Jul 2, 2010

A Short Note on Being Busy, Work, and Whitewashed Covers

You know what makes me feel incredibly guilty? Continuing to update my blog when I've barely had time to open Google Reader or respond to comments all week. Possibly this is silly, but I can't help it. So I'm going to say sorry and promise to do my best to at least catch up with responding to comments over the weekend.

The reason why I've been busy is because yesterday was the culmination of the work I've been doing for nine months. As some of you might now, I work as an archivist at a museum, and my job consists of reading, summarising and cataloguing the letters and personal papers of a local writer who died some years ago. Yesterday was the opening of an exhibition that displays my most interesting finds to date (like, say, letters from Simone de Beauvoir and Graham Greene). The best bit was meeting the writer's incredibly energetic 90-year-old sister, especially after having read so many of her letters.

And because important things continue to happen even when I don't get to be online, let me ask you a question: What do you think happens when a multicultural fantasy title doesn't sell? Apparently the publisher decides that the only possible explanation is that the book is "too Asian" and repackages it in a bland, generic cover that makes the protagonist's race ambiguous at best and disguises the book's cultural context. In addition to all the ways in which this is enormously problematic, it's also insulting to readers. I resent the implication that we need to be tricked into reading stories about people of colour and cultures other than our own; that we need covers that mislead us and don't tell us what kind of book we're getting.

The assumption that it was Silver Phoenix's Asian cover that caused the poor sales - rather than, say, the fact that big chains like Borders didn't even carry it - is also very telling. But Jodie talks about this much more eloquently than I could, so I'll just point you towards her post. Make sure you also read the author Cindy Pon's thoughts on the matter. Many thanks to Renay for bringing this to my attention.

43 comments:

  1. Congratulations on the culmination of your work! How exciting to meet the writer's sister not to mention see and touch and read letters from Simone d Beauvoir and Graham Green. Letter writing is such a dying art and that makes me sad.

    White-washing book covers also makes me sad. Ugh.

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  2. That's very shocking but, sadly, not that surprising. There's still such a long way to go.

    I wonder if the Harry Potter books would have been as popular if the main character had been called Harriet Potter, for instance?

    Your job sounds absolutely wonderful!

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  3. A HUGE congratulations on your work, and also on meeting the writer's sister. How fun. Very sad about the AGAIN whitewashing on a cover... I didn't realize that the big chain stores weren't carrying it, pretty sure that would have a bigger impact on sales, just saying!

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  4. I cannot imagine how fulfilling it must be to see the end product of all your hard work, AND being able to meet the author's sister! This is real life here! I think that trumpets anything we are doing here. So no guilt! As far as the white-washing, it is so close-minded to think that the multicultural cover was the problem. Somebody needs to get a clue.

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  5. Take it easy! No need to feel guilty for not replying to comments :)

    Congrats on the culmination of your work - it sounds fascinating.

    As for the new Silver Phoenix's cover, I say: ugh *bangs head against desk in frustration*. The Asian girl in the hot pink robe at least looked vibrant and energetic, what's with all this gloomy black?

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  6. In comment to your intro, I've been guilty b/c I'm t..r...y...i...n..g to keep up with my reader & have totally let the blog go. I'm three reviews behind... ugh.

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  7. I saw Jodie's post on this. Once again, the publishing world is being idiotic. Frankly, everyone I know who read that book both loved the cover and the story. I thought the cover was beautiful, but the story wasn't really the sort of book I like, so I never got it. These new covers are just insulting though!

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  8. I bet it's very fulfilling to see the fruits of your labor come together like that. Forget about your Reader and mark all as read. We totally understand.

    I do not get the white-washing of covers at all. It just infuriates me.

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  9. Oh, and PS - I'm glad your exhibition went well. :)

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  10. I'm curious: was the sister like you imagined her from her letters?

    I wonder too what is the hiring criteria for publishers? Perhaps that's where changes need to be made!!!

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  11. ou shouldn't feel guilty, although I know exactly how you feel.

