenda Jackson and Altonya Washington. I agree with you that there is a huge push for diversity in literature, and what readers and authors have to do is spread the word about good books by authors of color (just as you’ve done here). As you say, you can learn a lot by reading about other cultures, and that’s a totally wonderful thing!
      Quanie recently posted..Does Color Matter?My Profile

  9. Quanie, I love that you posted about this. I don’t love that it’s a problem!! But I do think the best way to start dealing with stuff like this is to open a conversation about it.

    As you said in your comment to Tyrean, I prefer it when the main character ISN’T on the cover, regardless of his or her race; they never look the way I picture them to look, and I’d much rather be free to imagine them as I want. But I can say that I’m guilty of not always buying books with black (or Chinese or Hispanic or Indian) characters on the cover. Not because I’m not interested, or worried I won’t relate to them, but because I sometimes have this strange feeling of being intrusive – as if the book isn’t meant for a white girl like me (yes, I’m white – another huge revelation, I know 😉 ). Now that I say it ‘out loud’, I realize how stupid it sounds, but it’s really what’s given me pause. Not all the time – I have read and will continue to read books by authors from all over the world – but definitely enough to make me think about it.

    I do wonder if some of this is a problem that publishers have set up for themselves. They’re so eager to put everything in its own niche, to label each and every book and then market that book to that one specific audience, that they might have dug themselves in a hole. If I’ve seen enough books with black characters clearly marketed to a black audience, I might start to feel like they’re not meant for me. This is ultimately a very bad marketing strategy, at least in terms of race, because it’s never-ending: books with black characters are marketed to black people, so other races don’t buy them, so publishers say they don’t sell enough and won’t put the character on the cover, and so on.

    We also live in a society where people all of colors are supposed to be able to identify with white characters, but only black people are supposed to be able to identify with black characters, Japanese people with Japanese characters, and so on. This is stupid, and narrow-minded, and ultimately harmful to all of us (isn’t it the writer’s job, after all, to illuminate what is universal about being human??). It’s my job as a reasonable adult to realize that double standard, and stop letting it direct how I read! I have to take responsibility for myself, regardless of what I’ve been taught.

    I’m grateful to this post for making me think more about this, and be more aware – and stop worrying about being intrusive. I would bet most authors would be happy to have their books sell, regardless of who buys them!
    Liz Blocker (@lizblocker) recently posted..A BreakthroughMy Profile

    • Liz, I think you’re totally right about the publishing industry digging a hole for themselves. And you’re also right about it becoming a cycle: if books only seem to be marketed to one ethnic group, and as a result of that, other people don’t buy it, then how do we break the cycle??? By discussing it and raising awareness about the issue I think we will open ourselves up to discovering books by other cultures, recommend those books to our friends who otherwise wouldn’t even be aware of those books, and hopefully, as a result of that, some change may begin to happen.
      Quanie recently posted..Does Color Matter?My Profile

  10. I want to say, absolutely not! It’s the book description that grabs your attention. However, skin color can put some people off if they’ve never read works by African Americans, Asians and Hispanics. But Toni Morrison, the late Maya Angelou, Amy Tan, Isabelle Allende, and Alice Walker are read by the masses.
    If you write a good book that everyone can relate to, and it’s well received, your book cover will not matter.

    Urenna Sander

    • Hi Urenna,

      I totally agree with you: many writers of color can achieve commercial success, just like the authors you mention. All it takes is a good book but not only that, discoverability. So a great book, regardless of who writes it, along with some great marketing, can certainly make the difference! But I do think that since the authors you mention are already established brands (their names alone sell books), they may not face the same challenges as lesser known authors of color trying to make a name for themselves in the publishing world. But their success is certainly an indication of the success that ethnic writers can experience if their work is given a chance by the mainstream. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!
      Quanie recently posted..Does Color Matter?My Profile

    • Well, my comment published way before I was done writing it. lol

      Anyway . . .

      I never thought about this before, but now that you brought it to my attention I find it shocking. I don’t care what color the character’s are on the cover or in the story. I read books with characters of all different races. And since there are more covers with white heroes and heroines on them, I actually think the covers with black or bi-racial women/men catch my eye more. I would be more inclined to pick up one of these books than one like all the others. I am writing a story right now where the heroine is bi-racial and the hero is white. They fall in love and you can bet I’ll want BOTH of them on the cover together. 😉
      Chrys Fey recently posted..Eliminate RedundanciesMy Profile

  11. This is such a great topic, Quanie and something I’ve struggled with as well. The heroine in my book is black and her love interest is a hottie who’s biracial. While writing the book I worried that readers wouldn’t love Nevan or be able to relate/connect with my main character’s attraction toward him. To be honest, I still wonder about that.

    As for the cover, it’s difficult to find stock images of persons of color, especially one that would work for my particular book, a YA dystopian. I ended up going with a silhouette since the model had the right hairstyle, the right body language, but the wrong skin color.

