July 6, 2010

A RaceFail! all around: Part 1

Interestingly enough, I was planning on posting a Seg-book-gation and how books written by Black authors are packaged in a way that only appeals to Black readers. The stereotype is that Black authors write for Black people and supposedly Black people don't read. So according to the stereotype, Black authors are packaged for people who don't read so they are for no one. I can tell you now that Black people do indeed read and read alot. This post only came about after reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Would a book written by a Black author get as much hype as she did? The answer is "no" and I'm still trying to figure out why it's still the case. Why are publishers still trying to silence Black voices? What are they afraid of? It's so obvious that the stereotype of Black people not reading is untrue, but fueled by the fact that there aren't any books for us to read.

Apparently there aren't any books for other minorities to read either. Or at least you can't tell just by looking at them.

Original Hardcover.
An amazing book by Cindy Pon about an Asian inspired fantasy is being repackaged with a whitewashed cover. I haven't read the book, but I've only heard great things about it. I also think the cover is awesome. There's actually an Asian person, not a hand drawn picture, but a real girl. Her face isn't cut off and it's not just half her body, but her full body, arms up high, looking fierce and regal. I'd be drawn to a cover like this. This time it's not even the publishers fault as it was with the Liar controversy. From what I've read around the internet about this, the publishers are very patient and they believe in their author. There's someone in the higher ups, people who choose which books to put in bookstores, who passed on this book or supplied limited copies(wonder where they put these books at). Barnes and Noble put the books on their shelves, but not many. And Borders totally passed. In order to help the author, they had to repackage the forthcoming sequels.

The new covers don't excite me at all. They look rather generic. They aren't ugly covers or anything and I can understand why they went this route. It's a necessary evil. The trend is that books that look like paranormal romances are selling. That's the impression I get from this and I'd be less inclined to pick up this book with the new repackaging. I'd be more inclined to pick up the first book, just because it's something different. It's unfortunate that it has to come down to this. The cover looks ambiguous. She looks white washed, but I really can't tell. I can definitely tell you that she's not as Asian as the girl on the front of the book. And that's really disappointing. (And me being an idiot, I didn't even realize it was the same book)

It's disheartening to walk into a bookstore and see that there are no books with characters that look like you, act like you, talk like you, and go through the same struggles that you do. If you really want to read, you get over it, but there comes a point in time when you just can't take it anymore. When you walk into a bookstore there is nothing but (white) girl's with slender bodies, their heads cut off, holding something that is important to the story and aesthetically pleasing. I want a book with a tall curvy black girl with purple cornrows in an anime/Harry Potter/nerdfighter t-shirt, jeans, argyle socks, and converse. I want a book with an Asian girl on the cover. I want a book with a Latina on the cover. I want a book with a Middle Eastern girl on the cover. I want a book with a Native American girl on the cover.  I want books that have covers that look like my friends. I want books that reflects the multicultural world we live in. And I want you, dear Booksellers, to put those books with all the headless skinny white girl books. I don't want you to separate  them into little book ghettos, where the books with Black girls are shoved into the darkest corner of the store or the Asian books are put in the Asian studies section. Put these books where they belong. If it's an Asian inspired YA Fantasy, put in the YA fantasy section. And don't get sneaky and put it in the bottom of the shelf when everything else is in alphabetical order.

If I were a bookseller, I'd make the shelves as diverse as possible. Thank God for Indie Booksellers. But unfortunately, many cities (including mine, I think) don't have Indie booksellers. Instead, we are left to the whims of our corporate book-selling overlords, Borders and Barnes & Noble, or if you're like me and have to chose between leisure books, books for school, food, or fuel (tough choice, believe me), go to the library. The library is smart enough to stock its shelves with a diverse range of books. When I walk in there and go to the YA section, I don't feel alienated. I know that I can usually find the book I'm looking for and a few books about PoC that I didn't expect the find. They're even prominently featured on the stands. (of course I have million dollars worth of library fines, so I haven't been for a while).

