Thursday, November 16, 2017

Character description doesn't match cover depiction

I often search for books with women of colour, black women in particular and in the genres of sci-fi or fantasy where I find we show up the least. There aren’t many out there and I don’t always like what I find (well written or not) so I often end up with books in genres I don’t even like.

One day I found a well-reviewed self-published book. Some of the reviews were filled with praise but also images of the reader’s depictions of how they believed the MC looked.

I did a bit more digging and checked out the Question and Answers and indeed someone had asked if the main character was a woman of colour to which one reader responded “yes” while another said they “could not really tell.” At this point, I write the author. Long story short, her response said she was explicit about making her MC black but that she couldn’t help what people wanted to see.


I buy the book. Within the first few chapters it is clear over and over again that the female protagonist is a black woman. I’m not even remotely passionate about the book, but I am passionate about this problem. A part of me wanted to write under the reviews of these ‘blind’ readers. Another part of me was angry at the writer for using a misleading cover. The lowest part of me wondered if another cover would even make a difference and why we even bother writing diverse characters in the first place.


How would you suggest a writer deal with reviews like this? Or should they ignore them?

If you feel passionate about it, I think you should post a comment. The trick is to respond with facts not emotion. Facts are "MC is described as this, that, the other on pages N, N2 and N3"

Leave out the "you are clearly blind and ignorant to have missed that" no matter how true you think it is.

Since this is a self-published book the writer has complete control over the cover. That is NOT NOT NOT the case in books that are not self-published.

I have no idea why an author would choose to write about black women and not have them depicted on the cover. I don't even want to hazard a guess on that one.

More generally I always advise writers to stay out of the reviews/discussions on their books. It's a fast way to go full tilt crazy.  Since you are not the writer, and have no skin in the game (bad joke?) you'll most likely be able to participate in a discussion without losing your mind.

And I really admire your tenacity in seeking out books with people of color, even outside your preferred reading areas.  If we all did that we'd solve the diverse voices problem in about two seasons of publishing.



26 comments:

dellcartoons said...

When the Hunger Games movie came out apparently some people were bothered that Rue and Thresh were black, since that made their deaths less sympathetic.

In the book it was clear that they were black, and their deaths (especially Rue's) were sympathetic. Seriously, try listening to Katniss sing Deep in the meadow to Rue (in an audiobook) and not tear up!

Of course, I am not tearing up right now, just thinking about it. There's just dust in the air, that's all

Kathy Joyce said...

So many books don't have people on the cover at all, or have illustrations so stylized that individual traits aren't recognizable. In that case, should the back blurb describe the protagonist as a black woman? I guess I'm trying to understand if the issue is with the author, who didn't make it clear on the cover that the protagonist is a black woman, or with the reviewers who don't get/mention it. And, in either case, why would they not make it clear? With do much attention on Own Voices, it does seem strange not to highlight that the protagonist is a black woman.

Hermina Boyle said...

OP,

Tor.com released their 2017 best pics last week. Two of the books featured MCs of color: Barbary Station by RE Stearns and The Changeling by Victor LaValle. If you're interested, you can check out the Tor.com site or Barnes and Nobles site for reviews.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

N.K. Jemisin - POC writer, Hugo award winner - twice I believe. The Fifth Season. If the OP has already discovered this gem, then beautiful. Otherwise, as a reader of fantasy, sci-fi Jemisin is fantastic. Pardon the pun.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I really don't like book covers, and cover not matching content is a thing that gets to me, often. For my story collection that didn't get off the ground (it was a small press that folded, thankfully [I say thankfully now]), my strongest cover criteria was no people on the cover, and they couldn't even manage to accommodate that.

I picked up THE WAYFARER REDEMPTION fantasy series many years ago, because the cover of the first book was just so cool. When I finished the book, I flipped back to the front again. I had no idea who those characters were supposed to be or what they were supposed to be doing. They were all white people so that didn't get messed up, anyway.

But self pub or not, it seems like it would, I don't know, make sense for the book cover to actually represent its characters? From kind of a....marketing standpoint, maybe?

Amy Schaefer said...

Since we're giving suggestions, add Nnedi Okorafor (Lagoon, Binti series, etc) to your list, if you haven't already.

K White said...

Another suggested SFF author is Tananarive Due. I heard her speak at the World Fantasy Convention earlier this month. She was part of a panel discussion on SFF by black writers. I was so impressed by her, as soon as the panel was over, I went to the dealers room and bought her books. I highly recommend OP check out Due’s work.

S.E. Dee said...

I find that US covers tend to show images of people whereas UK covers don't. Not sure why, it was something pointed out by an american friend of mine who had two different covers for her book "One Night in Sixes"; in the US and UK the cover was almost identical...they just removed the MC and his horse in the UK version.

I guess I really wanted to know if a writer came across this issue (depictions on the cover aside) should they ignore it? I'm not sure I could. I'd probably reply with the facts as Janet prescribed, though that seemed like it ought to be left for the readers only. I'm not published (yet but damn I'mma keep trying) but I'm worried about something like this happening to me.

(When I said "why 'we' even bother writing diverse characters in the first place" I meant 'we' as writers! :) So I do indeed have skin in the game! Brown at that!)

