Faces and YA Book Covers: A Proposal

After taking a poll, issuing this call, and listening to various comments here and there, I've come up with three hypotheses about covers for children's and teen books.

Hypothesis #1

It doesn't make much of a difference in sales or circulation when characters of color grace the covers of children's picture books and middle grade novels. 

Why? Perhaps because typically adults buy and borrow these books. Another possibility is that developmentally, children (vs. teens) aren't looking to identify or connect as much with a protagonist and/or to "look cool" with a book. They're more open to books as windows instead of on the hunt for mirrors.

If this is true, let's keep diversity flowing on the covers of picture books and middle grade books and in stories written for all ages. The main problem in our industry are face-adorned covers on YA books.

Hypothesis #2

YA books sell or circulate better among teen guys when they DON'T have faces on the cover.

Several librarians and booksellers weighed in with this input. If you take a look at Amazon's bestsellers in literature and fiction for teens or Indiebound's bestselling children's books, for example, most of the covers don't feature faces. Publishers are successfully targeting readers of both genders with the covers for novels like The Hunger Games and The Percy Jackson books. For more to support this theory, check out the popular books over at the fantastic Guys Read site—few feature covers with faces unless they're celebrity biographies.

If this is true, the tussle when it comes to covers are with books aimed at teen girls—who make up a large portion of the buying and borrowing audience for YA books.

Hypothesis #3

YA books sell or circulate better among all kinds of teen girls when they DON'T have faces on the cover.

Check out the general bestselling teen titles on Amazon.com or the bestselling SciFi/Fantasy books at Indiebound. Not many have full frontal faces.

I understand the call for better representation on the covers of books—kids of color tire of never seeing themselves on books, right? Thankfully, kids grow up these days seeing a rainbow of faces on covers through the picture book and middle-grade book years. By all means, I hope our industry continues and improves this, because through fifth grade, kids tend to have more malleable hearts and minds.

The problem smacks into a reader during the teen years when she starts to see a majority of white faces on YA bestseller shelves. Ari put it well in her open letter to Bloomsbury:
I'm sure you can't imagine what it's like to wander through the teen section of a bookstore and only see one or two books with people of color on them. Do you know how much that hurts? Are we so worthless that the few books that do feature people of color don't have covers with people of color?
But imagine for a minute that the teen shelves have hardly any faces at all on the covers, while the MG and PB sections are well-stocked with stories about kids of color. Would the sting of under-representation dwindle?

I also get the temptation to whitewash covers for the sake of sales, given the results of my poll. But lists of bestsellers show that to draw in teen guys as well as all kinds of girl readers, books without faces sell and circulate in greater numbers. Covers with faces also go out of date sooner because styles and trends in youth culture change quickly. Wouldn't it make better financial sense to omit faces on covers of YA books written by writers of all races?

A rising trend in gaming and social media is the evolution of an avatar or mii, where teens use their imaginations to design a rendition of a protagonist resembling themselves. If books without faces on the cover sell well, why not leave the physical appearance of characters to the imagination of the teen reader in response to an author's skilled writing?

So here's my suggestion:  

For financial AND fairness reasons, the industry should continue to publish and promote more diversity in books but shift away from using faces on the covers of young adult books.  



I agree. I don't like faces on covers myself, though!
Aarti said…
I would agree, too. I think a LOT of books don't reach their full potential audience because of people on covers (fantasy, sci fi, romance). I don't mind people on my covers, but I prefer no people to inaccurate people.
That's basically what I said on Ari's blog. I had a lot of input into my cover--a rarity for authors--and I didn't want faces because I wanted readers to visualize the characters from my writing. And because the main character's appearance was critical to the plot, it would have been essential for the cover designer to get it right--as we've seen, not an easy task.
NZBookgirl said…
I've long protested against using photographs on book covers, immediately putting a face to the character which, when reading, should be created in the reader's mind. So I'm really interested to read this and find that the sales figures reinforce the practice of not using photographs. Publishers - use the skills of the many fabulous illustrators out there to create striking covers instead of the short-cut, often inappropriately used, of a photograph.
Maia said…
Yes, yes, yes! Get rid of the photo faces on novels and genre fiction, and I will be SO happy. As you said, they date a book much more quickly, but even more important to me, it interrupts the reader's ability to form their own image of the protagonist(s).

