Cover Talk

Recently there has been a lot of talk, and quite rightly, about the publishing practice of whitewashing covers – that is, taking a character who is described in the text as not being white and then putting a white-appearing person who is meant to represent that character on the cover. Most recently, the blogs have been talking about MAGIC UNDER GLASS, by Jaclyn Dolamore, where the publishers Bloomsbury did this very thing.

Responders were generally outraged by this, although there were a few people of the “but white people are the only people who sell on covers so therefore making a dark-skinned character light-skinned on the cover is okay” stripe who I do not want to bother with (which is why comments on this post will be screened). Even were this true, which no one has proved to my satisfaction, economics do not equal ethics. There is no way for the putative economic benefit of whitewashing to justify the ethical harm it does in visually erasing people of colour from the fictional worlds they inhabit.

But there was one response from people who were justifiably angry that I do not think was practical, and that was the expectation that the author should have spoken up publicly and denounced this cover. Even if, these people said, even if authors really have no control over their covers and it’s all the publisher’s doing, she should make a stand!

This is roughly equivalent to expecting someone who has just acquired their dream job to curse their boss for doing something wrong. In front of a packed press room. While the boss is standing beside them on the podium.

Economics do not equal ethics, but I think it is important to consider how much we demand of people who could endanger their livelihood and their futures by speaking out. Great change has been made by brave people who have spoken out on social injustices committed by their employers, but they paid and paid and paid for it. There is real and substantial risk, and it is sometimes hard to gauge the cost-benefits to society of taking it, especially when we are talking about someone who wrote a story about a woman of colour who could well end up unable to do so ever again if she is decided to be a troublemaker not worth publishing.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. Following the outcry of determined and entirely justified people who spoke out against racism, Bloomsbury will republish the cover, with a new model who resembles the description of the main character more closely. I applaud this decision, even as I am disappointed and angry about the terrible mistake that made it necessary.

Anyway, I do not so much want to talk about Jaclyn’s cover as to discuss mine. I know, I’m such an egoist! But I thought I could perhaps shed some light on the process of cover creation and the social justice implications and authorial control thereof via the creation of my Australian/New Zealand cover*.

Okay, so that’s the cover that will appear on shelves. (There are some things to note about this being a slim, white-appearing, sort of unclothed girl, which I will get to later.)

Just to remind people, or inform newcomers (hi!) Guardian of the Dead is a book set in New Zealand/Aoteoroa that depends a great deal upon Māori mythology as the guiding supernatural force of the land (there are others – it’s an “all stories can be true depending on belief” narrative – but that’s the major influence). A lot of the book is concerned with how the white protagonist handles the reality of those myths.

Here was the first potential cover I saw:

My screams, they were heard from space.

Here is the email I sent my editors after I had run up and down the stairs gibbering for a while.

I hope you can put this diplomatically to the designer, but I’m going to be direct here, because it makes me very uncomfortable: there is absolutely no way you can put tā moko on an apparently-white girl’s face, especially with a pattern he just made up, and have that not be incredibly racist. Moko is something people earn the right to wear; women don’t traditionally get full-face tattoos; they’re traditional designs usually applied by someone who has trained in the art, conveying ancestry and achievements (not random patterns); and Pākehā desires to wear moko or “Māori-inspired” body art are controversial at best. That cover is really inappropriate.

Then I clicked send and had an anxiety attack. Good times!

I was freaked, readers. I have alluded briefly above to how much control first-time authors have over cover decisions, and the reality is, none whatsoever. Sometimes publishers give authors some say, but they are very rarely obliged to by the terms of their contract, and often they don’t. Every imprint of every publisher will have a different response, and often it’s not even the publisher who has the final say – the book buyers for big chains might want something different and then BAM new cover ahoy.

I know authors who have provided a cover brief and get something almost exactly like or even better than they wanted. I know authors who have got the first look at their cover after it had gone to the printers (sometimes they were happy, sometimes not), or who were shown a cover and told “It’s going to be our catalogue cover! The catalogue goes to press in three days. ANY COMMENTS NO EXCELLENT.” Ursula LeGuin had to cope with crappy white-washed covers of her books for years until she was in a position where, as a bankable talent, she was able to leverage a little more control over what went on the book.

My point is that my publishers could have made me eat this cover, and then my choices would have been to swallow and say “mmmm!” or vomit in public and get branded as a disloyal spew monster, who, incidentally, had already signed a contract to deliver a second book. I cannot even imagine how uncomfortable that could have been, much less the damage it could have done to my career, and I honestly don’t know what I would have chosen to do. And I knew all this when I wrote that email, and I was really, really scared.

