Monday, January 25, 2010

Brown Faces Don't Sell Books? A Poll For Booksellers and Librarians

[No time to read this post? Just vote in the sidebar to the right.]

[Know a recent title featuring a POC protagonist that DID sell or circulate well? Please share it here.]

How much power do authors have over their covers? Not much. Dutton did give me the green light to post two possibilities for my First Daughter books and ask your opinion. And with Charlesbridge's permission, we debated the presence of a gun on the cover of Bamboo People via Twitter and Facebook (ended up with no gun.) But other than that, I take what I get, like most authors.

The fact remains that none of my books with brown young people on the covers have been picked up by the chains. Monsoon Summer sometimes turns up in a Barnes and Noble here or there, but it's the only book of mine with a cover that's ambiguous about the race of the protagonist. Get over it and write better books, I tell myself. Sometimes, though, I can't help wondering whether cover art has played any part in my struggle to sell books in the mainstream.

Given that publishing houses are tempted to white-wash the covers of books written by white authors even though they feature brown characters, the questions get louder in my head. Why would they do this unless it affects the bottom line? Do white kids really avoid books with brown, black, or Asian faces on the cover?

I've thrown this question out on Twitter and in presentations and received a few off-the-record responses from booksellers and librarians. "Kids don't buy or borrow books like that in my community," they tell me. Given what I see in youth pop culture, it's tough to believe that -- it seems to me that today's teens are fascinated with ethnic diversity and open to many kinds of faces and stories.

I'd like some statistics to back up or refute the murmurs and rumors. So I'm asking you, booksellers, teachers, and librarians, to weigh in on the anonymous poll in my sidebar. All votes, input, and comments appreciated, and I'll run the poll all week long.

Here's the poll for my RSS feed readers, but you have to stop by the Fire Escape to vote in the sidebar.

A Kid/YA book with a brown, black, or Asian face on the cover:

... is NEVER bought or borrowed by white kids unless I push it.
... is RARELY bought or borrowed by white kids unless I push it.
... is SOMETIMES bought or borrowed by white kids unless I push it.
... circulates or sells THE SAME as other books, depending on buzz and reviews.

36 comments:

  1. I don't know about how kids themselves would react, but in my community I rarely have the opportunity to make a choice, because I see so few books featuring brown faces (except those that are in Spanish and directed toward the Hispanic community). Even when I read about a fantastic book via blogs, I can find it only rarely in my library or local bookstore. Maybe it's just a self-fulfilling prophecy!

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  2. Interesting question, Mitali. I remember the summer I read Linda Crew's Children of the River, because it was the only decent looking book at the bookstore I was at. I think title is much more important than cover--b/c once a book is off display, spines are what the reader is looking at. Our acquisitions librarians in children's/YA are amazing, so if you (Mitali) mention a title, we usually have it in house. And, we have a pretty diverse population, more brown than black, so...

    But title is key. If someone's going to name a book Monsoon Summer, I'm more apt to look at it twice than something called Twilight (and I'm talking only titles here.)

    keep it up, @suzigurl

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  3. Could you revise or do a second poll about parents/adults and what they will or won't buy/check out for children?

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  4. When asked, kids say that a character with dark skin on the cover would not deter them, but in reality I have found the opposite to be true. For example, I've booktalked "The Kayla Chronicles" numerous times with no circulations. Same goes for the Angela Johnson books. It's frustrating - especially since I'm at school that features a strong anti-racism curriculum.

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  5. Thanks for the honest input. I love straight talk. Good idea, Liz. Will add that poll for parents.

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  6. In the public library where I work, the only books with children of color on the covers that circulate well and regularly are the Sugar Plum Ballerina series by Whoopi Goldberg. My non-scientific analysis of this success is that there is name recognition in terms of the author, and the ready-made audience for ballerina books. Other than that, while some titles by established authors like Walter Dean Myers or Patricia McKissick will draw attention when they are featured on the "New Books" shelf, circulation records show that once they disapear into the stack, they tend to stay there. However, I think this only refers to chapter books. Picture books circulate fairly evenly, no matter what the color of the characters on the covers.

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  7. In my experience kids read books about people who seem to be like them. But, friends read that which friends are reading. In a diverse community like ours, for instance, white kids with black friends all read Kimani Tru, ditto Latino and black friends. And in reverse as well.

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  8. Since L.K. Madigan won the Morris award, Flash Burnout is getting some shelf display time at the Multnomah County Library here in Portland. The cover is a picture of the protagonist depicted as an Asian teenage boy holding pictures of two Caucasian teen girls.

