A Tale of Two Covers

Posted on June 21, 2010


The UK Version vs. the US cover:

Confused? If you’re a US reader, you may be. However, here’s a reason given for the cover switch, one per author Katherine Stockett’s interview with Parul Kapur Hinzen’s Book Blog for ArtsCriticATL.com:

“Americans are not comfortable talking about race.”

“The U.K. was able to put a much more racially cognizant cover on because they’re not so sensitive about the subject, as I understand it. And they’re also talking about someone else. You know what I mean? We’re very self-conscious about the subject. If we were talking about the racism of, say, India, then maybe we could have put something relevant on the cover. They picked a cover [for the U.S. edition] that had absolutely nothing to do with the book. And I think they did it on purpose.”

UPDATED Link to article: https://www.artsatl.org/author-appearance-kathryn-stocketts-the-help-americans-are-not-comfortable-talking-about-race/


Previous original link (this link no longer works. Please use the one above):



And also in an early 2009 UK article by Jessamy Calkin of the UK Telegraph that states:

“The photograph, which was found in the National Congress archives, was deemed too controversial to be used on the American cover. The spectre of racism in the South is still raw and political correctness works overtime.”


But there’s also another theory. Some, but not all US publishers are hesitant to put a person of color on a book cover, fearing white readers may not buy it. Whether this is the case with The Help is not known, but here are two examples that show this practice is not uncommon.

Take a look at what happened with the YA novels Liar by Justine Larbalestier and Magic Under Glass by author Jaclyn Dolamore.

Per Justine Larbalestier’s blog addressing the controversy:

“In the last few weeks as people have started reading the US ARC of Liar they have also started asking why there is such a mismatch between how Micah describes herself and the cover image. Micah is black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short. As you can see that description does not match the US cover.”


To the author’s credit, she addressed the issue on her blog and made an effort, along with outraged readers of all races and ethnicities to get the cover changed.

Here’s the revised cover:

As for the novel Magic Under Glass the publisher issued an apology and changed the original cover, which showed this model:

Now re-packaged using this model:

Perhaps the new model is a bit more racially ambiguous (she looks a like a younger version of Jennifer “Flashdance” Beals). But she can at least represent the millions of girls who resemble her, no matter what race. And the point is, the character she’s based on was described as having brown skin and dark hair.

As for the cover of The Help, to Katherine Stockett’s credit, she has acknowledged why the US cover is certainly different. At first glance, it’s almost Disney-esque with its unthreatening, almost nondescript image. And one that goes along with the theme of the book, fictionalizing a shameful period in America’s history, but not so that it disturbs the reader too much.

And that is what this blog will try to examine.

**UPDATE on this controversial practice**

Debut Author Cindy Pon’s original cover:

Now here are the recently revised covers, done by the publisher in the hopes that book buyers for national book chains and independent stores will shelve the YA novel.


It’s important to note that Silver Phoenix was originally marketed as a middle grade fantasy and now has new life as a YA novel. However, all signs of the main protag’s Chinese ancestry have been eliminated on the cover. While it can be argued that the girls on both the new version of the first novel (on the left) and it’s sequel (on the right) are covered just above the bridge of the nose, thus making their race ambiguous, both books look more like a white protag than Chinese (at least to my eyes). For more information on the publisher’s decision (Greenwillow books) to re-market the book, here are links to the author’s blog and a few other blogs with differing opinions.


Note what one poster name Michelle stated, which gives insight on book buyers:

Michelle posted:

Here’s the comment I posted at Cindy’s blog about this: (Quoted material is from a paragraph she wrote in her post.)

“Silver Phoenix was passed on by borders and carried in only limited quantities in select barnes and noble stores. she simply wasn’t being picked up by readers as much as we’d have liked.”

Having worked in the publishing industry as an editor, and now opening my own independent bookstore, I understand the pressure publishers and editors feel to have their books picked up widely. The statement quoted above, though, is backward. The book wasn’t picked up by enough readers *because* it wasn’t widely available. At the publishing house where I had worked, if B&N told our sales team that they didn’t like the cover we’d slaved over, we had to change it. One buyer’s opinion—and I literally mean 1 opinion—sealed the fate of that book. If that buyer at Borders or Barnes & Noble decided not to carry your book because of the cover, your book was doomed to small sales before it even hit the printing press.

Sadly, if you surveyed the race and age of the book buyers at these large chains—the people who have incredible amounts of power when it comes to book design and sales—you’ll notice that most of them are white and older. I, as an independent bookstore owner, have no voice when it comes to book sales, but as someone who spends my time selling these books to real teens, I have a much better idea of what they want than a corporate executive (which is basically what B&N and Borders buyers are, as they deal exclusively with publishers and never with real readers).

People tend to go after publishers for these decisions and, though they are partially responsible, the real authority behind some of these big decisions are ignored because people don’t realize how the system works. I’d love to see it change, but until readers stop spending all of their book-buying dollars at the Big Bs, nothing will.