Why can't I find this same setup when I walk into a bookstore when I'm ready to shell out money and buy some books. And when I go to the bookstore and I've got money to toss around (which is rare, but it happens when the school refund checks come. Thank God for refunds), I don't just buy one book. I buy at least 4 or 5, especially PoC books. In fact, out of 14 books that I bought in the last three months, only 2 of them probably feature exclusively white characters. Most of the books that I bought prominently feature PoC characters or some minority (LGBTQ and people with "disabilities"(gosh I hate that word)). I even have a *gasp* Asian inspired fantasy.  Shouldn't a bookstore reflect a diverse world? According to this site, "Asian buying power has the second fastest projected rate of growth... Asian buying power will grow 434 percent between 1990 and 2011." Isn't that something to get concerned and even excited about. It would behoove booksellers (and publishers) to cater to new audiences while enticing the old. Try some new marketing techniques, do something. Be proactive. Create some excitement over the book instead of just letting it sit there collect dust on a Barnes & Noble bookshelf. Don't leave books to be chosen just by the masses. I mean look at all the crap the masses choose. Twilight? Are you kidding me? What a joke? Yet, what is it that they are doing to get these books into the hands of the masses?

It's clear that the publishers have taken a look at what others are doing. Obviously that's the reason why they are repackaging the books. It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. I understand their situation and frankly as an author and as a publisher, it's a tough situation to find yourself in. I don't think it's their fault in this case. After all, publishing is a business and it's all about what sells. It's just unfortunate that "Don't judge a book by it's cover" still has a role in American society and in the bookstores(of all places.Talk about irony).

But here's my take on the cover. To look at the first cover with the fierce Asian girl, I wouldn't know what to think, but I'd be intrigued. I'd at least pick it up and read the summary. I'd even glance at the first couple pages and look through. I would probably go home and research the book a little before I bought it. (I don't buy my books willy-nilly most of the time). If the reviews are good, if I had the money, I'd buy it. And if I don't have the money, I'd look it up at the library. If I enjoyed it, I'd recommend it to my friends who also like to read and in turn, hopefully they'd recommend it to their friends. Besides, I have this little blog in my corner of the world, but the true reason why I keep this blog is to keep track of the books that I read. Even though it's small, people do read it. There are even bigger blogs than mine that have many followers. Word would get around.

However, if I saw the new packages, I'd probably dismiss them as being another Twilight (but oddly enough better written) knock-off. I doubt that I'd even bother to pick them up with the new cover.

I guess the take home message of this post is that I think it's sad that it's come down to repackaging the book in a more ethnically ambiguous package just to get sales. In this case it's not the publisher's fault or the author's fault, it's the people choosing which books to have in their bookstores. I hope there's a day when there can be a more ethnically diverse bookshelf, but it's clear that today will not be the day. I hope the publishers know what they are doing and I wish the best of luck to the author, Cindy Pon, in this bittersweet time. (this book is going on my reading list)

In the meantime, Ari from Reading in Color is writing a letter to the bigwigs up at Barnes and Noble and Borders. If they do stock more multicultural books, we've got to start buying them. (time to save up that refund check.)


Merrilee said...

It's disgusting. The publishers cry "sales!" but it's their own fault. They've bred a generation of reader who only read white, and now, when there's more diversity out there than ever, they can't sell it!

The best we can do as readers is speak out against whitewashing, and buy diverse. Look online, look indie. Buy a book with an Asian or Af-Am girl on the cover, and donate it to the library.

Get those covers out there in front of people!

Seleste said...

First, the original cover is GORGEOUS. The new ones are very meh. They're fine, but like you said, there's nothing special about them.

Here's the thing publishers aren't getting. Readers who will shy away from a book based on the ethnicity depicted on the cover will shy away from the book based on the ethnicity inside too.

Sure, there are people who are racially ambiguous (hell, there's a commercial on air right now where it's actually said), but that isn't true of most characters in most books. I like diversity. I want diversity.

Najela said...

