Bloomsbury withdraws 'Magic Under Glass' cover after whitewashing

Ready for the FAIL news of the day? Here it is: Publisher Bloomsbury has come under fire for whitewashing the cover of one of its titles — for the second time in a year.

The controversy began less than a year ago, when readers discovered that Justine Larbalestier’s Liar — a book about a biracial high school student — had a white girl pictured on its jacket. Now, the publisher is facing ire once again for its cover of Jaclyn Dolamore’s Magic Under Glass, a fantasy novel with an African-American protagonist, which features a white woman on its jacket. Oof. (Says Bloomsbury via its website: “The jacket design has caused offense and we apologize for our mistake. Copies of the book with a new jacket design will be available shortly.”)

Larbalestier decided to chime in on the controversy on her blog: “It is not about the accuracy of covers on books. It’s not about blonde when the character is brunette, it’s not about the wrong length hair, or the wrong colour dress, it’s not even about thin for fat…Sticking a white girl on the cover of a book about a brown girl is not merely inaccurate, it is part of a long history of marginalisaton and misrepresentation. Publishers don’t randomly pick white models. It happens within a context of racism.”

Whether it was an honest mistake by the publisher or intentional (and many seem to  suspect it was intentional), the decision doesn’t paint a pretty picture of book marketing. After all, in our progressive day and age, even the thought that a cover with a white woman could be seen as more valuable and marketable than one featuring an African-American woman is horrific. And utterly befuddling to me.

How about you, Shelf Lifers?

Comments (38 total) Add your comment
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  • Momo

    Pretty grotesque news. I have trouble believing that this was a mere “mistake.” Unless they really don’t care about what types of books they are publishing and just randomly pick covers for whatever “genre” the book fits under.

    • Celia

      It’s definitely not a mistake. It’s deliberate and dumb.

  • castiella

    On the other hand, I never would have heard of either of these books if they hadn’t had this publicity, so…?

    • Momo

      I see your point. But if they actually feel happy that they got more money off of these books because of this press, then it just feels like they sold their soul to the devil. I dunno, there should still be some sort of line drawn in this moral quandry.

      • castiella

        Agreed. I’m just saying there’s a bit of karma here: The publishers look like jackasses; the authors get publicity. Silver lining?

      • Momo

        Yeah, you’re right. I just hope the publishers give a better apology than what’s on their site right now.

    • Bethann

      I totally get your point. But on the other OTHER hand, does any decent-hearted person or company really want the ‘publicity’ of, “Dude, that was pretty effin’ racist of you?” I think … not.

  • Lex

    I’ve actually read MAGIC UNDER GLASS, and the protagonist is not described as necessarily being African-American. Her skin is merely described as being darker than the rest of the characters, and her features are “exotic.” There’s no specific race attached to her.

    • loome

      The girl on the cover looks pretty Caucasian to me. Maybe a slight tan from being out on the beach…

      • Lex

        Oh, I’m certainly not condoning the cover. The article just got some of the information about the character wrong, and I felt like readers of the article should know that the girl in the book doesn’t have a “race” that easily equates with one of ours.

      • Momo

        Thanks for the accurate info Lex. In a way, that sort of makes this commentary more sad. That, if we assume the Publishers knew what the story is about and chose what cover it would have, they interpreted “exotic” and “dark” to be a nice beachy tan.

      • Momo

        Oh, and not blond.

  • Leslie

    I don’t know much of anything about the publishing world, but I’m a little surprised that the authors had no say in what the covers looked like (or even had the covers shown to them prior to release). This seems to either be 1) intentional by the publishing co. or 2) laziness by the publishing co. for just sticking a random cliche cover on a book based on its genre, without doing any actual research about the main character of the book it’s portraying. Either way, the publishing co. doesn’t come off well.

    • castiella

      Personally, I’m a bit curious as to how these covers got published without the authors stepping in to say “hello, my heroine is not a white chick” at all. I mean, even if they authors don’t get to APPROVE the cover, don’t they at least SEE it?

      • Tina Jordan

        You’d be surprised: Some authors don’t see the covers; others see only a sketch; not finished art. And only big-name authors get actual jacket approval.

      • Mandy

        If you’d ever worked in publishing, you’d know that authors almost have to be on the level of a Stephen King to get any say in covers whatsoever. The authors might have not have been happy, but there’s not a whole lot they can do.

      • kiki

        authors, espeically first time authors, have little to no say when it comes to what their covers look like. once they have sold a book to a publisher, the cover is now in their hands, not the author’s. it is the author’s job to write the book, and the publisher’s job to print said book. at the end of the day, it is not the fault of the author if the cover does not come out looking as it should, especially putting a white girl on the cover when the MC is a person of color. the author can scream all they want, but if the publisher says no, they can do nothing about it. BUT, if more people stand up to speak out on whitwashing covers, more can be done about it.

      • carin

        I disagree. My husband’s first novel was published in 2008 by William Morrow, and imprint of Harper Collins, and it was a very small book for them, with no marketing budget whatsoever, and hardly expected by them to be a blockbuster. He DEFINITELY had a say in the cover art.

    • Momo

      Based on Larbalestier’s blog post, it would seem that she was surprised by the cover. It doesn’t seem like she would have put that cover on her book without a fight.

    • primmy

      It’s a common misconception that the author is in control of the cover. The company does the cover, and yes, they generally show it to the author, but the author really doesn’t have any power over it except perhaps the power of persuasion. Plus, how much fuss is an author willing to put up over a cover, thereby earning a reputation as ‘difficult to deal with’ or ‘pushy?’ I have read an editor who said that they didn’t buy authors who were going to be difficult even if they liked the book. It’s easy to say you ought to stand up to them, like Conan O’Brien did with NBC, but, hey, it’s a lot easier to take a stand when you’re going to get $45 million dollars out of the deal, less easy when it means the publisher may not buy your next book.

