Justine Larbalestier’s new book, Liar, has been getting a lot of attention lately. When she first revealed the cover, I thought it was nice — striking image, interesting thing happening with the hair. But having never read the book, I didn’t realize that the main character describes herself as black, with short hair, and looking like a boy. So as you can imagine, with a cover like this, some controversy has erupted, starting with Editorial Anonymous. Publisher’s Weekly covered it today in their Children’s Bookshelf. And then the author came out with her response.
This discussion fascinates me from the editorial end. ETA: The reason why it fascinates me is not because I’m excusing what went on on the Bloomsbury end–either way, the end result was that the cover photo didn’t remotely represent the character. The reason the discussion fascinates me is that as an editor, I try to pay close attention to these things, making sure covers that feature the character match the character (see anecdote below on a time I screwed that up), and it’s an important subject that needs to be discussed. I just figured I was late to the party on something like this, given how so many people I know in publishing feel so strongly about diversity.
I’m not sure what was happening behind the scenes at Bloomsbury — the editor commented to Publisher’s Weekly that the cover itself was intended to be a lie — but I do know how tough it can be for an editor to get the cover exactly right, something that will fit the contents of the book and sell the book to readers. After all, despite the maxim, many people do judge books by their covers, and the editor (in partnership with the art department) has to take the feedback of all the stakeholders like marketing and sales, to make sure that book buyers will love it, so that the book will get onto bookstore shelves, before readers even get a chance to see the book.
This controversy reminds me tangentially of why as an editor, when doing cover orders, I strive to make sure to accurately describe the character if that person will be on the cover (obviously, that’s moot when the cover depicts something else, like a symbol; other considerations are at work then). The reason that I work so hard at it is because of an incident early in my career, which was thankfully fixable before the book went to print, but embarrassing for me nonetheless. Vinod Rams is the excellent artist who illustrated all of the Dragonlance: The New Adventures covers and the Dragon Codex covers. He did a brilliant job with the cover of The Wayward Wizard, a now out-of-print book that kicked off Jeff Sampson’s Suncatcher Trilogy. (It’s SO good, and it’s so hard to find the first book that even I don’t have a copy, because I gave away my copy only to realize we couldn’t order more. Now they’re going for over $100 a piece on Amazon and Ebay).
The only problem? I had forgotten to specify in the art order that the friend Sindri meets in this book, Tayt, had copper-colored skin. Humans are all sorts of hues in Dragonlance, but many of the human characters are white, so it was something that Jeff had done specifically to diversify the story. Of course, in Dragonlance there are no “African Americans” or “Asians” because we’re in a fantasy world — racial issues in Dragonlance tend to cut across human/dwarf/kender/elf/ogre/goblin/gnome lines rather than skin color — but Jeff had pictured her as looking somewhat like an average African American girl (I’m sure he had a specific picture in his head). In the art order, I included all sorts of details about her: she had close-cropped hair, she was lithe and slim and short for a human (though taller than Sindri, who is a kender — a halfling in Dragonlance) and the color of her eyes. But I forgot to specify her skin color! When we got the artwork back, it was lovely–but Jeff told me that Tayt was all wrong.
I was mortified–we couldn’t go back and change a finished painting. It would take too much time, and because of the nature of the mediums Vinod works in, it would require a whole new painting, which would not be in the budget. What could we do?
Well, the art department saved the day. They were able to alter her skin to be closer to the tone the author had imagined. Or at least, it worked for me–her skin was described in the text as the color of copper, if I remember right. She’s gorgeous, though I still worry that she wasn’t quite as Jeff had imagined. And I don’t blame him; it’s completely my fault that I didn’t pay enough attention to detail to make sure that I specified more about how she was supposed to look. ETA: Jeff tells me in the comments on my LJ that I was actually the one who caught it. I didn’t remember it that way at all! And he says he thinks Tayt looks perfect. So I’m even more glad that it all worked out!
I feel for Justine as she fields the controversy over her book, because as Jeff could testify, authors rarely have control over their books (most editors, myself included, ask authors for cover suggestions, but usually character descriptions aren’t part of this process because we generally already have those details in the book itself, as I did with The Wayward Wizard). As I said above, I have no idea what went on behind the scenes at Bloomsbury in deciding upon the cover; I won’t comment on that. I just know that it’s tough making sure that all the people with a say in the cover are happy (including everyone from big book buyers like B&N, who often will say that they’d buy more of a certain book if the publisher did thus-and-such with the cover, to the sales & marketing people, not to mention the author and the editor). I’ll be very interested to see how this conversation plays out over time.
ETA: Questions I’d love to hear addressed from the publishing end of things: I deleted the questions here, because they’re incomplete and it was making the entry wayyy long–see my next post for them.