Not long ago Tiel Ansari wrote in a piece on Write Anything about the industry’s preference to use covers with fair skinned people, regardless of the skin color of the characters within the book. Ansari’s piece touches on something that is sensitive, yet not an immediate concern to most of us — “us” being folks in the midst of writing and struggling to make the writing meet our dreams. Her topic is incredibly important and she has insights I hope you will read.
However, her piece is reflective, it is about her and her ways of writing, and how race plays out for her, personally. And I think her piece misses one of the most vital parts of all: why should we care?
We should. We really, really must. And we must care now. My own skin color in this has no relevance whatsoever. But for that one person it will make a difference to in at least thinking about why we should care: I am white. Most of my main characters have been white. And yet, this impacts me; it impacts my writing, my goals for the future.
The issue, in the smallest imaginable nutshell, is that publishing companies are frequently putting covers of fair-skinned people on books regardless of the character’s skin color. Marketing shows, according to the companies, that covers with dark-skinned people don’t sell as well. (See the sites Ansari links to for the details here.)
It would be easy to shrug off this apparent tidbit with a “That stinks. But they’re in the business to sell books?” In terms of a just-numbers business model, it makes sense. The company wants the books to get on the shelf and get off the shelf in the least amount of time. That’s the company. The writer on the other hand (that’s us!) wants to build a readership. Yet how can we do that if the cover doesn’t match the story?
The Importance of Reader Expectation
As a reading teacher, I have both studied the research on and seen in my classes the ways in which reader expectation shapes the reading. Expectation is part of the writer-reader contract. Expectation begins the “hook” into the novel. Writers in general are sophisticated readers, when we pick up a book with a cover of a white boy and realize while reading that the character is actually black, we’ll at best get disgusted with the publisher and at worst feel like the novel cheated us. My students — and, to be honest, most people picking up books — are not sophisticated readers. They see a white boy on the cover, they peg the white boy in the book as the important character, and struggle to build the story around that one character.
Either way, sophisticated reader or not, we have brought the expectations set up by the cover into the novel and when it is not met we feel cheated. It isn’t the publishing company that gets hurt by this; it is the writer. When the writing doesn’t live up to the reader’s expectations, then that reader never buys another book from that writer. Yes, it can be argued that people might chose to never buy a book from that publisher, but how many of us, here in this community, can name the publishing companies who have released the books on our bookshelf?
Writer’s Commitment to the Story
Another shallow response to this — and I know those who follow my writing do not think this, but let’s explore it anyway — is to shrug off the whole idea of needing race in novels at all. Why not keep skin color out of it (I imagine a few of my acquaintances saying…)?
I will not get into the need to see yourself in the books you read to truly understand all things are possible (fyi, this is called representation), nor will I go into how certain characters or specific characteristics show up over and over again as if it’s exclusive to one group of people (stereotyping). I won’t even go all academic on you and detail the ways in which the brain uses what we already know as a connection point for retaining information.
As writers, and simply as writers, keeping skin color out of it is one of the stupidest pieces of malarky out there. Stories are about people; people are about relationships; relationships derive from expectations — both expectations of oneself and expectations of the other person. So much of those expectations come from our culture, of which skin color is one part — sometimes an important part, sometimes not at all. Beyond our holidays and traditions, culture is the makeup of our families, the unbroken or terribly broken knowledge of past generations. It is the unspoken values (like the one that says a white person on a cover is a better book than one with a black person,) that fuel character’s motives and actions. It is the conflict between known desire and unconscious morals that creates tension and interesting sparks in a story.
If for no other reason — and I’m sure it’s obvious there are many, many other reasons — but if we need just one reason to squelch drivel like that, it is because we are writers, and there are no stories if everyone is exactly the same. And yet, there are no readers if the cover is not the same as the book.