For this week's edition of Heck YA, Diversity!, Hannah Ehrlich is back to talk about publisher LEE & LOW's approach to book covers. (Y'all may remember Hannah from the first part of my interview with her, on the history and mission of LEE & LOW.)
What's the book cover decision process like at LEE & LOW? How much involvement do the authors have?
The cover decision process at Lee & Low is a pretty organic one. Since we're a very small house (about 12 people here in the office) we don't have a whole huge production department churning out covers and lots of levels of higher-ups that need to approve. The cover design process is a collaborative effort between the editor (or editors) and the designer, and someone from marketing/sales usually weighs in towards the end of the process. In the case of picture books, often the illustrator and editor will work together initially on the cover concept. For novels, the level of involvement of an author really depends. Some have stronger ideas of what they want the covers to look like, while others leave it in our hands completely. Either way, we do take author opinions into account when deciding on the final concept. We talk about the process of coming up with the Vodnik cover here, if you're interested.
Is there a significant difference in the sale of books with covers that clearly features a POC, versus the sale of the ones that don't? Are POC covers harder to sell to even booksellers and libraries? Does one ethnicity sell better than others?
NO! You can put a POC on the cover of a book and it can sell. In fact, we make a special effort to include characters of color on our book covers whenever we can. In a few cases, we've end up going with a different approach for design reasons, but we have NEVER taken a POC off a cover because we were afraid the book wouldn't sell. And, as we've been doing this for 20 years and have many, many titles with POC on our covers, I think we're living proof that that is a myth.
Librarians, on the whole, are strong supporters of diversity. They will gladly champion any cover which shows a character that actually looks like their students. As far as booksellers go, it really depends. B&N has carried books by us with POC on the covers; others they haven't. Was it because the cover had a POC? Or was it something else? We'll never really know exactly.
I think that's the hard thing with diversity in publishing, or anywhere else where you have this sort of institutional inequality. It's not always obvious. You probably won't hear a bookseller say "We don't want POC on our covers, nobody buys that" but you might hear them say something like, "Oh, I'm not sure if our audience would be interested in this story." They themselves might not think that race has anything to do with it.
That's why we need to keep talking about these issues: so all of us at all levels - publishers, booksellers, and readers - can check our own misconceptions. The myth that covers with POC don't sell is only true if we allow it to be true. Each of us has the power to be a myth buster.