Earlier this semester our professor, Dr. McCoy, showed us the original cover of Dawn. I remember being confused for a moment. Where was Lilith? Well, it turns out she was right there, where you would expect her to be. She just didn’t look like you would expect her to look. She was white.
I’ve thought back to this cover a lot over the semester and every time I think about it I get a little bit angrier. First, there is the huge problem with whitewashing in Hollywood. Most people realize that this is a problem in film, but many don’t realize it’s also a problem at the local bookstore. Octavia Butler’s Dawn is one, but certainly not the only time this has happened.
Thinking about this cover reminded me of a conversation I had with Y.A. author A.S. King several years ago. Her novel Everybody Sees the Ants had just hit the shelves and while she was obviously proud, she was upset about the cover. She had a clear picture in her head of what she wanted the book to look like. Although I don’t remember the details, I remember her describing the dream cover in vivid detail. It was not to be. Her publisher told her that the book would be published with a photograph of a face on it, or not at all. The reasoning? At the time Barnes & Noble was only stocking Y.A. books with faces on the cover because they believed they sold better.
Now, I haven’t spent much time in the YA section Barnes & Noble recently, so I cannot tell you if that particular limitation is still in place. Covers are important. The reason we are constantly telling people to not judge a book by its cover is because everyone is always doing it. What the cover of a book like effects not just who reads it but how they approach the text.
By changing the covers of books, publishers are taking control away from the authors of the stories. When we consider that many of these stories are coming from underrepresented authors, this power struggle becomes particularly poignant.
In light of Butler’s work, it is interesting to think about this struggle. While the author ultimately has the power to say no, that would in their work not being published at all. Authors like Butler are forced to choose between having their work framed the way the publisher likes, or having nobody read it at all.