    I'm 50 pages into the book now and am fascinated (and pleased) by the fact that Madigan doesn't specify the race of the main character (the boy)in the text.

    Mitali, I just signed up for your SCBWI-WWA breakout session. Can't wait to meet you.

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  9. I can't really speak to what kids themselves will buy/check out because I mainly end up selling books to their parents. But I wonder if part of the (apparent) reluctance to buy books with kids of color on the cover is because so many books with such covers are historical fiction about serious subjects. Not that there is not a place for important historical fiction books. But kids usually want to read something a little bit more fun than historical fiction, and I don't see a whole lot of books about kids of color who just get to have a little fun. I have more about this on my blog if you're interested.

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  10. So the next questions seem to be:

    Who makes the decisions to buy/check out books for kids? Is it mostly the kid or the parent?

    At what age do most kids begin taking charge of their own library or bookstore activity?

    Is a parent more or less likely than a kid to pick out a book featuring a face on the cover of a different race?

    Do ethnic/racially recognizable titles make less or more of a difference in the decision to buy or borrow than covers?

    If a bookstore or library decides to stock or shelve such books prominently, does that significantly increase sales/circulation?

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  11. I had to vote rarely.

    I don't think the problem always lies with White children not wanting to read books with kids of color on the cover.

    It is partly but many times I think its the assumption that White Kids won't want to read these books so they aren't displayed as well as they should be or being purchased.

    People can't buy what they don't know about. I remember one time a White girl was shopping the YA table, she was eyeing Booth's Kendra hard. She ended up leaving with Tyrell since it was in paperback.

    One more than a few occasions (when it was displayed) I've had White girls show interest in and buy Gregory's Catwalk.

    I think young readers should be given more credit for wanting to read outside of themselves.

    Sure there are many who probably don't want to but I think if all children were exposed to more books with Kids of color on cover, it would stop being such a big deal.

    Though I still have a hard time understanding why it is a big deal.

    A person can easily travel the world in fiction based on cover alone not so much in MG and YA

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  12. InfoWitch12:51 PM

    I think a lot of it is about cover DESIGN. Color hasn't seemed important among my readers, but pretty matters (design or people). So Tyrell and Kendra by Coe Booth, with bold, eye-catching design, have both circulated; Draper's trilogy moves but Copper Sun does not. And even the staunch Walter Dean Myers fans won't pick up the titles that look old or outdated.

    A very informal poll of students in the room just now agrees: design and "feel" are way more important for my population (diverse in all senses, but raised in NYC and going to a school with an explicit, liberal mindset). They specifically cited color of background or details (green is hot, yellow is not), font choice, and scenery/sense of setting evoked. More beautifully designed covers with beautiful people of color might make a huge difference in our perception of what sells/circulates. Of course, the predilection for beautiful people is its own, separate issue!
    --Karyn

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  13. I find that in my son's school library the kids, when left to their own devices, gravitate toward series books and nonfiction (the population is approx 50/50 minority/white). With the exception of MLK on the occasion of the holiday, race is not a concern for them. In my daughter's school library, kids routinely check out books that feature POC, but not purposefully. They are just readily available. Is that the difference between novels/chapter books and picture books?

    Also, I work in an international collection and have been following this Twitter "discussion". Xavier Garza told us that publishers said that minorities don't read and minorities don't buy, but that both of those are fallacies and so we now see growth in the niche markets. (He also discussed his level of control over jacket art). We've also examined what happens when one or two buyers is in charge of a region at a mega book store in contrast to a buyer at a small bookstore responding directly to community interest.

    There are obviously multiple factors: 1) the audience -- parents, kids, librarians, educators, 2) the publisher, 3) the seller & seller's buyer, 4) the product -- picture books, novels.

    Sorry for the hijack, but perhaps you could be less interesting.

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  14. Anonymous1:28 PM

    I think white see a picture of someone different race as he is, he is more likely think this book is going to be about racism.

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  15. Fascinating question, especially in light of the recent LIAR cover controversy. I'm not going to vote, because even though I used to teach school, most of my experience hasn't been with white kids. I will tell you that as a teacher of brown children, I was encouraged to find books that would appeal to them, and the philosophy was that books with white kids on the cover would not.

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  16. I just wanted to chime in to encourage rhapsodyinbooks and others who find themselves discouraged by selection at their local bookstores and libraries to take action. Order the book or request it through interlibrary loan. Fill out a suggestion card. Give the local bookseller and librarian some ammunition to justify that title and others like it on their shelves (and in their budgets).