    And congratulations on the culmination of your work. It must've been very nice to meet the sister. And I know I've said this before, but your work sounds so interesting..

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  12. The exhibition sounds great. Congratulations! So very exciting.

    And to the publisher I say, grrr. sometimes the stupidity of publishers is astounding.

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  13. Your job sounds fascinating, and it must be great to see your hard work coming to fruition with this exhibit. Too bad I live so far from Portugal! :-)

    I am saddened by the publisher's assumption that the book wasn't selling because it looked "too Asian." I've been told it's just very hard to market YA novels, especially if there are no vampires involved; it's a very competitive market.

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  14. It is absolutely insulting to readers- how dare they think that I, random white girl, isn't going to identify with a heroine of color, and how do they think they're going to sell if they keep short-changing them? That's the exact reason I actually bought a copy of The Gaslight Dogs.

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  15. I already commented on Jodie's about this, so I will just say here- YAY about your work going well :-) And continue to be sad about white-washing.

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  16. Oh, life does get so busy sometimes doesn't it? I've been lamenting for over a year now as I've struggled to keep up with blogging as family life and work has become more demanding of my time. My reading time has been less as well and I get a bit grumpy when I feel deprived in that area. Anyway, all that to say "I understand"!

    The project you've been working on sounds fascinating! I don't know if I've mentioned it before, but I'm excited for your plans to go to library school. Isn't that funny that we call it library school? Do any other graduate programs refer to themselves that way?

    I'll have to pop over to Jodie's place and read her post on Silver Phoenix. Hadn't heard about this yet.

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  17. HOW INTERESTING!!! Sorry for the caps, but I think I want a job just like yours when I grow up. :)))

    As for the whitewashing: UGG! Ugg, ugg, ugg! I actually have that one; I received an ARC, but I didn't read it because I swore off YA fantasy for a long time. Like you, I resent the fact that pubs think we need to be tricked into reading stories centered in cultures other than the reader's own. What a crock!

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  18. Augh! Someone actually went and did this again?? After all the negative feedback that this got before?? I find it horrible and terribly demeaning. Sometimes the publishing industry just takes things too far, and it makes me quite angry.

    Also, very cool about your exhibition being open! I know that you have been working really hard getting everything in order. Congratulations!!

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  19. Your work looks quite fascinating, Ana! It must be wonderful to actually hold those letters and read them and then talk to the writer's sister. I have to envy you :) What is this writer's name, whose correspondence you had archived?

    On the cover change of 'Silver Phoenix' I have to say that I am extremely disappointed. The subtitle of the book says 'Beyond the Kingdom of Xia' which clearly indicates that the story is set during the Xia dynasty, which is the earliest known dynasty in Chinese history. I don't know how whitewashing a cover which has a title like this, will help. I read all the articles / posts at the links that you had given and it looks like the the cover is being changed because the bookstores refused to stock the book. That is really sad! How do bookstores know what will sell and what won't sell, unless they stock the books and check it out? Another thought comes to my mind - Alexander McCall Smith wrote his 'The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency' series which is set in Botswana and all characters in the story are people of colour from Botswana. The covers show the picture of the heroine correctly - in all her dark glory. It hasn't prevented the books of the series from selling like hotcakes. Is that because Alexander McCall Smith is not an author of 'colour'? So do the publishers / bookstores have a problem only when the writer and the character on the book cover are of the same 'colour'? This is all very sad and deeply disappointing!

    Having said this, I am actually excited to read 'Silver Phoenix'. It looks like an exciting new series set in China and as someone who loves the Kungfu novels of Jin Yong (Louis Cha), I can't wait to get hold of a copy of 'Silver Phoenix' :)

    I recently got a novel called 'Beneath the Lion's Gaze' written by an Ethiopian author called Maaza Mengiste. It had the picture of an Ethiopian boy on the cover. I am glad that the publishers didn't whitewash it. I hope the book sells well.

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  20. I forgot to say one more thing :) Congratulations on the culmination of your work and on your successful exhibition!

