Judging Books, Harming Ourselves

Greetings, everyone! Today I have the pleasure of welcoming Linda Leigh Hargrove, author of the Isaac Hunt series, as a guest on my blog. Here’s what she has to say about the way we judge books along racial lines. Take a look, and be sure to check out Linda’s latest release.

Line Purple

Linda Leigh Hargrove

For Whites Only?

Book covers sell books. But there are a few tricky things about book covers. Covers can be misleading. A fact that many publishing companies seek to work to their advantage.

Case in point: In 2009, Australian author Justine Larbalestier’s book, Liar, was the topic of much discussion. Released with the face of a young white girl with straight hair on the cover, the YA novel was about a young black woman with “nappy hair.” The cover was eventually changed—thanks to an outcry from the author and her supporters.

Why did Ms. Larbalestier’s publishing company feel the need to put a white girl on the cover of a book about a black girl? “Black” books don’t sell. This is an unfortunate perception with no hard and fast numbers to back it up, but it persists. After the Liar debacle, many other authors in several genres spoke up. They recounted similar whitewashed book publishing experiences.

This is what Ms. Larbalestier had to say about the situation:

The notion that “black books” don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them. Until that happens more often, we can’t know if it’s true that white people won’t buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with “black covers” don’t sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with “white covers.”

For Blacks Only?

Are certain books only for black folks? My answer is no. True, there are many black authors who write strictly for an African American fan base. There’s nothing wrong with that. These authors are writing to their preferred audience, writing about their black American experience for a specific slice of the public that can relate to that experience. Depicting their black characters on their covers is only natural. This is a normal and acceptable marketing strategy.

Whitewashing “black” book covers is not a normal or acceptable business practice. The printing of the original Liar cover was an intentional choice made by a majority Caucasian leadership in a large international publishing house. A bad move, in and of itself, made worse because the book was written for younger audiences. The very audience that we want to convince that race no longer matters.

Bad Books?

Yes, I know that some “African American literature” is substandard. To be honest, some of them are vulgar books, rife with lewd language, violence, and eroticism. But so are some “white” books. No one race of writers has a corner on the market of bad writing.

Whitewashing book covers is a form of systematic racism. Plain and simple. Some have tried social marketing strategies like selling books with bland, text-based covers. To me, that’s no better than banning words. Some publishers, like the one I wrote two novels for, do not publish books with words like nigger, spic, picanniny, buck, sambo, and jigaboo. Banning words won’t make the racism go away, no more than whitewashing the faces on book covers will.

My three books are written for the Christian audience. Not black Christians. Not white Christians. All Christians. The storylines in my books revolve around racial reconciliation and forgiveness in the South. Most of my characters are black. I chose to prominently display people of color on my covers. During one of my first book signings, a black woman angrily accused me (a black woman) of writing a book about a white man.

Her reaction blocked out my explanation to the contrary. She walked away empty handed. The book happens to be about a biracial man who prefers to identify with his black heritage. Unfortunately, she had wrongfully judged the book by its cover. It was her loss.

So what do you read the most of? Are you a one-genre reader? Have you ventured out to read works by authors who don’t look like you?


19 thoughts on “Judging Books, Harming Ourselves

  1. aletifer says:

    “‘Black’ books don’t sell. This is an unfortunate perception with no hard and fast numbers to back it up, but it persists.”

    I’m afraid I’m not following this part of your argument.

    If “‘black’ books don’t sell”—which seems seems to contradict the popularity of Malcolm Gladwell, Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison and others—then there would indeed be hard and fast numbers to support this. Lower sales would mean lower sales.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nadine C. Keels says:

      We hear a lot about Morrison and other bestselling authors, but I do wonder what marketing challenges midlist and first-time authors of color may sometimes face with their publishers or marketing teams, as most authors fall outside of the nationally/internationally prominent or bestselling sphere, and my own publishing experience is rather limited.