    Thanks to all, especially Mitali, for caring so much!

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  17. How on earth do you get sales if the large chains don't pick them up? Do you know about what percent of book sales are attributed to libraries?

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  18. Full disclosure - I'm neither a bookseller nor librarian.

    I live quite close to the Harvard Coop in Cambridge, MA, which is run by B&N. The kids' section has several non-white books ("Does My Head Look Big in This?" comes to mind) shelved alphabetically. Aside from theme weeks/months. On display right now are a selection of Coretta Scott King award winners and Laurie Halse Anderson's "Chains" (that hasn't won anything yet, has it?).

    Other B&Ns I've been to are pretty much white, white, white.

    I wonder if the demographic in Cambridge is very different, or if the staff are just more aware?

    I'll see if I can send some of the staff over here when I see them tomorrow (story time Tuesday!).

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  19. Hi Mitali... Your post reminded me of a story on THIS AMERICAN LIFE about baby dolls up for "adoption" at FAO Schwartz.

    I blogged it here:

    http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2010/01/conversation-about-book-covers-and-race.html

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  20. I keep hearing that teachers, librarians and publishers are looking for books with multicultural content. Wouldn't this help sales of books with nonwhite faces on the covers (at least sales to schools)? Or is this not the case?

    My neighbourhood and city is very multicultural. I'm guessing that when kids choose a book for themselves, they are responding to cues other than skin colour. For example, if a character on the cover has brown skin and modern North American clothing, some kids might be more inclined to pick up that book rather than one with the same-skinned character dressed in clothes from another place and time (fearing the one with different clothes might be more of an educational read?). I'm also wondering how gender of the reader and gender of the character depicted on the cover factor in. Would a boy be more likely to choose a book with a brown-skinned boy on the cover than a book with a white-skinned girl? (I haven't read all the comments yet, so I apologize if this has already been addressed)

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  21. Anonymous5:09 PM

    I'm a librarian in a school with a mixed racial population- white, from all over Asia, and South American- picture a software companies employees. I educate their children. I am continually frustrated by my students unwillingness to check out books with African- Americans on the cover. They'll read books with kids that look like them on the cover but not African Americans- even when I push books on them. It would be interesting to find out if people of color read books with people as the same color as themselves but not other colors.

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  22. today a white student checked out Kendra by Coe Booth. It was on the new shelf. She asked me about it, I said I've only read Tyrell and loved it. She said ok that's good enough for me...

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  23. How does the growing popularity of manga fit in (mostly Asian faces on the covers)?

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  24. BTW my school is 97% white...I'm the only black teacher in the school...In 8th grade the teacher just finished Marcelo and will be reading Jumped. We've been working on doing some multicultural outside reading requirements for the students...

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  25. I could write for an hour about the influence of manga, but to keep it short, I have yet to see a manga fan turn away a series or volume because a POC character was featured on it. Most of them care way, way more about the genre of a book or series than the character's color or race.

    Manga readers come from all age groups and demographics, FWIW. Something about reading manga (and watching anime) has opened their minds, regardless of their local influences and cultural biases. Interesting, ne?

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  26. Mitali! You missed the option I really needed "... circulates MORE than other books"

    I work in an area that is probably 99% of color, most of that Black (either African-American or first and second generation African.)

    The kids and teens (and their parents) love love love books with people on the covers that look like them or at least some shade of brown, especially if they can see that the book is about a normal kid doing a normal thing, but the kid just happens to be of color.

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  27. I'm going to throw in a different perspective here - not to take anything away from the survey and its data, though.

    I'm not an expert in usability/user experience (UX, not because I'm showing off with acronyms, but because this comment is going to be long enough as it is), but I did study it back when I worked in software. One of the principles of UX is that you don't get an accurate answer by asking a user how they *would* respond to condition X or feature Y, you get it by offering them condition X and feature Y and observing. (What elleng refers to in her comment, for instance.)

    So the best way to evaluate book covers from a UX perspective is to ask book buyers/choosers, both children and adults, to perform certain tasks in a bookstore or library set up to serve as a usability lab: find a book you think you'll enjoy, find a science fiction book, find a book you want your child to read, find a book that looks like it's all about issues. And then ask the participants why they chose one book instead of another, why they picked this one up and put it down, what came to mind when they looked at that cover.

    (And I'm happy to pull together a UX primer if anyone wants to pursue this further, as an additional source of data.)

