Why do we need white faces to sell black books?

OPINION -- Controversy has erupted this week due to the cover image of Liar, a novel written by Australian author Justine Larbalestier. A piece of young adult fiction

Controversy has erupted this week due to the cover image of Liar, a novel written by Australian author Justine Larbalestier. A piece of young adult fiction, Larbalestier describes the protagonist of her novel as a “Black girl with short, nappy hair”. However, the initial cover used by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, the book’s publisher, featured a young white girl with long, straight tresses.

The advent of this “whitening up” of the packaging of material that features black people or is made by black people is steeped in pop culture history. Black musicians often recorded material only to see white faces on the cover of their art. In early cinema, white actors in blackface often played the black characters. Why? In order to make the work more palatable to a white audience.

As the controversy surrounding Liar began to catch fire, the book’s publisher, Bloomsbury, revised the cover, changing the cover model to someone who looks more “ethnic”. But the new cover still poses a problem in that it features a very light-skinned model with curly hair, not the nappy hair that the author attributes to her protagonist.

In the history of the marketing black art, racism and biases towards lighter complexions have been collaborators. Why is disguising or watering down the ethnicity of the cover model still a marketing tactic in book publishing and in other aspects of popular culture? Why is the selling of black literary fiction still an enigma to major publishers?

On Tuesday, acclaimed African American author Victor LaValle also released his third novel, Big Machine. Both his and Larbalestier’s books feature black protagonists and the early buzz on both authors has been largely positive. But both books are, as of yet, grounded in specific challenges that complicate the conversations surrounding them — most notably, how to sell a book about black people.

Take LaValle’s Big Machine. Though shrouded in critical praise and written by an accomplished author who has been described as the next Ralph Ellison, questions arise about how to market black literary fiction to a broad, national (read: white) audience.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Chris Jackson, the Executive Editor of publisher Spiegel & Grau and himself African American, asserts, “Black writers don’t have a support network that helps them publish their short stories, and the encouragement they get is often for familiar material”. To date, contemporary black literary fiction only has a few superstars – such as Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Edwidge Danticat, Colson Whitehead and Edward P. Jones – who have managed to crack this glass ceiling and sell in large numbers to broad audiences.

So how can smart, talented people of color – or indeed those writing about people of color – be given a platform to publish their work if publishing houses are remiss in their marketing efforts? Though most authors hold no power or control over how their book is marketed or how the cover is created, these details are crucial to the way in which the book is received and how well it sells.

Part of the solution is to buy black novels. Publishers, like any corporation, respond directly to sales, and good, strong authors need a devout audience to continue publishing. It’s also imperative to demand that black faces, in all their diversity, accompany material about black people.

Good art should not be difficult to publish. In a country where we have a black president and a Latina Supreme Court Justice, black and brown faces are obtaining visibility in ways that they never have. So shouldn’t these faces be on the cover of books? Most publishing houses claim that they won’t sell. I beg to differ.