      Personally, as a reader of Christian Fiction, it’s not the easiest thing for me to find racially diverse books or many authors of color published in general fiction by the larger Christian publishing houses. I’m not sure if diverse authors and/or manuscripts are often rejected by those houses or if the publishers simply don’t get many diverse submissions, but I hope that Christian Fiction will one day be more integrated.

      Hopefully my blog guest will be able to chime in on your reply, and thanks for commenting!


  2. my2ndnature Linda Samaritoni says:

    I choose a book for its story. I always read the blurbs on the inside jacket and the back. It doesn’t matter to me what race the protagonist is as long as I get interested in her (his) story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nadine C. Keels says:

      I’m much the same way, Linda. I just want a good story, no matter what race the main characters are–though I’ll admit that I often only skim, quickly forget, or even skip reading a blurb altogether if I just have a hunch that I want a book. 😀 Thank you for replying!


  3. Marja McGraw says:

    Honestly? I’m tired of the racial issue being raised. I read a book because it sounds like a good story. I’m partial to mysteries, especially if they contain a little humor. I don’t care about the cover, although I’d prefer to see a cover that actually has something to do with the story. You mentioned Christian books, and I love that genre/category, too. Give me a good mystery though and it doesn’t matter what color/gender/whatever the characters are. A title will get my attention long before the cover graphics and it will send me to the back of the book to read the blurb.

    An author is an author, regardless of ethnic background. A good writer is a good writer. That’s what counts in this business.


    • Nadine C. Keels says:

      Yes, Marja, a good writer is a good writer, and quality literature is quality literature! That’s what’s important. I also don’t care much about book covers either way, unless it comes to covers I’m going to post on my blog for a review, or something. When I first came across what became (and still is) my absolute favorite book in the world, it was an old, plain green hardback, no dust jacket or fancy cover art. Just an old-fashioned, good book. Good to me, anyway. 🙂

      I also wish the racial issue didn’t have to be raised anymore, as I wish we didn’t have to bring up issues like cancer, child abuse, or national debt in the United States. Unfortunately, those things still exist, and we can’t deal wisely with issues without awareness, acknowledging their existence. Since there are human beings still having to deal with racial challenges, even people of color in all areas of the marketplace, then the issue should be discussed to keep moving all of us forward. When we’re aware that challenges still exist for many people, having that awareness can urge us toward making changes for humanity’s betterment.

      Thank you for commenting and for your honesty!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Nadine C. Keels says:

      It is indeed–and by the way, you’re the first person I’ve ever encountered with the name “Marja” so I came and rechecked that I’d spelled it correctly in my comment. It apparently means “berry” in Finnish. (I suppose that’s more of a total side note than a “by the way,” but I’m delighted to see/hear new names. 🙂 )


    • Marja McGraw says:

      LOL I’m surprised you looked the name up. Most people comment and move on. It’s different, and I can only hope memorable because of it. I was named after a little girl in my sister’s girl scout troop, if you can believe that. Personally, I think Nadine C. Keels is a memorable name for an author.


    • Nadine C. Keels says:

      Pat Simmons! Hello, and thank you for stopping by and reading the post. I have two questions, if you don’t mind: are you referring to bringing your following to a new publisher, or is it one you’ve already been working with?

      Also (unrelated to this post): I’ve come across The Jamieson Legacy series, and I’ve been wondering if the books are meant to be read in a specific order.


    • Pat Simmons says:

      Hi Nadine, I’m talking about bringing my following to the new publisher. It hasn’t been because I haven’t tried with give-a-ways and other marketing tools, but after so many Christian novels and a dozen of novellas, I realize that I need to expand my readership, so the real question should be will white readers read books by black authors. As blacks, we have read white books for years because that was all we had. That may be the challenge. Now, I do have a white following, but I would like to increase all readership.

