Not long ago I stood in the African-American section of a large chain bookstore and did a double take. Is it me, I wondered, or were nearly all of the covers of the face-out books the same? Regrettably, it wasn't me. From the look of the covers—bright yellow, loud orange and shocking pinks with brown illustrated faces of the characters—I felt as if I were checking out the sherbet flavors at Baskin-Robbins.
There's a dispiriting tendency to paint most fiction titles by African-American authors with the same blaring, broad strokes, suggesting there's no diversity or complexity among the characters, tone and themes in works by black novelists. To be fair, there are some publishers who seem to have tired of the rainbow cover treatment. Their alternative? Abstract images of African-American appendages. On some covers we just see hands; on others, legs. One included a headless black woman. Then there were several with black folks' ankles. A different brand of sameness.
Copycat book covers are nothing new. But this is more than publishing being its usual derivative self. Would an Isabel Allende cover appear the same as an Alisa Valdes Rodriguez cover? Would an Ian McEwen novel resemble a John Grisham or Nelson DeMille novel?
Yet a few powerful buyers continue to influence the work of book designers by insisting on a uniform look for African-American titles. They're still looking back to a decade ago when "you go girl!" novels by Terry McMillan, Bebe Moore Campbell, Lolita Files and Rosalyn McMillan—which featured similar covers—sold, like, well, ice cream in August. We've moved on. Unfortunately, the buyers have not.
African-Americans want, maybe even more than other readers, to see the fullness of our lives captured on a book's cover because we rarely see realistic, three-dimensional views of ourselves in mainstream media. The sad reality is that publishers now assume that African-American fiction isn't selling as briskly as it did a decade ago because black consumers don't want to read what's being offered. But maybe we're not buying because the covers make it look like we're being sold a rehash of what we've already read.
It's absurd to think that African-Americans don't want to see more sophisticated cover treatments from our established and emerging authors.
Take Eric Jerome Dickey. Time and again, since 2000, I would suggest Dickey for major coverage within the Essence books section, insisting that he was an author with a distinct voice and devoted following. But whoever first decreed we shouldn't judge a book by its cover should try dealing with an art director striving to design pages that are irresistible to our readers. "Can they do something a bit more interesting and dynamic with his covers? They all look the same," she'd say. I'd pass that along to the people at Dutton, Dickey's publisher. I think they must have listened because last year they got it right with Genevieve. Its cover? An arresting image of a woman—head and all. It was alluring, compelling, hot. Dickey was the first featured male author in our books section and Genevieve is one of his bestselling novels.
Some talented editors and art directors do get it. Ingenious, creative covers like Third Girl from the Left by Martha Southgate, which captured her inventive novel, impress me. The same goes for Passing Through, the artfully restrained cover for Colin Channer's recent offering. And, of course, there's the Pulitzer Prize—winning novel The Known World by Edward P. Jones.
I read The Known World in galley form and was shaken by its power. Later I saw the cover art: a stunning, heart wrenching black-and-white photograph of a migrant family. I asked Dawn Davis, the book's editor, where she found the idea for the cover. Davis explained that she was inspired by the cover of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie. During my recent trip to the bookstore, TheKnownWorld was the sole book that stood out from the sea of Starburst-colored covers. I brought the last copy.