But my editors, who are awesome, wrote back and said thank you for explaining! They would go in a different direction. Afterwards they confirmed that they had already been uneasy about the implications of using tā moko, and would have consulted with an authority before proceeding in any case. But my explanation had made it sufficiently clear that this design would be a bad idea. That was the end of the racist cover.

Ethical publisher, awesome editors, happy ending! But wait. Wasn’t there a thing about implications I wanted to talk about?

Right. This is a conversation slightly different to the one I was participating in above, and I want to make that divide clear. The one above is about racism; the one below is going to be about the tyranny of conventional beauty standards (which intersect with, but do not solely comprise, racism).

As you can see the cover of the book features a slender red-haired lady whose visible skin is white. She is the antagonist. The protagonist, who narrates the story, is a fat blonde white girl who is not viewed as pretty in the society she lives in. Ellie is six feet tall, overweight, flat-chested, and pimply, with skin she describes as “more skim milk than cream”. She does not have the sort of features conventionally regarded as deformities (scars, facial growths, etc), but neither is she anything but (again, conventionally) plain. She has long, straight blonde hair that she regards as the only pretty thing about her.

(It is incidentally difficult to accurately convey her appearance to readers because the story is told from her PoV, and most readers who have spoken to me about this have assumed that a lot of her self-assessment is based on typical teenage-girl low self-esteem about her body image. In my opinion Ellie is more or less accurate regarding her looks. She is also more or less okay with them, and becomes more so – she has moments of doubt, because when you’re a non-attractive woman in a culture that prizes very narrow beauty standards it’s hard not to, and she sometimes worries about how much space she takes up in the world, but she is on the whole more concerned about other things.)

The person on the cover does actually exist in the book, so this is not a case of pretending that this skinny person is Ellie and thus misrepresenting a character who is not attractive by Western standards. Although the cover person is not actually white, she textually appears so and passes as such for half the book, [SPOILERS] being half-Māori, and half-patupaiarehe, (but identifying as patupaiarehe) a species that is canonically pale-skinned. So it’s not whitewashing either. (Though it also doesn’t actually help correct the lack of visible characters of colour on book covers.)

But what it is is a very conventionally attractive woman (by Western standards) on the cover of a book told from the perspective of a young woman who is not. I, and my editors, and a lot of people in the book world, think this is in general very problematic. I am going to explain a little bit about how it happened in this case, but I want to establish that I am not trying to excuse what the cover is. It’s right there; pretty lady on the cover to entice the potential reader.

We wanted Ellie on the cover.

The first problem was that a search for “strong+girl” in the picture libraries brought up many many pictures of girls in bikinis hugging their boyfriend’s biceps.

The second problem was that organising a photo shoot with a model would have been both expensive and risky – it’s hard to get something like that right, and it’s hard to throw it away if it’s not right when you’ve spent so much on it already.

The third problem, which I kept in my heart, is that I did not believe a model could be found through any customary channels – even one of the right physical proportions – who wasn’t pretty. I felt that putting a big woman who was pretty on the cover and saying “This is Ellie” would have been a misrepresentation and a betrayal.

So my publishers showed me the cover, and said, do you like it? And I said yes, because I do. It’s creepy and mysterious, just like the woman it features, and like the mood of the book. We would all have preferred big, strong Ellie on the cover, but the entirety of established cultural expectations was working against it, and frankly, we gave in. Mine is a debut novel, from a non-established author. No one ever told me this, but I suspect a search for the exactly right cover might have taken more money than was worth risking on my work.

As far as visually standing against tyrannical and misogynistic beauty standards goes, this cover is a failure. What I hope is that the cover, which is very pretty, will help get a fat, not-pretty protagonist into the hands of readers who will find a book where she is shown to be worthy of love, friendship, and respect (and hopefully think she is as awesome as I do). Economics is not ethics, but sometimes we compromise, trying to be as ethical as we can within economical demands.

I have nothing but respect for my Australian editors (and my American editors!). I think Allen and Unwin is a fine house, and that I am lucky to be with them, not least because as soon as I sent my objections to the moko cover, they said, “You are right.” I am disappointed that this cover is not something else, but I am happy with what it is, especially in comparison to what it could have been.