    Personally, the color of the model on the front cover doesn’t sway me one way or another. For my children and myself, I would LOVE to see more diversity in books and on book covers.
    Natasha Hanova recently posted..EuphorYA Speculative Fiction Scavenger HuntMy Profile

    • Agreed! While looking for stock photos for my paranormal novel it was hard to find images of black women that conveyed the tone of the story. One person suggested to me doing a custom photo shoot next time then I could get the look that I wanted (not sure about the cost of that, but I would be willing to look into it). In terms of the character’s race: I think we just have to be true to the story. The beauty of independent publishing is that authors can write about people who look like them and publish their stories without being turned down because some publisher doesn’t think the novel will appeal to the mainstream. I think that as a result of independent publishing they’ll be a lot more diversity in books.
      Quanie recently posted..Does Color Matter?My Profile

  12. Does color matter? To put it bluntly: yep. Color ALWAYS matters, and the world of publishing is no different. It should be, but it’s not. As an African American author I’ve had my moments of frustration and thinking, “It’s just not fair!” But then I pull myself together, accept that it is what it is currently, and get back to the business of producing the absolute best caliber of writing I can. I’ve given this issue a lot of thought (I’m a habitual over thinker) and it’s sad, but true, that books with African Americans on the cover will be overlooked by a truck load of readers simply because the mentality is ‘that’s one of THEIR books’. Meaning the average non-black reader will skip right over the book because they assume that the book is geared only towards black people and they just won’t ‘get it’. The exception is if the book is a pulitzer prize winner or classic. Then they MIGHT read it.

    It bothers me and has always bothered me that writers of African American based literature struggle to reach the same level of success as their comparable counter parts simply because of the color of their characters. As a writer, I plan to make is a mission of my career to blur the color lines of publishing and reach people that may have never read an ‘ethnic’ book before. Hopefully, while one of my books may be a first for them, it won’t be the last.

    As a reader, I have always read books about all kinds of cultures. I don’t care what color the person is on the cover. I care about reading a good story. Thankfully, I grew up around all sorts of races and came to understand at an early age, that people are just people. I think truly great authors understand that. I think truly enlightened readers also understand that. I hope it’s only a matter of time before the powers that be in publishing give both parties the respect they deserve and create covers that accurately relflect the nature of the story, no matter what color the characters are. In the meantime, we’ll just have to show them what’s what by continuing to tear down walls via independent publishing.

    Whoa. This comment could have been a post on own blog, it’s so freakin’ long! Sorry Quanie, I got carried away. 🙂
    Faith Simone recently posted..If You Like It, Put A Ring On ItMy Profile

    • No, no! I absolutely LOVE your perspective! There’s no such thing as a “too long comment” on this blog, LOL! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I am glad that we are having this discussion. I wonder if others realize just how segregated the publishing industry really is? This is food for thought. I think that, as you suggest, the only way to really combat this is to write great books and if we need to, publish independently.
      Quanie recently posted..Does Color Matter?My Profile

      • I’ve been reading some of the comments. I totally agree that it’s awful to put something or someone on the cover that does not accurately represent what or who is in the book, especially putting a white face on an ethnic story.

        Something else that I probably should have included in my original comment is that part of my narrow book choices are due to the fact I’m a very picky reader and somewhat of a genre snob (LOL). Getting into the writing world and reading books written by my friends has made me realize that I’m missing a lot of great books out there by being so selective. But that picky nature is probably a product of my upbringing, too.

        I’m older and grew up in different times. My neighborhood and school was not nearly as ethnically diverse as it is for my children. Someone mentioned a lack of exposure to multicultural books. I second that, as well as a lack of exposure to multicultural friends.

        • I agree 100%: a lack of exposure is probably the biggest issue. And if you grew up in a different time then things definitely were not as ethnically diverse as they are now. But just like you said, getting into the writing world gives you an opportunity to meet people from so many different backgrounds, and I think that’s a terrific thing.
          Quanie recently posted..Does Color Matter?My Profile

  13. That’s just sad and wrong. I think that the covers definitely should reflect the interior of the book: plot, characters, important symbols. I’m actually not a huge fan of faces on covers – which might seem odd, but my kids are the same way. My youngest prefers the newer covers of a series by Michael Grant because they don’t have people on them, but symbols and setting instead. She likes the covers in the Lunar Chronicles series because they are simple and only show a part of the character – like Cinder’s bionic foot, Red’s Cape and hair, and the braid of hair for the Rapunzel character in the third book.
    However, having said that, I would like to see more diversity in fictional characters – I think maybe the reason I don’t like the current “face of the mc” covers is that they are white-washed, and way too super-model pretty. My daughters both liked the original Divergent book cover, and my oldest felt kinship with the main character’s self-consciousness about being too short and too angular. (I think my daughter is gorgeous, but she sees her tininess combined with wide shoulders as a hardship at this point) The new Divergent cover with the super-model actors changes the whole dynamic of the character’s thoughts about herself.
    I would really like to see some covers that reflect the true nature of each book, and not just the super-model media push.
    Tyrean recently posted..Homeschool Formal Dances are Not in Someone’s Basement!My Profile

