03/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Controversies in Black Literature Prove Book Sales Aren't Color-Blind

Young adult author Justine Larbalestier recently made some headlines by complaining loudly and publicly that her publishing house had placed a photo of a white girl on the cover of her novel, the heroine of which was black. The publishing house eventually acquiesced and replaced the cover image with one of a black girl.

One has to applaud Larbalestier's nerve at railing at the publishing behemoth, but her ire, while morally upright, was practically foolish, and the press indignation that followed was largely self-righteous and hypocritical.

Throughout American history, blacks have often hidden their flames behind white firescreens in order to make good livings. Black artists' album covers from the 1950s notoriously sported white girls to assuage the majority music-buying audience. An Los Angeles relative of mine had a black wife so fair that she was mistaken for white. Using her as a front, the pair bought property where blacks weren't allowed to buy. They prospered.

Justifying her crusade, Larbalestier said, "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 color on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them."

As a practicing marketing professional, I take the world as it is, not as I believe it should be. I acknowledge buyers' prejudices and preconceptions (especially those they don't acknowledge themselves) and work to subvert them. When the now-defunct publishing house Carroll & Graf published my novel several years ago, they placed an image of a bare-assed flirtatious black tart on the cover. This despite the fact that the book had one major black character among a pervasively white cast--and that character was male. I noted my objections to the publisher, who ignored them, seemingly convinced that basic marketing principles did not apply to the book trade.

I had grave professional misgivings about a principal black image of any kind on the cover, considering the audience I might attract, and this black image, while attractive, was particularly misleading. Would my book have sold better with a more representative and less black cover? I will never have the chance to find out.

Should I be fortunate enough to have another publisher accept a manuscript not aimed solely at a black audience, I will do violence before I let them put a solo black image on the cover. It will limit my sales. Period. The image will limit the marketing department's ambitions for the book, and no one wants to sink time and resources into a foreordained loser. In a perfect world, would such an image limit the book's saleability in the salesman's eyes? No. Does it? Yes.

We do not live in a perfect world. This is 21st-century America, where money and power rule, and as black Americans, we have history to deal with. According to a 2003 study by Dr. Marianne Bertrand of the University of Chicago and Dr. Sendhil Mullainathan, who was then a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, resumes with "black-sounding" names (e.g., Keisha, Tremayne) were 50 percent less likely to receive a callback than those with "white-sounding" names (Brad, Kristen).

In 2001, University of Pennsylvania researchers showed that those speaking "black english" or with a "black accent" were more likely to be told that an advertised rental unit was unavailable than those speaking "white english." And yes, it is safe to assume that white folks are less likely to pick up a book with a black person on the cover. These are the facts on the ground. Self-destructive utopianism won't cure it. Cash will.

I will save my crusades for when I have racked up sufficient sales to wield real clout, at which time I will plaster my covers with bona fide Nubian princes. Until then I will accept that, in the American marketplace of letters and ideas, black is as popular as it is on the Paris runway. Black authors need to prove we can sell books to mainstream audiences and earn on par with white writers. If it takes a "white" cover to do that, fine. Sacrificing on the altar of "the world is not as it should be" simply limits black opportunity and extends the status quo in which our books too often don't earn, and we continue to get the appropriate lack of deference and respect.

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