Boycott Bloomsbury Publishers? Maybe…if you care about young readers of color

written by Love Isn’t Enough editor Tami Winfrey Harris; originally published at What Tami Said

Regular followers of this blog know how much I love books and believe in the power and importance of reading beginning at an early age. I take so much enjoyment in reading and books have played such an important role in my personal development that it would pain me to suggest that anyone NOT read. In all the kerfuffle between publishers and e-book readers over delayed distribution and prices, I have ignored the various calls for boycotts. Yeah, I think publishers are being short–sighted by preventing e-book readers from getting their hands on hot books like “Game Change” for months after the hardback release. But I reckon they will realize the folly of trying to maintain the business status quo when e-readers like me don’t pay the hardback costs, but instead hit the local library or gleefully pre-order their e-version for less than $8 and wait patiently. I can still read my beloved books; no boycott needed there. But I am considering boycotting books distributed by Bloomsbury Publishing, because the company, known for the Harry Potter series and others, has demonstrated that it disdains readers like me–people of color. The publisher has repeatedly shown that it believes people of color are so unrelatable, so “other,” that our brown faces repel white readers (the readers that matter). And they have decided, for the love of money, to acquiesce to that assumed race bias. So, while I loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” and am eager to read her latest “Committed,” published by Bloomsbury, I am considering leaving the book unread. What choice do I have? Gilbert’s publisher does not want me.

Last summer, I wrote about Bloomsbury’s decision to portray a black protagonist as white on the cover of the YA novel, “Liar.”
Why would a young adult (YA) book about a black girl with features that reflect her African ancestry and hair that is short and natural have a young, white girl with keen features and flowing tresses on the cover? Folks around the Web (Read this great summary at Chasing Ray) are asking that question about the US release of Australian author Justine Larbalestier’s latest book, Liar, a thriller about a teenage pathological liar. The answer, according to Bloomsbury, the book’s publisher, is certainly one we’ve heard before: Black faces don’t sell, particularly dark ones framed by nappy hair. Beauty sells and black faces are not beautiful. In a post about the controversy on her Web site, Larbalestier mentions a positive review of Liar that brands Micah, the protagonist, “ugly,” though there is nothing in the book that describes her as such. Apparently, it is her blackness and nappiness that offends. Read more…
In response to that controversy, Bloomsbury changed “Liar’s” cover to feature a black person that more closely reflected the book’s actual main character. It seems, though, that the publisher has failed to learn its lesson. Now comes “Magic Under Glass,” a YA book whose heroine Nimira is described as having shiny, black hair and golden, brown skin. The cover of the Bloomsbury published book by Jacklyn Dolamore, however, depicts a brown-haired, white woman.
Kate Harding tackles the “but businesses have to make money” issue deftly in an article on Salon, pointing out, as did Justine Larbalestier, the author of “Liar,” that books with characters of color are so seldom giving the full support of publishing houses that it is impossible to judge how they would fare in an even playing field. But I’m concerned about something beyond business. As someone who was once a little, black girl who haunted libraries and book stores…as someone who loves the two little black girls who are my nieces, I am concerned about the ongoing message Bloomsbury is sending that black girls and women are unsightly, unwanted and undesirable. Ari at Reading in Color shares my concern. Harding quotes the blogger as writing the following in an 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? It’s upsetting, it makes me angry and it makes me sad. Can you imagine growing up as a little girl and wanting to be white because not only do you not see people who look like you on TV, you don’t see them in your favorite books either…. Do you know how sad I feel when my middle school age sister tells me she would rather read a book about a white teen than a person of color because “we aren’t as pretty or interesting.” She doesn’t know the few books that do exist out there about people of color because publishing houses like yourself don’t put people of color on the covers. And my little brother doesn’t even like to read, he wants to read about cool people who look like him, but he doesn’t see those books in bookstores and now he rarely reads.

The folks at Bloomsbury may not be able to imagine the pain of marginalization, but black women and girls needn’t imagine, we KNOW. And we are tired.
What to do?
I knew I had to write this post to add my voice to those chastising the publisher for its racism and ineptitude. Perhaps if our voices are loud enough, Bloomsbury will change their ill-conceived cover as they have done in the past. But how many times must we do this? That the blogosphere has exploded AGAIN, not even a year after the first incident demonstrates that the company hardly takes these complaints seriously.
We could all–people of color and white people who are offended at Bloomsbury’s assumption that white readers find brown people repugnant–stop buying books distributed by this publisher. We could pass up Gilbert’s latest and J.K. Rowling’s next. And we could let the publisher and its authors know why we are boycotting their products. But…I fear the activists in this fight would wind up being mostly brown people. And the powers that be at Bloomsbury will just smile and say “A-ha, we told you that people of color did not read! Now, back to publishing books for white people.” Plus, we would be punishing authors like Larbalestier, who make a conscious effort to write good books with diverse characters and who fight with publishers to have those characters portrayed accurately.
Harding agrees, but offers some good advice in her article, courtesy of Jezebel:

Meanwhile, as consumers, we can put pressure on publishers to stop engaging in a deceptive, racist and hurtful practice, and explaining it away with a tired axiom that helps create the very problem it defines. Unfortunately, the most obvious protest, a boycott of these titles or Bloomsbury altogether, would hurt innocent authors and reinforce the impression that the market doesn’t want books about people of color. But as Anna North at Jezebel suggests, there’s no reason not to send a bunch of angry letters. Adds Ari at Reading in Color, “We should keep blogging, emailing, writing about this issue” — Bloomsbury’s been shamed into doing the right thing once before, at least. And as Larbalestier said back in July, perhaps the most important thing we can do — especially white people, who could easily read nothing but books about ourselves, and far too often take that option — is prove the prevailing wisdom wrong. “When was the last time you bought a book with a person of colour on the front cover or asked your library to order one for you?” she asks. If you want to see more of them, here’s her best advice: “Go buy one right now. “

Please join me in telling Bloomsbury that they must do better:

Bloomsbury Publishing
Distributed by Macmillan
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010
F: (212) 780-0115 or (212) 982-2837

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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