And thank you Janet and to everyone else for your suggestions!

Julie Weathers said...

Dell

"When the Hunger Games movie came out apparently some people were bothered that Rue and Thresh were black, since that made their deaths less sympathetic."

I can't even imagine that. I loved Rue and Thresh and wept at their deaths, especially little Rue. I thought good for the father and the community when they rioted.

People.

"At this point, I write the author. Long story short, her response said she was explicit about making her MC black but that she couldn’t help what people wanted to see."

Please don't read too much into this. I've been a member of the AOL/Compuserve Books and Writers Lit Forum for twenty some years. Diana Gabaldon is a big part of the forum, so a large part of the discussion is about her books. You absolutely would not believe the massive debates that break about what her characters look like.

People were astounded when characters were cast for the show. Why are they casting Jamie as a redhead? He's blonde! Seriously? Diana describes his hair in detail frequently and the only time blonde is mentioned is the blonde or tawny highlights in his red hair. Why is he so tall? Really? You thought he was short and stocky? Claire has blonde hair! No she doesn't, it's always been brown and curly.

Trust me, You could write a very detailed description, as Diana has proven, and people will still envision the characters exactly as they want to see them or not at all.

Megan V said...

Hey OP(and anyone interested) if you want SFF suggestions with POC MCs (especially #ownvoices)—I keep lists for recommendation purposes! While I generally abhor spreadsheets and lists-a dislike that is Carkoon worthy, I know—I also keep a host of book rec. lists. These include: lists of POC authors, Lists of books with POC MCs, lists of books with QUILTBAG MCs, lists of #ownvoices, lists of classics, lists to keep tweens and teens reading (note that none of these lists are mutually exclusive).

A few of my favorite fantasy authors have already been listed here—N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor—AND since you've mentioned you're specifically looking for black woman protags there are a couple of YA fantasies coming out in the near future that I'm really looking forward to (and you should keep an eye out for IMHO) There's An Alice in Wonderland retelling (A BLADE SO BLACK) in 2018, Tomi Adeyemi's CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE

Casey Karp said...

"That is NOT NOT NOT the case in books that are not self-published."

Um. I wouldn't want to design the covers of my books. I'm not an artist and wouldn't know where to begin coming up with something that would appeal to the masses.

But.

Janet, is it possible to negotiate some control? Not necessarily final approval, but at least the ability to say "I hate this cover. Can we please try again?" and have the publisher consider it.

Julie Weathers said...

Casey

Unless you are selling well, doubtful. I know some authors who have a say, but they are established. A few new authors get asked for preferences, but usually, there isn't much say so.

Years ago, a woman in Oklahoma wrote a book about a cutting horse trainer murder mystery that was pretty good. Since she was a cutting horse trainer, it was authentic and the story was interesting, but that cover. two legs were sticking out from under an Arizona type cactus pants tucked in the most gawd awful yellow boots with yippee ki yi bucking bronco, steer skulls and cactus all over the boots. The author said, "I told them no self-respecting trainer would be caught dead in those boots, but they wouldn't change it. I guess my trainer would be caught dead in them because that's the way it went out."

I bought the book, but the cover bothered me so much I ripped it off.

Casey Karp said...

Julie, that's hilarious in a horrible way.

I should know better than to post before I get caffeinated. According to my contract for TRTT, the publisher determined the cover design (and several other things) "in consultation" with me. The way I read the clause, if I had said, "This cover makes me puke, and I really don't want to throw up at every signing," they would have had to listen to my complaint, but they wouldn't have had to do anything about it. So, yeah, being allowed to give input is possible, but, per Janet, getting actual control ain't gonna happen. I can live with that.

Good thing I like the cover.

Kathy Joyce said...

S.E. Dee "...I'm worried about something like this happening to me."

I got muddled up in the original question, and now my misunderstanding is snowballing (to mix a few metaphors). Is your concern that publishers will not put a brown person on the cover, that readers won't understand that the MC is a POC, or that reviewers won't acknowledge it? (Or, all of the above? Plus more?)

I get bits of argument from various twitterati about Own Voices, #dvpit, etc. I haven't followed it all, but I am interested to better understand the concerns. As an OWL (old white lady), my lens is '70s-'80s feminism, which kind of fits, but there are nuances that I need education about. Thanks!

Miles O'Neal said...

Jennifer said: "I really don't like book covers, and cover not matching content is a thing that gets to me, often."
Boy, howdy. I have ignored some really good books for years because their covers assured me I had no interest. And I have some great YA scifi that I may yet rip the covers off of because of the scantily clad, buxom women who are most assuredly not depicted as such in the books. Grrr.

S. E. Dee: The main thing I would add is to keep writing the best books you can and get them out there. You can't help what people do in ignorance.
Also, do you have anything published (trad or self)? I would love to read it.

Dell: "When the Hunger Games movie came out apparently some people were bothered that Rue and Thresh were black, since that made their deaths less sympathetic."
That's appalling. I don't doubt it at all, though. 8^(

Julie: "I can't even imagine that. I loved Rue and Thresh and wept at their deaths, especially little Rue. I thought good for the father and the community when they rioted."
Yes. The fact that they were black was huge. I reread the books and rewatched the movies not too long ago, and thought about the state of our country today and the divisiveness. And migt have leaked more tears than usual.