    • maiv

      A lot of the time authors don’t have any say in that area. I know one writer who didn’t even get to keep her original book title and had to stick with what they wanted (she’s still pissed about that). Of course, that’s a lot different than having a white girl on the cover of a book with an African-American heroine.

  • kate

    I think this is distressing in two ways. I think that it is incredibly sad that Bloomsbury can even suggest this was a mistake because not only does it paint them as lazy and inconsiderate publishers but it is also almost impossible to believe. And of course more importantly, it is tragic that the publishing industry still views the world as a place where ‘white’ is more marketable. I think that Bloomsbury needs to apologize for more than an accident. They need to issue a statement acknowledging that what has happened with these book covers is undeniably racist and then they need to apologize for how deeply wrong they were in misrepresenting the novels and for the message they are sending out to their readership.

    • Bittu

      God Bless you Whitney! Thanks for mkiang this video. I’m a huge fan and I just want the best for her!

  • Jenn

    Hey – not that it is any excuse for a badly thought-out cover, but the main character of this book is NOT African-American. She’s from a never stated fictional fantasy country that seems to have elements of middle eastern, eastern european and far eastern cultures.

    • era

      Yeah…your argument was addressed a few comments up.

  • Laura

    First of all the mc in Magic Under Glass is NOT African American, she is from a made-up land and is described at being brownish, but exotic. So does that make everyone in the world African American if they’re brown? Get the facts straight!

    • Bethann

      I actually think this argument — “But she’s not African-American!” — misses the overall and significant point: When faced with a story about protagonists who are *not white*, publishers nevertheless default to white when coming up with the marketing scheme. You say that the character is described as being “brownish”. So why isn’t a brown-skinned woman depicted on the cover? Why was the choice of cover model a woman who is *obviously* white? *That’s* the issue Ms. Ward is really addressing in her post — that it’s questionable and problematic that publishing companies will default to a white face even when the protagonist of a book isn’t actually white, because underlying that decision is the idea — which is more than a little racist — that only white skin is marketable to anyone.

      • Jen

        Bethann, I think you have a point, but Laura has a point too–the character isn’t American at all. Let’s get our vocabulary straight so we’re all on the same page.

      • Jennifer

        It might be possible that Laura did indeed get the overall point, and yet wanted to address the fact that Ms. Ward’s article contained inaccurate information. I don’t think she was suggesting that this inaccuracy invalidated Ms. Ward’s argument, only that perhaps the author should have worded it more carefully.

    • Morgan

      The whole “it’s a fantasy world” argument really irritates me. I’ve heard it many times in the controversy around the casting for the upcoming “The Last Airbender” movie, and I don’t buy it any more now than I did before. It’s a flimsy excuse when it comes to changing the image of a character from dark skinned to light skinned. The action still clearly represents that whoever has decided to change the image thinks of white as more marketable and acceptable.

  • LisaMama

    OK, here’s some insider knowledge about book design from a senior art director at a publishing company:
    – some authors get to see and/or approve the cover artwork, and some don’t, depending on the contract they sign and how big of a name the author is (an unknown author has very little say-so in much of anything).
    – the best cover designers will actually read the book (or at least read a summary), and try to base the design on the feel/tone of the story, as well as base the design on who the target audience is for the book. For example, a romance novel will look dramatically different than a thriller, and a romance novel aimed at 60 year old women will look different than one aimed at teenagers.
    – it is shocking that a well-established publishing company would do something so stupid on these covers. Obviously, somebody dropped the ball on these.

  • J

    Hanlon’s Razor says, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” I’ll take the publisher’s word that it’s a mistake. They need to be more careful in the future.

    • anonymous

      There’s also a saying about “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice…” I’d buy that for the first cover, while it’s NOT an excuse for their behavior, might be an instance of one company being called out for something that’s an industry-wide practice. (Again, good for people speaking up, and other publishers need to take note.) However unless this cover was designed before the other fiasco, you’d think Bloomsbury would have more sense than to do it twice in a year.

  • Lee Wind

    What’s really disturbing is that as we look into this, it’s not an isolated incident. I posted about this today and people are bringing up new examples of this “white washing” in comments! There’s even a kids series where one of the characters is dark skinned in all the interior illustrations, and white skinned on the cover.
    Thanks for spreading the word! (my post on this is at http://www.leewind.org

  • Tiffany

    Kensington Brava does it too: http://www.kensingtonbooks.com/finditem.cfm?itemid=16866, The heroine is blsck in this book. Many publishers do this. In many cases to avoid controversy, the publishers will create a cover without people just so they don’t have to include an ethnic character. At least, I assume that’s why. I wish a reporter would serioudly research this. I would like to know how much this is done, and pointedly question the publishers. No one has to explain themselves anymore.

  • Lia

    It doesn’t shock me but it is inaccurate. I tend to prefer books that don’t have people on the covers at all but I even noticed when I was younger that they would whitewash characters on cover art because I remember pointing it out to my mom- because it was confusing!

  • BernieKeating

    My guess? Probably hadn’t read the book.

  • Sabine

    Most authors don’t have a choice about their cover. But the publisher’s sales department has a LOT of input on cover choice because they are the ones who think they know what bookstores (and consumers) will buy. SOMEONE in this process must have known the ethnicity of the protagonist. What’s hard for me to imagine is that the author never saw the cover after it was designed but before the book was published.

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