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May 20, 2012

Follow Up on YA Covers

Kate Hart
Wow. So. Thank you all for the unbelievable response to last week's post about YA covers. I keep seeing it pop up in unexpected places and from unexpected people. (The bump from Nerdfighteria was especially exciting-- y'all definitely DFTBA.) I'm really glad conversations are getting started on such an important topic, and I'd like to clarify a few questions I've seen online.

First, a paraphrase of a response I posted to a discussion thread on Metafilter: Last year's original goal was honestly just to show that there really is a wide variety of covers-- and a wide variety of YA, period. It wasn't meant to be terribly scientific.

I knew POC representation was a problem, though, and as I got into the numbers, I was floored by how big a problem it is. So I charted it too, trying to be as accurate as possible without making the project a full-time job. These are not professionally researched and produced. Please take their findings with a grain of salt.

But Kate, your math is messed up.

I really, really meant my bad math skill disclaimers. It was not false modesty or self-deprecating humor. For instance, the logical way to do this year's charts would have been to divide by total number of models, not covers, so that the percentages added up to 100... but that didn't occur to me until this weekend. (By that method, all the numbers are the same except that 86% of models were white, rather than 90%. Not a huge change.)

But regardless, even with a huge margin of error-- even if I somehow missed 50 POCs within this sample -- the numbers would still be dismal. I'm fairly confident I missed several, but not that many.

But the discrepancy isn't that big. The US is 90% white.

No it's not. Specifically, the 2010 census said only 58% of people ages 3-21 are white.

But I'm not arguing that covers have to correlate exactly with population to meet someone's idea of "fair." I am saying that kids of color deserve to see themselves represented in and on books, and 8 or 9 a year isn't cutting it. If for some reason you disagree with that, then we have a fundamental difference of opinion that I can't address here. But you'd probably benefit from the starter list mentioned below.

I'm white and I don't know what to do about this.

Me too, and me neither, at least until I did some research. A few suggestions:

- Do an honest assessment of the books you've read. Any POC characters? Authors? (So that no one thinks I'm being sanctimonious: I did this recently-- months after I put up last year's charts-- and was embarrassed by what I found.)

- Learn more. Seek out books with POC authors and characters; read the writing advice given freely on blogs. I've assembled a starter list of resources and hope y'all will add suggestions in the comments, either here or there.

- Spread the word. Make sure other readers, regardless of age or ethnicity, are getting their hands on these books. Show booksellers, libraries, and publishers that demand exists. Jody Hedlund has a great list of ways to support authors you love, beyond buying the book.

Is that enough? No. But it's a start.

I want to see a breakdown of character race/ethnicity.

I neglected to link this post from Mitali Perkins, which shows exactly that for 2010. Tiana Smith also has an interesting breakdown of 50 bestselling YA heroines.

I want to see a breakdown of authors by race/ethnicity.

I.... have no idea how to get you that information, but perhaps someone will link it in the comments.

Why didn't you include my book?

I promise, it wasn't an intentional exclusion. I had to draw a line somewhere, so I decided to use the Goodreads list since 975 titles seemed like a reasonable representation of what was getting noticed.

But you didn't include all 975.

Some of them weren't really 2011 releases; some of them weren't US releases, and some of them, I probably just missed. If I skipped you, I really am sorry.

Your self-published/indie list is woefully incomplete.

I know. I didn't want to leave non-"traditionally" published books completely out, but I lacked the time, energy, and ambition to take on a truly comprehensive survey, so I left my results at the 200+ mentioned on the Goodreads list.

By their nature, non-traditional books are harder to track down-- NK Jemison pointed out an entire market I didn't realize even existed. I would ~*LOVE*~ for someone to take on an analysis of self-published, indie, middle grade, adult, romance, sci fi, even a more scientific analysis of YA covers. The more data, the better.

Latin@ is not a word.

Yes it is.

But I like fancy dresses / closely cropped shots / underwater pictures / etc!

I do too, sometimes! I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with most cover techniques, but I charted them because I knew people were interested (and because it highlights the inequality issue). For more, the lovely and talented Kelly Jensen has a short round up of this week's cover posts; Stacked also has lots of great articles in their archives, and the fabulous Capillya has an entire site looking at cover design.

How long did those charts take you?

An embarrassingly long time.

What program did you use to make them?

I counted covers manually and put their stats in Excel, then generated the charts as Excel objects and imported them to Photoshop as png files. 

And finally...

There have been lots of great comments and discussions on the covers post, but I wanted to highlight one issue I hadn't considered: a reader pointed out that the problem sometimes starts with a lack of diversity in stock photography.

Also, as a sub-note to my disclaimer that authors don't have a lot of control over their covers: John Green admits he "actively dislikes" some of his covers, though he doesn't say which one.


Thank you all for being so respectful and calm and generally rad. Putting up these posts is nerve wracking for me and I appreciate everyone's willingness to approach the topic as a discussion, not an argument. You guys win the internet.


  1. I agree with everything you say on this topic 100%! Or 110% depending on how you run the stats. ;)

  2. Thanks again for doing all this work, Kate. Whatever people's opinions may be, it's important to be talking about it.


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