I held off on writing up this week’s post because I knew we were about to release the cover art for my second book, Infidel, and I wanted to speak about how both the covers for God’s War and Infidel came to be.
Most writers are stuck with their cover art. It is what it is. If you’re lucky, you get to say something like, “Can that white chick with the sword on my cover actually have brown eyes or something? I mean, she’s supposed to be hispanic.” Or you can say, “Can she have a bigger sword?” But there are all sorts of things that happen with covers. Spaceships end up on books that don’t even feature spaceships. Protagonists of the “wrong” gender end up on the front – for marketing purposes.
But if you write the sorts of books I do, which posit worlds that aren’t teeming with white people, more often than not what you end up with is something like what Justine Larbalestier went through, which is that not only does your cover not feature your protagonist, but your brown protagonist magically becomes a white one for “marketing purposes.”
To me, this goes beyond just slapping a spaceship on the cover of a book that doesn’t have spaceships. It’s white washing books, and worlds, and the genre. And it annoys the crap out of me, because it’s an epic failure of imagination in a genre that’s supposed to be all about positing something really different.
I never actually thought white-washing would be a possibility for me, because, you know, there was only one actual white character in my entire book, and he was sort of incidental. All my cover sketches looked great. I asked to have a slightly more buff heroine, as the first was kinda skinny, but in the sketch, her skin tone looked right, and I was pretty happy overall. I had a bad-ass brown heroine, just the way she was in the books. But when my publisher released the initial cover painting on Facebook, I was shocked to find that my brown heroine had… well, turned out a little different from the sketch:
To Night Shade’s credit (and the artist’s, David Palumbo), they responded immediately to my concerns and revised the cover so my protagonist actually looked more like she did in the book. Brown and all.
Big difference, right? But here’s the part that’s important: most authors have NO SAY IN THIS WHATSOEVER. A bigger house would have likely laughed at me and said, “You know, we’ll sell more books with a white chick on the cover.” Though likely not in those terms. What you’d likely hear is: “Well, this is just the convention” or “Most readers want to read about someone they can relate to”(!?).
It might seem like a small change to folks who kinda take white chicks on covers for granted, or for folks who actually think authors have any say in this (again, read Justine’s post - it will make you cringe). But it was a BIG deal for me to make sure this heroine was the right color. I was tired of a boring, white-washed future. We talk big in SF/F about how mindblowing-happy-go-lucky-equality-imaginative we are, but then we run off and create these boring, white-Euro-centric futures that all start to sound – and look! – the same.
Another issue that was important to me with covers was to ensure that I had a strong protagonist on the front. In particular, a strong FEMALE protagonist. Who wasn’t wearing leather pants or falling out of her top. I got that in this one, and felt pretty confident about what the next one would be.
Unfortunately, my vision of how the heroine was going to be portrayed was a bit at odds with how other folks thought she should be in book 2. Infidel puts our strong heroine in a bit of a bind, and there was much debate about whether or not she should be portrayed in a prone position or not. I won’t share the initial sketch of the cover, as I don’t have permission, but suffice to say that it looked something like this, with our heroine in the prone position:
To me, this was wrong in a lot of ways for my particular heroine. We like to put women in peril because it’s easier to trigger an emotional reaction from people. Unfortuantely, you start putting your badass heroine in positions like these, and suddenly this character you worked so hard to make into a badass looks like just another woman in need in saving.
After much back-and-forth, David Palumbo created this fine cover for Infidel:
I still had some concerns about it (the heroine looks like an entirely different person to me, and I worried over some of the race politics with my male protagonist there, though looking at the journey he undergoes in the book and their relationship, it does fit the tone of the book), but overall, this cover was far more in the spirit of the type of book it was.
The process with Infidel was a good lesson in why it was better for me to go with a smaller press for these books. Night Shade did actually listen to and respond to my feedback – bigger houses aren’t likely to pull a sketch unless you’re a Big Name or something. I got a lot of input, yes, but I also felt strongly enough about the issues I had with both covers to make a fuss.
And let’s say it right now: sometimes you have to make a fuss. In the case of both of my issues with the initial concepts for these peices, my issues are big enough that I needed to state them head on. No writer wants to be the “trouble” author. You know, that prima donna who complains about every damn thing and emails their editor ten times a day. But on the big stuff, it’s worth taking a stand, even if you don’t “win.”
Because, even if I’d ended up with white chicks and/or dead heroines on my cover, at least I could tell people I had fought to change it. Sometimes I wonder if the white chicks on covers thing has just as much to do with authors not fighting over changes and/or not talking openly about it to audiences as it does with marketing “conventions” (i.e. racist/sexist assumptions).
I was really passionate about not ending up with white, powerless women on my covers. Whether or not I sell less books because of it… well, you know what? I have a day job. I’m in a position where I can actually afford to fight for a position that I believe to be right, to change a convention. And if somebody like me isn’t willing to stand up and say something, who will? It’s a lot more difficult to argue when you rely on book sales to eat.
Sometimes I cherish the fact that I’m not a professional fiction writer.
Man, never thought I’d say that.