The World SF Blog

Speculative Fiction from Around the World

Wednesday Editorial: On Book Covers

Wednesday Editorial: On Book Covers

Lavie Tidhar

We actually had a guest-editorial scheduled this week, but we’re pushing it back a week to talk a little about book covers.

There’s been a lot of interest surrounding yesterday’s post about the Dragon and the Stars anthology cover (see responses in the comments thread, as well as from JolantruJanet Chui and Sean Wallace), but that merely ties into a larger discussion going on at the moment. And that, in turn goes back to the fact 2009 saw a first large-scale discussion on race in science fiction, which is still on-going.

Now, the World SF News Blog is dedicated to highlighting international SF, but that is not to say we can, or should, ignore what is going on within the American and UK world of publishing. A discussion on race is important. So are discussions on gender, and sexuality, all of which are going on still, and will continue for a good long while.

And so.

N.K. Jemisin discusses Why I Think RaceFail Was The Bestest Thing Evar for SFF:

it used to be very noticeable that I could at least broach the subject of race in every other aspect of my life — academia, the counseling psych field, political activism of course, literature/art in general — but not in SFF. The conversations would simply shut down, often thanks to respected personages/fans who would emphatically declare that there was no racism in the genre outside of a few unimportant loudmouths, and no need to discuss race since there was no racism, so let’s move on to something interesting like quantum physics.

Now, suddenly, everyone’s talking about race, and I cannot tell you how happy that makes me. – read the rest of the post.

Lots of comments in the thread above, as could be expected. And yet the current topic stirring people is that Bloomsbury had once again featured a white model on the cover of a book about a dark-skinned girl:

Prompting Ellen Datlow, amongst others, to write an open letter to Bloomsbury:

I was very aware of the controversy over Justine Larbalestier Liar last year (for one thing, she’s a friend of mine) and note that Bloomsbury backed off and changed the cover image from a young white woman to a (very light) African American woman. But it seems that your company still hasn’t learned that this kind of racism is no longer going to be ignored by the children’s lit community. You’ve done it again with Jaclyn Dolamore’s first novel Magic Under Glass about a dark-skinned young woman from the far east. Please stop assuming that 1) no one (black or white) notices and 2) that we don’t care.
I’ve been in publishing for over thirty five years so you don’t need to inform me about marketing, etc.

These things affect all writers. Just an an anecdotal instance, a South African friend of mine was asked to change his main character from South African to British because “the readers don’t want to buy stories featuring South African characters”. Which is reminiscent of John W. Campbell Jr. asking one of the writers for Astounding to change his name for the magazine because it was “too Jewish, and readers won’t pick up the magazine”. As Isaac Asimov pointed out in his memoirs, Campbell meant it was too Jewish for him.

You can always blame the readers, it seems to me. And so, it is nice to see at least one publisher who seems to have no problem with black people on the covers of their books, which happens to return back to proper WSNB territory: the recently-revealed cover for South African writer Lauren Beukes‘ second novel, Zoo City (art by John Picacio):

Who earlier also released the cover for Maurice Broaddus‘ first novel, King Maker (cover by Steve Stone):

And so we get discussion, which is a good thing – and we get to question some basic assumptions of the publishing world, and of the people who make decisions in it, which is a good thing, too. There’s a lot to talk about, a lot to question – and isn’t that the point of speculative fiction?


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January 20, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Those covers are fantastic. King Maker’s looks rather incongruous, blending traditionally European kingship elements with the image of a black man, but the effect is intriguing!

    Comment by Jha | January 20, 2010

    • I believe it’s a re-telling of the King Arthur mythos, so that seems appropriate. Here’s the short blurb:

      On the streets of Indianapolis, the ancient Arthurian cycle is replaying in the lives of rival street gangs. Told through the eyes of King, as he gathers like-minded friends and warriors around him to venture into the fastness of Dred, the notorious crime lord, this is a stunning mix of myth and harsh reality.

      Comment by lavietidhar | January 20, 2010

  2. I am soooo buying King Maker’s based on that cover! Beautiful!

    I was tempted to do a new cover for that dragon anthology today using a Chinese dragon btw, lol.

    Comment by silviamg | January 20, 2010

  3. *waves* Am Jolantru. ;)

    To me, a Chinese dragon is not stereotypical. For an anthology showcasing writers of the Chinese diaspora, a Chinese dragon is appropriate. Not a stereotype and not offensive. There are many ways to represent symbols pertaining to a race or culture respectfully – and depicting a Chinese/Eastern dragon is one of them. Hope this makes sense.

    Comment by Joyce | January 20, 2010

  4. I agree that it’s been pretty incredible (in a totally good way) that the sff community has begun to open up on the conversation of race, and that there are publishers out there who realize the importance of racial and cultural representation in the genre.

    I’m reading Magic Under Glass right now, and am really shocked that the publisher decided to choose the cover that they did. Nimira’s cultural and racial identity is so important her and totally influences how others perceive her and how she views the world. To whitewash the cover sends the message that her publisher does not support her work in the way they should.

    Comment by Ay-leen | January 20, 2010

  5. Wonderful editorial! I’m linking it. Please consider checking and signing


    Comment by Nathalie Mvondo | January 21, 2010

  6. [...] section. The following editorial from The Wolrd SF News Blog offers an interesting point of view: Click here. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)A Must-Know Blog About YA Lit: Reading In [...]

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  7. Your post has been included in a Linkspam roundup

    Comment by Linkspam_mod | January 22, 2010

    • I’m not sure you were talking to me…
      The Roundup is great. I’m emailing media and including its link as well.

      Comment by Nathalie Mvondo | January 22, 2010

  8. [...] RaceFAIL ‘09 did lead to some good conversations… I’m glad stuff like book cover race changes are getting a spot light shown on them. But hey, I really can’t be bothered to read that, [...]

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  10. [...] post as-is. The problem is not really isolated, just as the solution is already known — this World SF Blog post has a bigger discussion on covers and poor cover choices (as well as some good [...]

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  11. [...] For more information on the World of SF News and the anthology, click below: The World SF News Blog Read A Martian in Tibet, one of the stories feature in the Apex Book of World SF. The Apex Book of World SF Lavie Tidhar’s Blog To contact Lavie, visit the About page of The World SF News Blog. And I’m adding this link because the post showcases some SF books with POC and stunning covers! [...]

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