03/22/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Failing a Book By Its Cover

Last year, the publishing house Bloomsbury sparked a storm of controversy in issuing an American edition of YA author Justine Larbalestier's Liar. Though the book's narrator clearly describes herself as black, Bloomsbury elected to put a photograph of a white girl on the cover. The ensuing criticism, which took place largely in the blogosphere, and much of which came from Larbalestier herself, was such that Bloomsbury eventually reshot the cover with a darker-skinned model and issued a tepid apology.

With the brouhaha only recently smoothed over, Bloomsbury decided to usher in Martin Luther King Day weekend by repeating the same misstep, publishing Jaclyn Dolamore's debut Magic Under Glass with a corseted, white-skinned girl on its cover when the heroine is described as brown-skinned throughout the book. Dolamore even noted that she'd have cover more true to the book.

Teen blogger Ari of Reading in Color writes in an open letter to Bloomsbury:

I'm sure you can't imagine what it's like to wander through the teen section of a bookstore and only see one or two books with people of color on them. Do you know how much that hurts? Are we so worthless that the few books that do feature people of color don't have covers with people of color?

The tiresome and tacit insistence in the publishing world that brown faces don't sell books is a insulting as it is racist. Are white readers really either so stupid or so bigoted as to be incapable of picking up a book whose cover doesn't mirror their skin color? Are mainstream publishers really going to to assert that people of color don't belong on the covers of books, that the assumption of profit is more important than a genuine commitment to diversity, and that voices of color aren't worth recognizing?

In truth, publishers have no idea whether or not whitewashed covers sell better, because they've never tried the alternative: the radical notion that if people of color will buy books featuring white faces, white people will manage somehow to return the favor (not to mention the entire untapped market of -- gasp! -- people of color who might like to see their own faces outside the "African-American" corner of the bookstore).

Book blogs like Reading in Color, Color Online, and Black-Eyed Susan's have long been arguing passionately and eloquently that change is more than overdue.

The sad truth is, publishing is an industry overrun with white faces, and without conscious effort, the status quo of whiteness-as-default will continue to slouch along. From a purely cynical perspective, you'd think an industry that spent most of last year making headlines for its apocalyptic financial crises would be more than eager to tap into new markets; but apparently even potential profits isn't enough to shake loose the inertia of the same old same old.

Though Bloomsbury's double-whammy party foul may be mainstream publishing's current most egregious example, the industry as a whole frequently demonstrates an antediluvian attitude toward the lived experiences of people of color. I am by no means the first person to notice that the kinds of books that receive critical attention and publishers' marketing dollars are, time and again, the same rehashed narratives about escaped slaves, "urban" youth, and inhabitants of far-off countries. There's nothing inherently wrong with these stories, but reducing the entire body of literature about people of color to a handful of experiences is a disservice to both readers and writers. What readers of all colors are asking for is simply that the books we read -- and their covers -- reflect the diversity of the lives we lead.