The US cover, by the way, avoided all of these issues entirely by going with an iconic cover featuring the mask that plays a big part in the book. I like that cover a lot. But I hope that my talking about the ANZ cover has exposed a little of the complexity and compromise in the ethics of cover creation.

* Incidentally? When I started thinking about writing this post, I emailed my Australian editors telling them that I planned to do so, and asking if they had any concerns. I am not so brave that I will stand on a podium and shout either.

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They Made Cake!

Dear internets, as you may know, because I mention it every ten minutes, my debut novel is coming out in April. Advanced Reading Copies are e’en now in the hands of librarians, booksellers and reviewers. I regard this process with some apprehension. I never thought I would be the kind of writer who suddenly backtracks: “Oh no, no need to read the book! It is enough that it exists! I don’t want anyone to strain themselves by actually passing their eyes over the words.”

Sadly, it turns out I am exactly that kind of writer! Happily, this is out of my hands.

Yesterday, I woke up to an email from a young woman whose librarian mother had acquired a Guardian of the Dead ARC, and then passed it on to her. She read it, liked it (!) and then passed it on to the friends in her book club (!!!). These five girls read their single copy of my book in turn in order to discuss it with each other.

I have never been more honoured in my life.

Oops, I am tearing up a bit now, and that won’t do, because I am not even at the BEST bit. The BEST bit is that their book club, Let Them Eat Cake, likes to read and discuss books, and then bake a cake inspired by them.


Internets, you cannot imagine my joy at the notion that my work had prompted smart, thoughtful teenagers to creativity. I attempted to express this to Let Them Eat Cake via email, but then last night I got to thinking that perhaps this wasn’t enough.

So, in an attempt to answer in kind, I created Cupcakes of Gratitude.

Girls, thank you so much. No matter what happens with my work in the near or distant future, here is something that no one will ever be able to take away from me. I hope it was delicious.

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Books Coming Out This Year That I Know Are Awesome (Because I Have Read Them)

One of the perks of being about-to-be published that I didn’t know about, but feel should be more widely publicised, is that sometimes people give you books. Sometimes, people give you books that have not even been published yet and then you make small yipping sounds because you want to tell EVERYONE IN THE WORLD to buy these books, but everyone in the world can’t have them yet! And you struggle endlessly with the conundrum thus presented, viz: would it be so wrong to torment your blog readers with thoughts of books they cannot yet read?

I have decided it would not.

Very minor spoilers for A Love Story: Starring my Dead Best Friend, The Demon’s Lexicon and The Demon’s Covenant.

So there is a smart, funny, sad contemporary YA book by Emily Horner called A Love Story: Starring My Dead Best Friend, and I imagine a bunch of you just went, “It’s called WHAT? I’m buying it.” That is because you have taste! But in case you need more convincing, I have prepared the following dialogue between myself and the world.

WORLD: Karen, what do you like?
KAREN: I like amateur theatre! And teenagers. And wit. Also, coming out stories and identity struggles and coping with grief and the feeling of being left out of your group of friends because they have things in common that you don’t. Also, cute love stories!
WORLD: Oh, well, this book has all of that. And a cross-country road trip. On a bike. With a tupperware container of human ashes.
KAREN: Does it?
WORLD: And the heroine’s a Quaker.
KAREN: Sold!

There you go. More about this fabulous book here.

There is another book called The Demon’s Covenant, which is actually a sequel to a book already out, called The Demon’s Lexicon, by Sarah Rees Brennan.

I was suspicious about The Demon’s Lexicon because I had heard it was told from the PoV of a romantically brutal Byronic dude who DID NOT CARE, SO HARD, and I find those guys boring enough when they are merely there to dazzle the heroine. I couldn’t comprehend being more entertained by his side of the story.

I was somewhat misled.

KAREN: So you are a tall dark and handsome broody bad boy. Next you’ll be telling me that you stoically resist having emotional connections!
NICK: I don’t have to stoically resist that.
KAREN: *pfft*
NICK: Because I don’t have them. People are baffling and stupid. I don’t even like Mum.
KAREN: Huh. Well, your mum appears to be a creepy crazy ex-murderer who is continually hunted by magicians trying to kill you all.
NICK: *shrug*
KAREN: … interesting. And this brother of yours? You’re saying that you wouldn’t care if anything happened to him?
NICK: Are you threatening Alan?
KAREN: No! No! Put that sword away!
ALAN: I will calm down this situation while manipulating it to my hidden goals!
JAMIE: I will make brilliant jokes out of nervousness at the strong probability that I will die!
MAE: I will be practical and brave and QUEEN OF THE UNIVERSE in the quest to save my little brother!
KAREN: I will put this book in my column on my favourite YA SFF books of the decade.