    • Tyrean, you bring up an interesting point. When I was tossing around book cover ideas for my own novels, much of the research I read said that you shouldn’t feature any character on the cover because the reader wants to have their own image of how the main character looks! So I kept that in mind. It actually doesn’t matter to me when I buy books (character on the cover or not). If the cover looks interesting, sometimes I’ll read the blurb (or not. Sometimes I like to be surprised!) or first few pages and make my decision from there. But I agree that the cover should definitely be an accurate representation of the novel.
      Quanie recently posted..Does Color Matter?My Profile

  14. Hi Quanie,
    I think it’s just a symptom of the larger issue of the mainstream audience not delving into any literature featuring minority populations. I have a degree in English literature and only read one novel featuring black characters until I started college. I always found value in what I was reading, even if it didn’t directly relate to me. Publishers will always put money behind books that appeal to the masses.
    Ava Bleu recently posted..Guest Author Keisha BassMy Profile

    • Hi Ava,

      That’s an interesting point: many readers may not read books featuring characters of color because they may not be exposed to them. And the publishers will definitely cater to the mainstream. I personally love reading about people of different backgrounds (books like Lucy and Nervous Conditions) but perhaps not everybody does. I also enjoy books that cater to the mainstream.
      Quanie recently posted..Does Color Matter?My Profile

  15. Quanie, this was such an interesting post so thank you for sharing it and enlightening some of us. I really didn’t realize how big of a deal publishing covers with ethnic covers really was for bigger publishing houses.
    As for me, I am old school and live by the simple rule of, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Covers were never what sold me into buying a book, unless it was a picture book. And even for those types of books, the lavish illustrations and plots are usually what tickles my soul. Some of my favorite books are African, Asian and Indian folktales because those types of illustrations are alluring and mysterious to me.. simply because I am unaware of those cultures and love learning and reading about things which are unfamiliar to me.
    In the case of purchasing and reading novels, it’s the reviews or whether or not I know the author that sells me. I don’t care what the cover looks like; as long as the written word and storyline captivates my interest, I’m sold. So if the marketing and social media is there, then I think books with any cover have the ability to sell. And who in the heck do these big time publishers think they are by discriminating covers of ethnic background? Quite the disappointment if you ask me!
    Gina Stoneheart recently posted..Stories Told by Mack Trucks and Planes Sooth the Recesses of My HeartMy Profile

    • Gina, I feel the same way! After grad school I fell out of love with reading but I’m slowly finding my way back. I have been looking for books with a diverse cast, so if anybody here has any recommendations, by all means! For me, the thing that matters the most is the writing. It sounds like there’s lots of segregation in the publishing industry and I don’t think it has to be that way because personally, I don’t care WHO is on the cover: I am helpless in the face of a good story!
      Quanie recently posted..Does Color Matter?My Profile

  16. Oh Lordy, marketing has such a nasty edge and no doubt panders to all kinds of prejudices for the sake of a quick buck. I find a lot of book covers don’t accurately represent what’s inside them – for example, there seems to be a lot of dumbing down in relation to fiction aimed at women – but the idea of switching from a black to white face on the cover is quite sick.

    • Yes! I agree with you: sometimes you see a cover that has nothing to do with the content of the book, and that is also quite frustrating. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!
      Quanie recently posted..Does Color Matter?My Profile

  17. I can only tell you my perspective.

    Your book is wonderful and I enjoyed it immensely, but I wouldn’t have read it if I didn’t know you. Well, caveat… unless someone whose taste in books I trust had recommended it to me, then maybe. I like to read about heroines I can relate to. I can’t really relate to black heroines because their family dynamics and culture are often very different from mine.

    As far as the publishing industry, I doubt it’s any kind of overt racial discrimination (for the sake of race, I mean). It’s about profit–the same reason so many good manuscripts get rejected. If black covers don’t sell well, then, right or wrong, publishers are going to steer away from printing them.

    IMO, you did the best thing you could do to help change the situation; you published a great book with a black heroine on the cover.
    Melissa Maygrove recently posted..To Tell You The Truth…My Profile

    • Well, I appreciate your honesty. I’m sure many people feel the same way that you do but may not come right out and say it. It never really occurred to me that someone wouldn’t read my book because of the color of the person on the cover because I’ve always had such encouragement (and positive reader responses) from beta readers off all nationalities and also, because I buy books that I think I might like, no matter who is on the cover. This is a good discussion. I’m curious to see how others feel.
      Quanie recently posted..Does Color Matter?My Profile

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