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  21. If this trend were true, then how were The Joy Luck Club and Memoirs of a Geisha such big sellers? Pooh.

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  22. Congratulations on all your hard work. Sounds so interesting!

    As for the cover, I have to say that I think things get white washed for a reason. No one wants to admit it, but I think that ethnicity in media still has a long way to go. While it is becoming more common to see "ethnic stories" being told, I think it is far less common for people to accept ethnic looking people in film and print. Take the BBC show Merlin for example: The show is obviously not trying to go for the traditional Camelot/Arthur story and they cast Angel Coulby as Guinevere. I keep seeing people really upset about casting someone who does not fit the ethnic background of Guinevere. I don't have a problem with it because they aren't trying to be historically accurate in the show.

    There is definitely a lack of non-White models and actors in media I think partially because the public demands it this way (according to the law of supply and demand). They consume more whitewashed media than not so it is more available. It is up to people to be vocal (like this discussion and others that are taking place) to help change why this is so. I for one would like to see more ethnicities represented in media being multiethnic myself. It's difficult growing up thinking you are limited by what you look like.

    I hope I didn't offend anyone. I am just trying to be realistic about the issue. Sad, but true.

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  23. Carin: Don't worry, you haven't offended me! I do find what you're saying problematic, though, especially this: "They consume more whitewashed media than not so it is more available." Could it not be the other way around? There's a self-fulfilling prophecy going around, according to which "the public" wants white faces on their book covers, films, TV series, etc; therefore, they're more widely available, and because they're more widely available, we consume them more. It's a vicious circle, really, and we can't really know what comes first - what is the cause and what is the consequence. We can't really conduct reliable market studies because this is the only world we have: a world in which non-white faces are constantly erased. When the world of media, marketing and entertainment works based on these assumptions, it's really hard to measure how true they actually are, you know? I don't think people don't want to admit that there's a long way to go when it comes to ethnicity in media - I think we ARE admitting it, and that's exactly why these things come up. And more important than a pure business perspective is the fact that this hurts real human beings and tells them they don't matter. I have a problem with adopting a "Non-white faces don't sell - sad, but true" attitude because in reality that amounts to apathy. If we assume that white is what sells and that we'll have to wait until what "the public wants" to change to introduce diversity, things will actually *never* change. Change never happens on its own. People in positions of power do have a bit of a responsibility to introduce change NOW. Perhaps if they do so, they'll be surprised to see how wrong their initial assumptions about "the public" were. Of course, consumers also have the power to use their money to support diverse books, films, and so on.

    To everyone else, I'm not ignoring you! I'll catch up with responding to comments tomorrow. It's just that Carin's got me thinking and so I replied now :P

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  24. Yay Ana!! I'm so glad that the presentation went well :D I want to hear more about meeting her sister!! I think that's so awesome!!

    About the whitewashing...I'm so angry about it :( I hadn't even heard of the book until Renay emailed me and drew my attention to it, but as soon as I did, I ordered it and just received my copy of the book with that gorgeous cover today. The UNwhitewashed one. The original. The story sounds incredible. The publishers want to say that "oh it didn't sell so it must be the cover" NO!!! Did they ever think it's because they didn't put the marketing behind this non-white fantasy book like they do, say, Twilight? They didn't do their normal blog tours and PR and cardboard cutouts and etc, etc...because THEY assumed no one else would want something different. But look at Liar! The publishing industry put a beautiful black girl on the cover of that book when we demanded change and it's done wonderful! The world has accepted that book. I see it turned out and doing well in bookstores all the time. /rant

    And one more thing...don't apologize for being busy!!! It happens to everyone ;)

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  25. I think the attitude of "Non-white faces don't sell--sad but true" should NOT be accepted for sure! I hope that people stand up and do what they are doing--complain about white washing book covers.

    I had this conversation about "ethnic looking" people in film just the other day because of The Last Airbender and their choice to cast a non-Asian actor in the lead and Asian/Polynesian actors in the bad guy roles. A lot of people are calling for a boycott to the movie because of it. I think things like this need to happen for change to occur.