(I need to revisit Colin's page and see what everyone here has published, and start ordering. My contact info is on that page; if you have multiple books out and want to recommend one to start with, please let me know!)

Sarah Jensen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Melissa said...

My sister-in-law and I were having this conversation because we've both written books that feature people of color as characters. We pondered, sadly, if featuring the person on the cover would cost sales.

Is it better to leave the person off the cover or in a faraway view to encourage more people to buy a book? If there was an increase in sales, would that be good because you've challenged someone's internal biases, someone who wouldn't have bought the book otherwise? Or is that bad because you're whitewashing the world, a world of diversity?

I'm not sure what the answer is, but it's definitely not to feature a person of a different race on the cover, sales or no. At the very least, this book is forcing an important discussion and challenging people's perception.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

Angie Thomas' novel 'The Hate You Give' features an African-American girl on its cover and it became a NYT bestseller in a matter of weeks.

(sorry, typing from a phone)

Casey Karp said...

Wrt people of color on covers, let's not forget Nnedi Okorafor's novel "The Shadow Speaker" and the cover controversy she went through earlier this year. (link)

Whether it was deliberate or unthinking, I'm in no position to state an opinion; I don't have the information. But either way, horrible covers do happen.

Craig F said...

I must admit that I usually just look at titles. I have been deceived by way too many covers and I don't pay that much attention anymore.

I wish to thank all of you for bringing up books de colores. I would like to write more diversity into my books but I fear doing it wrong more than just not describing my characters by race.

In science fiction I like to hope that the lines will be draw in other ways than race and gender, as they mostly are today. Tribalism will still be there but hopefully those tribes will be about something other than Earth's history.

Julie Weathers said...

Craig

I have several POC characters in Rain Crow. It just goes with the territory. I've tried to make them all interesting in their own right. The MC's father was a fisher of men, as it were, picking up stray people of various races as he had been rescued as a child.

Some people won't think I got it right, and that's OK. I've done the best I can.

Craig F said...

Julie:
One of the joys of writing is that there is always someone who will say that you are wrong.

The only character I say much on background for is Vicky in A TAINT IN PUTNAM. She is the descendant of Maronite Christians, the people who led Beirut to a golden age before they had to run for their lives. She is a daughter of those people only by history.

As a second generation coon ass she is a tough Louisiana girl who some take exception to.

Beth Carpenter said...

I was grateful that my publisher did a good job portraying the Alaska Native main character in my first book. The heroine with him wasn't quite as I envisioned, but close enough. It's always scary to see what title and cover will be attached to your book. Sometimes, I'm told, they go more with the "feel" of the story than accurate representation of a particular scene.

S.E. Dee said...

Kathy Joyce: “Is your concern…that readers won't understand that the MC is a POC, or that reviewers won't acknowledge it?”
Both are my concerns! And not necessarily the MC but any important character I write in as being diverse.

Miles O'Neal: “Also, do you have anything published (trad or self)? I would love to read it.”
Nothing published yet but I am waiting to hear from an agent who has my full so fingers crossed!

Melissa said: “Is it better to leave the person off the cover…? If there was an increase in sales, would that be good because you've challenged someone's internal biases, someone who wouldn't have bought the book otherwise? Or is that bad because you're whitewashing…a world of diversity?”
Do brown people on covers affect sales? They must do or why whitewash? They must fear people won’t buy and perhaps that’s from experience. It must also be why some self-pubbed POC writers choose to whitewash their own covers. You learn from what is allegedly the best! I personally don’t like people on front covers; I’d rather find a diverse book based on tags while I use my imagination based on your descriptions. If you put a white person on the cover, though, people will generally think your MC is white because that is the status quo, and if that ends up being the case, you might as well have with a white MC.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna: “Angie Thomas' novel 'The Hate You Give' features an African-American girl on its cover and it became a NYT bestseller in a matter of weeks.”
think the MC being black in such a book has A LOT to do with the story. To whitewash the cover would actually take too much away. The issues are very #BlackLivesMatter. You generally tend to see whitewashing on covers where being black/brown has nothing to do with the story, so you get that “Might as well make her/him white on the cover…” mentality. My opinion.

meredithmansfield said...

"Since this is a self-published book the writer has complete control over the cover. That is NOT NOT NOT the case in books that are not self-published."

Well, yes and no.

If this is artwork . . . well, then, yes, it could have been done to be more true to the book's content.

If it's composed of stock images, which is far more common, then there just may not have been a perfect image of that character available. Most indie authors don't have the budget or wherewithal to hire models and do a cover shoot specifically for their books. (There are exceptions, of course.) I can't, for example, imagine trying to find a stock image of a POC in a setting or costume appropriate for most fantasy. They may be out there, but they certainly wouldn't be easy to find.

Janice Grinyer said...

Epiphany. Now I know where the phrase "don't judge a book by its cover" came from...

Writers. It came from writers!

:D