Author Cindy Pon addresses the cover controversy:


i know. i know!
both the Silver Phoenix paperback
(out on feb. 1, 2011) and Fury of the Phoenix
(out april 2011) have been repackaged. it’s
something that isn’t at all uncommon. it’s a way to
reach a different and (we hope) wider audience.

i feel so blessed to have gotten the original cover
so wonderfully created by chris borgman. it will
always hold a special place in my heart.
alas, despite its gorgeousness, Silver Phoenix was passed
on by borders and carried in only limited quantities
in select barnes and noble stores. she simply wasn’t
being picked up by readers as much as we’d have liked.

the truth is, Silver Phoenix looks like nothing else
that is being offered on the young adult bookshelves.
on top of that, my story is also “different”. it’s fantasy, which
is very popular right now. but asian-inspired and reads
more like a historical than the more familiar urban.
for every reader that told me s/he’s been waiting so long
for a book like mine to come along, i’ve had another tell
me, i never thought i’d like asian-inspired fantasy, but
really loved Silver Phoenix. (this always makes me so happy!)

i can’t help but wonder how many readers took one
look at my cover, made assumptions (it’s too *this*
or obviously not enough *that*) and decided it
wasn’t for them. i won’t lie. it breaks my heart a little.
the reason that i love fantasy so much is because despite
the fact that an author can take me to an entirely
different world or time, weave epic stories of good
against evil, astound me with mythical creatures, etc, the
fantastic is always grounded in the human experience.

Silver Phoenix may be a little different than what’s
offered in young adult right now, but at the heart
of ai ling’s story is friendship, family, discovering
oneself, growing and falling in love. (oh, and food. =)
i don’t think my debut is for every reader.
of course not. but do i think that it has fully reached its
potential reading audience? unfortunately, no.

i’m very well aware of recent discussions
about whitewashing young adult covers as well as
#racefail debates, especially within the speculative
fiction genres. most of you know by now that the
author gets very little say in cover design. i was fortunate
enough to be consulted on many aspects for the original
cover. my debut cover couldn’t have been more fierce
or asian! and i’m so grateful to greenwillow books for spending
the time, money and effort to repackage my books.
with the hopes that it will be carried more widely and
perhaps draw a new audience that my original cover didn’t.

because what matters to me the most has always been
the story. i spent two years writing and revising
Silver Phoenix, went through the gut wrenching heartache of
querying 121 agents so ai ling’s tale could be read. and it’s a
dream come true to be published. i never did it for the money,
fame or glory (i laugh at the thought!). but on a personal level,
i want my stories to be read and on a professional level, read
widely enough that more xia fantasy books in the future is
a possibility. i do have other xia tales in me! =)

i would love to see more diversity in all ways being
published in children’s and young adult genres.
i think progress is happening, even if it may seem painfully slow.
especially when we feel passionate about it. but change doesn’t
happen instantly. i believe success can be achieved through many
small triumphs. and it can start simply with a story…

i wanted to take the time here to express my gratitude
for all the love i got (and continue to receive!)
on the www, from LJ to twitter to blogger, facebook to
wordpress and all my online friends in the groups and forums
i frequent (many of whom are now real life friends!).
your support and enthusiasm for Silver Phoenix means the
world to me. and also to the librarians, teachers and
booksellers who’ve been so encouraging and kind–thank you!!

if you truly love the original Silver Phoenix cover, please
get a hold of a hardcover copy soon! the paperback will feature a
“darker” cover to match Fury of the Phoenix.

as you know, i’ve been working obsessively on my sequel.
i’m very excited by it, and so pleased to see my vision
of this tale improve and unfold as i revise with my
fantabulous editor. it’s really stayed true to my vision,
only better! i can’t wait to send Fury out into the
reading world next april!

Editorial Annonymous was much more direct:

…You might start thinking that publishers simply aren’t listening to the strong reactions that recent instances of whitewashing have elicited from the community of readers / bloggers. You might even think that perhaps they’re hoping that eventually we’ll get tired of complaining about this, and they’ll help us get tired by giving us some more instances.

But I don’t think that’s really what’s going on. I think what publishers and chain bookstore buyers are really thinking to themselves is this:

“We’re not racists; teenagers are racists.”

Now, whether or not there are book-buying teens who are racist and will not buy this book because there is a Chinese girl on the cover, and whether or not there are enough of them to justify such a statement or make a meaningful difference to sales, letting someone else’s perceived racism influence your behavior in the interest of making more money means:

You are racists. And you’re whores.
Was that clear enough?



Over at the blog The Interrobangs!

There’s the Across the Universe’s Cover Racefail

They’re at it again.

Take a look at the cover for Across the Universe. I’m late posting this, since the article was up in December of 2010, but it’s another example of the “white-washing” that’s routinely done in publishing.

Across the Universe retail cover

Stock photo used for Across the Universe book cover

Comparing photos. On the left is the unaltered shot. On the right is the edited pic

Posted in: Blog, Book covers