Thursday, 23 July 2009

Don't Judge a Book..

What's a writer to do if her publisher picks a cover for her book which misrepresents the main character? YA writer Justine Larbalastier has written a book called Liar, about Micah a compulsive liar caught up in a murder (it sounds like a great book, by the way and I can't wait to read it) Micah describes herself as black with very short hair. But the US cover shows a white girl with long hair. It's very striking, but completely wrong - either the publishers have deliverately misled potential readers because they think they won't buy a book about a black girl. or they wish to imply that Micah is a totally unreliable narrator in every detail - a suggestion which affects the way you read the book.
Justine, understandably, did not wish to come out in public and criticise her US publishers. But she has now gone on record saying that she opposed the cover, and hopes that now pre-publication reviewers have started to notice and comment it is not too late to change. She also notes that there is shocking prejudice in the publishing industry as a whole against putting black people on covers.
Cover art is enormously important both in attracting readers and handing them a set of expectations. Take the fabulous book by Patrick Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go, which has deservedly won prizes by the barrel-load. The UK cover features a blood-red knife. It's eye-catching and memorable, but a lot of people assume it's a book about knife crime (I know this to be true because at least one editor compared When I Was Joe to The Knife of Never Letting Go, a comparison which made me swoon with joy until I realised it was just a lazy connection between two books assumed to be about stabbings) I also think it's a cover which many girl readers would not be drawn to. Now compare the US cover. It's much softer, eerie and totally different in feel - and the two moons underline that this book is sci fi. Both covers have their strengths - I prefer the US version - but how interesting to see such different approaches for the same book.
Justine's experience has made me appreciate my own publishers all the more. Frances Lincoln would never ever white-wash a cover - in fact it champions diversity in children's publishing. Its best seller is Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman - its success shows up prejudice against black people on covers for the racist piffle it is. Plus it's a company which cares passionately about art and images, publishing many glorious art books. My editor Maurice Lyon involved me right from the beginning in the cover design, pointing out that it's essential for an author to like the product she's selling, and he still listens patiently to my finickety comments on colour and tone. I hadn't realised how rare it was for an author to have such a big say.
Update - and Bloomsbury eventually changed track and created a new cover for Liar with a black ( Very white hands) girl's face. Seemed to take them no time at all and got a lot of publicity for the book.


  1. ... and i thought it was interesting when i saw the US cover of Devil's Kiss by Sarwat Chadda whose heroine Billi, a half-Pakistani teenager, represented as a white, Arthurian looking heroine. Nice cover actually. But still.

  2. For as many times as I tell myself and others to not make a decision to read a book based on the cover, you can't help it!! That is the first thing everyone looks at and of course it is when the first judgement is formed. I wish authors had more say in their covers. It really baffles me. I recently commented to an author about something silly on her cover, and she said she begged the publisher to change it but they wouldn't it. I don't get it.