So that’s The Demon’s Lexicon, which is out now, go read it AT ONCE. You can read the first chapter at Sarah’s site.

Now, The Demon’s Covenant is told from the point of view of MAE, QUEEN OF THE UNIVERSE, as she struggles with difficult sort-of boyfriends, the dangers of demons, her perfectly polished and SEKRITLY BADASS mother, and her adorable little brother, who seems determined to find the biggest midden pile and hurl himself into it headfirst in every possible situation. It is so great.

I especially admire so so much what Sarah does with PoV stuff here, because, for example, Nick from Mae’s PoV is very different from Nick from his own PoV. And yet he is still recognisable as the Nick we already know, *and* recognisable as a character undergoing development, which is a very neat trick for a character with Nick’s unique approach to interpersonal relationships.

So that’s why you should read Lexicon and get Covenant in May! And nary a major spoiler. I am awesome.

There is one more book I am going to talk about, by – TEASER – Stephanie Burgis – but this post is already umpty-gazillion words long, and I have to finish this chapter I am writing with hot fairy almost-kissing, which Stephanie herself is jonesing for.

Oh, that is another bonus of publishing! Sometimes those people who give you books before they are out? They read yours too.

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The winner of last time’s juvenilia extension project was undoubtedly Matt Cowens, whose spectacular essay on the brilliance of my adolescent poetry earned him a prize I’m still contemplating. It starts with “Reminiscent of Coleridge’s earlier works,” for goodness’ sake. Points off for misspelling my name, but at the very least he deserves an internet, and your eyes on his awesome sci-fi Christmas story, The Death Star of New Bethlehem.

Today’s offering is the (very short) first chapter of a novel of which I never wrote more. This is a very common genre of my teen years – I think I was probably 16 or 17 when I wrote this – so I offer this representative sample of my early fantasy chops. The best part, which I can’t really reproduce here, is how I evidently went through and added adverbs where I felt their absence was leaving the prose sort of naked.

~ * ~ * ~

The woman stood at the centre of the circle and probed delicately the crystal in her hands. She was certain that the power within it could be released, strange and other-worldy as it seemed. Almost absently, she pulled more power from the circle, and heard the chanting increase.

She found the hollow centre of the crystal and poured all the power she could gather into that well. Suddenly a picture flared into her mind. She smiled. Progress.

The image was one of a plain door with a heavily ornamented lock. She was standing before it (much more beautiful than in reality, she noted with amusement) holding a key that flared with light.

The dream-her put the key in the lock and firmly turned it. Alarmed, the woman suddenly saw a black pentagram flare onto the door and tried to pull back from the spell. But it was too late. Caught, the dream-woman turned the handle — and opened the door.

The woman had but one glimpse of what was beyond before her mind exploded into gibbering terror. This was wrong, unclean! Pulling on reserves she hadn’t suspected she possessed, she wrenched herself back to reality, collapsing onto the soft grass with a howl.

The circle instantly dissolved, rushing to the prone body. Supporting hands helped her sit, anxious eyes flinched back from the black despair in hers. She pushed them all away and stood. Then she told them what had happened in her trance. The horrified silence that followed her story was completely justified.

~ * ~ * ~

Very suspenseful, younger self! There are also some doodles of a bull head or maybe a jackal head in the margins. I do not even know.

Photo credit:

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Good News Day

Things You Want to Hear From Your Editor About Your Latest Manuscript:

So you seem to have written another thrilling, tense novel – with a goodly dollop of URST and very appealing characters. How extraordinarily clever of you!

Thank you, S. I think you’re neat!

What else do I think is neat, could it be…. MY AUSTRALIAN/NEW ZEALAND COVER?

Wait, that wasn’t very patriotic of me.


(ETA: I should note that this might not be the final-FINAL cover.)

That’s from the Allen and Unwin catalogue page for Guardian of the Dead, where you can also find out exciting things like the price as well as poke around many other fine books.


Would you like to know an Interesting Fact about the person on the cover? That isn’t the protagonist! Mmmm, mysterious redheads.

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About Karen

Karen Healey is a young adult author from New Zealand.

Her first book, Guardian of the Dead, debuts April 1st, 2010.

She likes World of Warcraft, movies about cheerleaders, and tripartite sentences. You can learn more at her biography and FAQ.

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