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  28. Thanks for all the comments and votes. Sarah, that's my intention, I guess. I'm asking librarians and booksellers to become mini usability labs -- out there where it counts, where the readers are -- and see what's actually going on when it comes to judging books by their covers.

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  29. as a former bookseller, i used to also see this problem go the other way: many african-american and asian parents who would refuse to purchase a book for their children that didn't feature main characters (with matching covers) who matched their ethnicity. and a number of times these customers attempted to shame me by proxy for an industry they didn't feel served them.

    kids, on the other hand, aren't given enough credit by adults. they will read across the color line, just as they'll cross the gender line, so long as these character elements are not the main focus. for publisher's to say that brown (or any other color) doesn't sell doesn't take into account that they often have books with caucasian characters that don't sell because the cover is plain ugly. no one to blame there, so they excuse it as a marketing problem and give it a different cover in reissue.

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  30. School Library Journal has an article today about Little, Brown changing the covers of Trenton Lee Stewart’s "Mysterious Benedict Society" series to show Sticky Washington as brown-skinned, as described in the books, instead of white, as he appears on the covers.

    http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA6716445.html?nid=2413&source=link&rid=16998456

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  31. I do wonder if region ever has anything to with it and if publishers only look at certain regional sales to gauge how POC books are doing. In Alaska at the indy where I worked, the covers with Native Alaskan kids always sold more than pretty much anything else (except Harry Potter, etc.) But that's kind of what folks were looking for there - of course it was because they hadn't seen them anywhere else (their hometowns) which is basically the point.

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  32. I agree that vibrant covers and appealing ones are what sells the books these days...kids won't even look inside the book if they aren't drawn by the cover..

    I do find it harder to get kids to take out chapter books (not series books) with a person of color as main character...
    It's frustrating...the Julian books by Ann Cameron is such a great series, but doesn't circ well at all.

    Other newer books with minority characters often are not picked by the parents (in for the kids quite a bit these days).

    Kids in general, esp. younger readers, are drawn to the typical series books...harder to get them to try something relatively new, such as the Ruby Lu books or the Nikki and Deja books..

    I definitely think our suburban bookstores don't represent well in this area..
    I have given feedback about this but often the local bn don't have free choice, it seems to be a corporate decision..

    great discussion, thanks for bringing this topic up for discussion, Mitali..

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  33. I'm a YA librarian in a remote Wyoming town that is nearly 100% white. It's harder for me to sell the teens on books with PoC on them, but they do read them, and they do enjoy them.

    I think the teens here have a sense of PoC (and anyone who's not white/hetero/gender-normative/Christian) as an "unknowable Other." My hope is that by ordering, displaying, and booktalking titles by and about PoC and other groups that are under-represented here, I will get the teens to read those books, and thus de-mystify their perceptions of people different from them.

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  34. Anonymous4:04 PM

    I feel that readers generally buy books that feature characters that look like (or act like) themselves. Or people buy books that are about people whose lives they envy because the charecters seem to have more freedom, better parents, better friends etc.

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  35. Anonymous10:01 AM

    This question was challenging for me to answer, because I'm a children's librarian in Queens, New York, and most of my customers are not white. I can say without hesitation that books with POC on their covers circulate very well at Queens’ libraries, but I had to think hard about whether or not the white kids check them out. After consideration, I realized that they do. I’m thinking mostly of series, like Sugar Plum Ballerinas, Zodiac Girls, Beacon Street Girls, etc. Our Pam Munoz Ryan and Lenore Look books also circulate well across racial lines. Things like Elijah of Buxton and Chains are a harder sell for kids of any race because they look “hard” and “educational.” I think this question becomes different in very diverse urban libraries, because unlike what the librarian from Wyoming mentioned, about POC being an unknowable other for white kids, kids of every race in Queens grow up with diversity surrounding them.

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  36. Oh, I REALLY wish I could tell you that all the naysayers were wrong...but they're not. Yes people are obsessed with Black culture when it comes to music and to a much lesser degree film/TV but even in that medium...can you name a current network TV series that stars a Black protagonist and is marketed to a universal (rather than Black) audience? Check out the covers of my book. My publishing house has been VERY careful about my protagonist's skin color. My most recent book was recently released in France. The woman on the cover there is MUCH darker than she has been in the past. The book is doing well there...but nowhere near as well as it has done in France in the past.
    It REALLY bothers me that a brown face on a cover can hurt book sales but in the end if you don't sell your book you're not in the position to change hearts & minds.

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