    I just pointed out to my friend that it wasn't so long ago that interracial couples in film didn't really exist. I mean, Spike Lee directed Jungle Fever just 20 years ago. I mean, 1991 wasn't exactly the Dark Ages, but interracial couples weren't that common in television and film back then. Even now, I feel like it's just becoming more common to see this. I think the US lags in this respect as well. UK shows that are available in the US (at least the ones I watch) are much more likely to show interracial couples than American shows are. I don't think things will change unless people speak up.

    That being said, I think we are sort of talking about different things. I think book covers should show true depictions of the book rather than swapping out a person of color for one that is not even though the character is a person of color. My argument is that I as a half-Asian, half-Hispanic/Chicana/Latina would like to see actors and characters in roles where their color/ethnicity is not integral to the storyline. There are some roles, but few. I like my background. I celebrate it. I want to read literature and enjoy shows that celebrate it. However, I'm also American and want to be seen as American as well. I want to see people of "color" in roles where their color is not a topic of discussion (like my previous comment with Angel Coulby being Guinevere in Merlin--I LOVE THAT!). It's becoming more common, but I think we have a long way to go.

    It's part of why I read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi. Oftentimes, the characters color/ethnicity is incidental to the plot which I love.

    Does that make sense? (Sorry my rant is somewhat off-topic...I just think the ethnic issue is a huge one in this country)

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  26. You have such a fascinating job! What a beautiful task; although I'm sure like any job, it gets tedious from time to time. :)

    I'm not sure what I can really say about whitewashing that has not already been said. It's disturbing that it is even an issue.

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  27. Your job sounds truly fascinating!!

    I love the cover of Silver Phoenix..why would they change it???? That's distressing. I bought this one for my middle school library partly because I knew the cover would make my readers look twice at it!

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  28. I love the sound of your job! It truly sounds interesting. And I agree with you. Whitewashing it so terrible, and very sad. It has to stop!

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  29. It must be so exciting to see your findings of this artist on display for others to see. What a great job you must have!

    Whitewashing absolutely sucks.

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  30. I must confess as well. It has been a while since I have commented on your blog. I'm glad to see that others become caught up in the incoming producing part of life that it prevents us from enjoying our blogs. Blogging is not only fun, it is theraputic for me. I love to read other blogs and I enjoy keeping my reading in some sort of organized format ...it challenges me.
    Having said that, I apologize for not returning comments on my blog and reading everyone's blogs everyday. However, I just can't do it all. Short of having a nervous breakdown this year, I need to chill out. I mean well..love your blog and will visit and enjoy your excellent treasured opinion as often as I can. Please don't ever feel you have to respond, because I rarely see your response to me.
    Love ya...Wisteria

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  31. It's a shame that race continues to be such an issue when it comes to book marketing... that said, I wonder if it's just bad marketing in general that led to such a poor reception of the book? I remember seeing the book mentioned on the blogosphere (I think it was on The Story Siren) and I dismissed it as a cheap-looking fantasy. I love Asian and Asian-inspired fiction, but the bright cover turned me off the story. Bad case of judging a book by it's cover, but I wonder if a better design would have inspired me to give it a second glance? The plot, as described by inkstone, reminds me of Fushigi Yugi, which is right up my alley plotwise... but neither cover would have urged me to pick it up. The old cover makes me think cheap fantasy, the new cover makes me think cheap teen mystery romance :(

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  32. I completely understand the update the blog but not the Google Reader. I'm in hte same boat most of the time these days.

    I'm glad your exhibition went well. And I'm with the others who say the original cover was beautiful :)

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  33. I've been guilty of the same for the past few days, but it can't be helped, I guess. Sometimes I end up stealing some time from my work hours, but even that's hard nowadays.

    So sad to read about the whitewashing issue. So this will never stop, is it? I already detest seeing faces on book covers. And when the publisher decides to cover-lie about the race of the characters in the book, it's definitely annoying!

