Whitewashing In The Publishing Industry: Book Cover Edition

Ever notice how the character on the cover of your favorite book doesn’t match their description in the story? Whitewashing in the book industry might be why.

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Disclaimer: This piece is not meant to be an attack on any individual, group, or company. It is merely an observation of certain trends within the industry noticed by the author of this article and the authors of the articles included below. The intention of this work is to raise awareness of whitewashing in the hopes of fostering more diversity and inclusion within the publishing industry in the future.

As an avid book reader, there are few pet peeves more annoying to me than when a film or television adaptation of a beloved book features inconsistencies in casting. I’d spent hours, weeks, and years imagining this character a certain way, so when the actor playing them looks completely different, it can throw any book-savvy viewer for a loop. While in some cases, it is a minor change, such as a character’s hair being brown instead of blonde, other changes, such as skin color or ethnicity, can be indicative of greater issues lying within the industry, such as whitewashing.

The term ‘whitewashing’ refers to the practice of making non-white characters appear white, and is often used in conjunction with Hollywood’s habit of casting white actors to play characters of color. In the reading community, whitewashing is most prominent on book covers.

While there aren’t a great deal of statistics on this subject, there is enough anecdotal evidence to indicate the relevance of this problematic trend in publishing today.

Liar by Justine Larbalestier

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The protagonist of this 2009 novel by Australian author Larbalestier centers on a young woman named Micah, who is biracial and described in the book as having brown skin and short hair. After positive reception in Australia, publishing house Bloomsbury decided to redesign the cover to be released in the United States. Unfortunately, the initial ARC cover featured a white woman who in no way resembled the protagonist. It was only after significant backlash from readers and the author herself that the publishers replaced the white model with a woman who more closely resembled the character before publication.

Dawn by Octavia Butler

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While this is an older example, it is interesting to see how often book cover whitewashing occurs within the science fiction and fantasy genres. The first book in Butler’s Xenogenesis series, Dawn, was published in 1987 and featured the protagonist, Lilith Iyapo, standing over a sleeping woman. However, Iyapo is described in the novel as “an imposing Black woman,” and the cover was not changed to reflect the contents of the story until 1997, ten years after its initial release.

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The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin (German Edition)

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Similar to the others on this list, the protagonist of Jemisin’s 2010 novel describes herself as “short and flat and brown as forestwood, and my hair is a black-curled mess.” Therefore, it came as a surprise to many when the German cover featured a white model with blonde hair. According to the author, when Jemisin questioned the German editor about the cover choice, she was told that “art that’s got nothing to do with the book… is common among foreign publishers, who go in more for ‘symbolic’ rather than ‘representative’/’realistic’ like us USians prefer.”

Cultural differences aside, considering the German publishers were allegedly reluctant to listen to N. K. Jemisin’s concerns and went ahead with that cover design, it seems deliberate that they chose a random woman over a model resembling the protagonist.

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Industry Arguments For Whitewashing

The two main arguments for justifying whitewashed covers that have been used by publishers are “covers with people of color do not sell” and “readers (read as: white readers) would not be able to relate to books with people of color on the covers.”

As for the first statement, there is no definitive evidence that this is true, as there have been no formal investigations into the sale rates of books based on cover to my knowledge. Also the misleading rhetoric of this argument could be due in part to there being significantly fewer books whose covers feature models of color as opposed to white models or non-human artwork. Another factor could be that the majority of published authors in the United States are white, cisgender, heterosexual, and able-bodied, and while many authors in the majority write characters of color, they don’t always make it to the book cover.

On the other hand, the second argument implies that readers can’t read about someone whose lived experience is different from their own, a statement that essentially signals the death of speculative fiction as a whole. How does it make sense that the average white reader can enjoy and relate to tales of dueling wizards or alien-helmed spaceships, but lose all sense of empathy when faced with a Black protagonist? Reading would be positively boring if I, a straight, cis white woman, could only read books about girls who looked like me attending American universities in suburbia.

Books as an art form are designed to evoke empathy, and if a reader cannot “relate” to a story about someone with a different perspective on life, then perhaps that reader should reevaluate their own biases.

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Final Thoughts

While publishing is, first and foremost, a business with the goal of turning a profit, the industry should also be cognizant of the messages they send in their choices of promotional covers. As one of the first things to grab a reader’s attention, the book cover should be representative of the book and be faithful to its characters.

While Hollywood whitewashing is still problematic, it is expected for television and film adaptations to diverge from the source material as the filmed version becomes its own entity. Book covers directly reflect the contents of the writing. If the artwork or photography accurately captures the essence of the characters within, the publishing industry will be one step closer to encouraging equity, diversity, and inclusion for readers, writers, and publishing professionals alike.


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