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On (Book) Covers & Controversy

January 27, 2010

Everyone loves a good book cover. That’s indisputable—good covers catch our eye and drawn us in. Every good cover requires hours of work by the designer as part of a painstaking process to accurately reflect the content while appealing to the tastes of the target audience.

To see book covers come under fire is a truly fascinating look into what we have come to expect from a cover. Last summer, Justine Larbalestier’s YA novel Liar was originally featured a young white girl with long, straight hair, while the protagonist is clearly described as a black girl with short, textured hair. Jaclyn Dolamore’s Magic Under Glass has just been released with a cover featuring a young white woman, whereas the protagonist has dark skin and ‘exotic’ features. As Mitali Perkins described it in “Straight Talk on Race,” publishers want the cover “to sell more books, [so] the main character may be portrayed on the cover as less foreign or ‘other’ than he or she is in the actual story.”

Teen book reviewer Ari pleaded with publishers to consider the audience they alienate: “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?” Bloomsbury changed Liar’s cover prior to its official release and is re-issuing Magic Under Glass with a new jacket design. Their original response to the controversy mentioned that the covers were “intended to symbolically reflect the narrator’s complex psychological makeup.”

Book buyer Catherine Linka of Flintridge Bookstore reveals the intrinsic difficulty of chalking this up to discrimination or carelessness: “The cover works symbolically… [but readers want a cover to give] an honest representation of the experience that they will have with [a book].” And therein lies the rub: what was in dispute was not the stylistic choice, but rather the audience’s expectation that the cover should more literally match the inside the story.

Different designers approach the process in different ways, but generally they read the book or have a detailed synopsis. They aren’t designing blindly. Choices are being made all the time between what is obvious and what is complex. There is a certain level of independence, but the designer will still ultimately be answering to the publisher.

What may come as the bigger surprise is that the author rarely has any say in the book cover design. Traditionally, design lies solely in the hands of the design team, perhaps with some input on behalf of the editorial or marketing department. But the author does not factor in, as is obvious from Larbalestier’s response to her book’s cover design.

There are some smaller and independent publishers who offer a more collaborative design process, with designers and writers working together toward a final cover design. Open communication between the two can prevent many of these issues by allowing each to explain their process to the other. But even this presents its problems—an author may have his or her own artistic vision and not always understand what types of covers sell, which is the ultimate job of the designer: to make a cover sell. That is not a particularly romantic view, but it is a realistic one. Still it is important to remember that the design is still art. It’s merely art meant to encourage a purchase. And as an author, you must be prepared to deal with the ramifications of having other people interpret your work.

If you do find yourself in a more collaborative environment with a designer or team, remember that their experience in the field may give them a different vision than your own, and it is important to respect some of their more unconventional suggestions or design ideas. It’s all a part of the process.

A selection of fantastic book cover design blogs:

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