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  34. Oh do I ever get how you feel!! Add it one of the very many reasons why I gave up The Nook. And I still feel this way sometimes--that maybe I won't post something for a few days until I can actually blog hop, but I just have to push those thoughts out of my head. Sometimes I feel like it says "I'm too busy to read your blogs but not too busy to post" or "My posts are more important than yours" but I just have to hope that these are crazy thoughts that I have and people don't really think that about me. :) Gah--anyway, I'm sorry you're having those feelings. I hate that.

    I would, however, love love love to hear more about your work! I've seen you mention Simone de Beauvoir and Graham Greene but would also love to know about the archiving and such. And congratulations on finishing the project. Will there be something to follow?

    Saw the bit about the "too Asian" cover and wonder when publishers will learn. Wasn't there a huge backlash for "Liar"? So sad.

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  35. Congratulations on the exhibit! It must be wonderful to see the results of your hard hard work come (literally) to light. I think I am jealous of your job--and I love mine!
    How fascinating to meet your author's sister. What a pleasure--not to mention a fun conversation.

    As for the book cover, someone needs to realize that "whitewashing" a book cover is inexcusable. Authors--and artists-- should have some sort of protection against that in their contracts.

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  36. Congratulations, Ana!!!!! :D

    Also, thanks for alerting us to the Cindy Pon book. I am so so sad right now. I would've LOVED to read an Asian fantasy book if I had known about it. Sadly, I am really against the new cover.. the fact that I will be holding a book in my hands with the story of an Asian girl inside and the face of a white girl on the cover. I can't reconcile the thought. I'm so sorry for the author but I wish she had fought to keep an Asian girl on the cover and just changed the design.

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  37. Congratulations, Ana! Did I ever tell you how much I love your job?! :P Sounds exciting to me!

    No worries about not visiting/commenting at all. I've been so tied up with work last week...it's insane and it looks like I'll have to endure another week! Hopefully after this week, all the madness will die down soon.

    Hope you've a great week ahead! :)

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  38. Your project sounds wonderful, and being able to see all your efforts come to fruition has to be beyond satisfying. Congratulations!!

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  39. I have come to this blog after your exhibition is over so I am glad that it was successful.

    This post is very interesting and thank you for the links (which I intend to go to) to see how this "too Asian" cover caused poor sales!!!! I think its a ridiculous presumption on the part of who???

    Thanks once again for this post.

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  40. Congratulations on the exhibition coming to life! It's so exciting that authors like Greene wrote to your local writer. What kind of things did the local writer write?

    Ana I feel like we're coming up against a big wall with this newest whitewashing development. Cindy Pon and her publisher totally feel it was necessary, because they want Pon to gain status as an author so she can shove Asian fantasy into the forefront. There have been comments from people who have worked in the publishing insiders that even if we all buy books by Asian authors, as avid book buyers we may not even be the target audience publishers and chains care about selling to (apparently the hundred thousands who buy one book a year are more important than the thousands who buy fifty a year and your age make a difference in whether book sellers are interested in how much and what you buy). It all begins to seem a bit unalterable :(

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  41. Congratulations on your work success. It must feel like giving birth to something to have worked so hard and to see it all on display now. On the other note of the cover that was changed to increase the size of the audience for the book. All I can say is EWWWWWW. It makes me sad to live in a world where this kind of stuff is still happening.

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  42. You know what makes me feel incredibly guilty? Continuing to update my blog when I've barely had time to open Google Reader or respond to comments all week. Possibly this is silly, but I can't help it.

    I'm just the same, and I've been doing just the same thing lately. I'm even commenting on this post five days after it was written, horrors! Also, sorry to hear about your computer, but I'm glad to see from Twitter that you seem to be back up and running by now.

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  43. Oh dear, is this heresy? I didn't like the original cover OR the "whitewashed" versions. But even less than I liked the covers do I like the ugly assumption that an Asian girl on the cover means no one will want to read the book. Ick.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.