@Merrilee: That thought never occurred to me about publishers creating a generation of people reading stories about white characters. That's what people are used to reading. Personally, I think repackaging the books should have been the last resort. What I'm wondering is what the publisher has been doing to get this book into the hands of readers? The author hosted a giveaway and if it weren't for that I would have never heard about it from someone else around the blogosphere. I haven't see the publisher do the same.

@Selene: I think a lot of readers what diversity, even the people who read the same genre and the same people. Surely they must get tired of reading about the same types of characters. Even if it's the same type of person, but in a different color skin, it brings a different perspective to the table. (though I don't think just changing the skin color is that simple, like repackaging the book isn't going to solve all the problem of getting people to actually buy the book). I think publishers are targeting to the wrong people. Who cares about the twihards and vampires and werewolves, what about the readers who are tired of seeing nothing but paranormal romance. They need to focus on the PoC who are looking for books with characters that look like them and that's what the publishers aren't seeing, just like you said.

Thank you for your comments Merrilee and Selene. =)Sorry my response was so long. lol.

MissAttitude said...

Do you have a direct link to the buying power African Americans have? I would love to be able to use that in my letter because something I've struggled with is that all too often we POC don't have the money to buy books as often as white readers. I think booksellers and publishers use that as their excuse. It's true I don't buy that many books, books are a luxury. But I do go to the library and like you said, when I have some extra money, I buy POC books.

Ugh I hate that there's an AA fiction section but only an Asian/Native American/Hispanic studies section. Why do we need to be studied? Just read our books. Either give each ethnic group a section (personally I don't think that's needed) or just put us with the rest of the literary fiction section.

I don't like the word disibilties either =( The state of books about people with 'disiblities' is even worse than PoC (I wonder if there are more GLBT books or PoC books? Probably even or a few more PoC books).

Excellent excellent post!

Najela said...

That comment about African-American buying power was something I overheard from my internship supervisor, I think. I will look it up and definitely give you the link or something similar to it.

Yeah, I think publishers are using low SES as an excuse. Are they supplying schools with books? I might not have the money to buy this particular book, but if the book is well written, I'd keep that name in my mind for the time I get that money I'll be on the look out for that author.

I don't see why they even need to separate books either. I don't know why people would want to study. I think one of the best ways to studies a culture is to read the fiction that culture produces. There are a bunch of nuances that you could never get from an Ethnic studies books.

I noticed that as well. I think a lot of people are afraid of getting things wrong, but I've noticed that people are willing to help you get it right. I'd like to think that most authors who write things they don't necessarily have experience with.(like Stockett with The Help) I'd like to think she talked to African-Americans and did her research.

People are just afraid to take chances on things that they don't understand. But they need to this, or the market is going to get stale after this whole paranormal thing runs its course.

Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Vegetarian Cannibal said...

In every single one of my stories there is a main POC character. Period. I'm not budging on that. I haven't run into white washing personally (seeing how I'm just now doing single-title work) but if it were to come up, you better believe I'd pitch a fit. I would holler to everyone on the blogosphere, lol. I won't go down without a fight.

I heard about "The Help" too and I'm refusing to read it out of principle. Just no. I'm sick of this shit and I'm not going to support it with my money.

I thought the original cover was very pretty. The colors are very sensual and exciting. The new covers look like CRAP!

Najela said...

Many of my characters are also people of color. I've been making an effort to push myself into learning about new cultures. Most of my stories are fantasy, and I didn't realize how "important" ethnicity and race was to some people. I was just like "does it matter?" especially if a character looks African-American, she can't be if there is no such thing as Africa in her world. Now I'm debating whether ethnicity and our world equivalent is worth mentioning.

I liked "The Help" in a story telling sense. It's a good story (granted I didn't buy the book) with good characters. My biggest issue is all the publicity it's getting because the author is white. It's like Eminem. it's like this fascination with white people doing things that people consider "black". WTF? I don't get it. A Black person doing something white is seen as a threat, but when it's the other way around, people go gaga over it.

The original cover is beautiful and dynamic. The other cover is meh. I hope they come to their senses before it comes out.


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