      Thanks for asking about the Jamieson Legacy series. Of course, they are all stand alone, but if you would prefer to read them in the order in which I wrote them, here you go: GUILTY BY ASSOCIATION, THE GUILT TRIP, and FREE FROM GUILT.

      Great discussion!

      Liked by 2 people

    • Nadine C. Keels says:

      Ah! Thank you for the info on your series–duly noted. 🙂

      And, yes, based on feedback I’ve been getting (mostly from Caucasian authors and readers) since I started talking about diversity in Christian Fiction, I believe that a good number of Christian Fiction readers of all races would like to read a more diverse range of books in the genre. As you’ve said, we’ve been reading what we’ve had, and I myself didn’t even realize there were so many Christian African American authors until more recent years because their books were mixed in with general fiction books, not shelved in the Christian Fiction section of the bookstore I frequented the most. I think that separating Christian Fiction along racial lines is fairly common, both in (secular) brick-and-mortar bookstores and online bookstores, and so readers who are used to finding Christian Fiction books in certain places aren’t always even aware that there are so many other Christian books by other authors available, as the books aren’t marketed together. So, readers just read what they have–what’s been easy for them to find.

      That’s one reason I hope that Christian Fiction will become more integrated, so that it’ll be easier for us all to find one another. For some readers, it would probably take a while for them to get used to the idea of reading diverse books if it’s not something they’ve done before, and of course others will stick with what they’ve had (nothing wrong with that), but again, I think that publishers marketing the books together when possible, the major Christian Fiction publishers publishing more diverse books and authors together, and bookstores connecting the books together better would help many readers to get used to the idea.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Nicole Rai says:

    Very interesting article! I’ve asked some of the same questions about book covers. I recently read a book n although I had my thoughts about the author providing more content especially for the price. I instantly notice the cover. Black author with a white female on the cover. black books do sale, we must build communities of people to read.


    • Nadine C. Keels says:

      Yes, Nicole, community is key. I’ve been introduced to a much wider range of literature since I’ve gotten more involved with reader communities than I used to find when I mostly kept all of my reading to myself. Thank you for commenting!


  5. Linda Leigh Hargrove says:

    Thanks for commenting, everyone. When Nadine approached me about writing a post for her blog, I hesitated. Not because I didn’t think I had anything to say but because of this particular topic that came to mind.

    It’s not easy talking about this common practice of putting white faces or no faces on books about black people in order to sell more books (aka ‘whitewashing’). But as Nadine pointed out, racism is still alive and well in America. It won’t go away just because we stop talking about it. We need to talk about it with solutions in mind. One solution is to challenge the unspoken norms like shelving Christian African American fiction with general Urban lit.

    Caucasian sisters, I commend for reading ‘across the aisle’. I wished more white readers looked beyond the race of the characters. I think bestselling author Pat Simmons (thanks for dropping by, Pat) has the same wish. We desperately need to move past responses like: “Wow, this looks like a good book, too bad it’s only for blacks.” White sisters, you can help us bridge the gap. You are bridge builders when you tell your friends (regardless of color) about ALL the books you read.

    I think the conversation here brings lots of issues to light. I can only draw from my experiences as a writer with a traditional ‘white’ publisher (Moody Publishers). In most cases I was placed in the Christian fiction section of Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, etc. because of my publisher. I can name two other authors of color who were there with me in 2007 and 2008, when my first two books came out. One was a best-selling African American author who is no longer writing fiction and the other is an Asian American author.

    Most black Christian fiction sits alongside black erotica, Urban lit, and the like with covers that are not at all wholesome. Actually, they are soft porn. The bookstore ghetto. I don’t want to see good books like Pat Simmons’ (and other best-selling Christian fiction) in the bookstore ghetto anymore. There are too many echoes of our American experience here I don’t even want to unpack them here. Until things like this change, I will keep preaching from this soapbox.

    Thanks again, Nadine, for letting me speak about this issue.

    Liked by 1 person

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