I'm not saying that photography can't be used, or that protagonists can't be portrayed in illustration if it's done right. But the current trend toward stark and intrusive realism... yuck.

Mitali, it occurred to me in the last few days that while some people have suggested that novels with POC aren't attractive to their [white] audience, no one makes the same allegation about picture books. Do we actually think adults are less racist than kids? Or that [white] kids are only interested in their own backyard? It seems to me that healthy kids are excited about different possibilities -- part of the reason that fantasy is so attractive to kids is that they want to imagine how wide their world could be.

Everything else aside, publishers have to stop thinking in WHITE. White audience, white learners, white parents who might be offended. You'd think it was a Caucasian City of Oz, where everyone wears filmy glasses. All the pub folks I know are decent people. So, we need to have the guts to lead the way, from how we live -- and not abandon our sensibilities by putting on white lenses to assess a book's marketability and worth.

Cheerio, and thanks for the discussion! :) Maia
Anonymous said…
Do you really think "Hunger Games" would be less popular if it had a face on the cover? I think I could promote that book to students if it was wrapped in a brown paper bag. It may not be that faces without covers sell better....it may be that the best manuscripts get more careful treatment with their cover art. A bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Joni said…
Fascinating stuff, Mitali. Thanks for doing the poll. On this one:

"It may be that the best manuscripts get more careful treatment with their cover art."

One factor that I have yet to see addressed in this wide-ranging online discussion is the issue of cost and stock photography. As anyone who follows the "cover" blogs knows, a fair number of covers use stock photos because they're faster and less expensive than a photo shoot -- and probably less expensive than an illustration, too. So the money the house is planning to put into the book overall surely comes into play. What's available and not already plastered everywhere as stock is probably a factor along with what's in the head of the person selecting the images. And any quick search of a stock site (which I do for the day job) shows a pretty severe lack of balance.
Terry Doherty said…
I agree, too. I've been working through 30 book reviews from our teen reviewers today, and most focused on the title sounding interesting or animals on the cover. There was only one person who said they thought the girl on the cover was looking at them.
MissAttitude said…
I agree with most of the people here, I prefer no people to inaccurate covers.

And I also agree that there are so many more children's books and middle grade books that feature POC. I'm not sure why that is, but I'm glad because young minds are so impressionable and if there are faces on the cover, I want young readers to see diverse faces. When I wrote my letter, I should have mentioned that the picture book industry gives me great hope and joy because there is a lot more diversity in that section. We just need YA books to be publibshed about POC, if you can't make a cover with a model accurate, then don't make it with a model!
Cath Isakson said…
Mitali, your 'hypotheses' are fascinating. I wonder if the faces on the book covers tap into the culture of faces that we see in women's (and girls') magazines.

Adding to what others have said here - I was viewing some of the many book 'trailers' on YouTube for the Sisters Grimm series of books. Interestingly, many young girls left comments such as 'I don't think the sisters would look like that' or 'I didn't like the way the younger sister looked'.

The girls are obviously fans with their own notions of how their favourite characters look.
Cynthea Liu said…
Mitali, I would agree. I know this was mostly focused on YA, but as an MG author, I've been thinking about this a lot since PARIS PAN came out, and my ultimate conclusion was - if it means we have to remove our faces from our books to get it out there so more kids will have the opportunity to read it, let's do that. I am still annoyed that we would have to do to get a quote-unquote POC-book the best possible chance of a larger readership. But in the end, I realized I had already heard way too many comments about my book not being of interest to white TWEENS because it featured a POC.

Mitali Perkins said…
Thanks, all, for your insightful comments. Never thought about the relative cheapness of stock photos and lack of diversity there.