When Book Covers Get Characters Wrong

Book cover design is often grand, but sometimes publishers don’t get it quite right. Take for example the case of Nnedi Okorafor.

Nnedi Okorafor is an extraordinary science fiction writer, and she has the Nebula Award to prove it. Before she was quite so lauded, however, she had a strange and terrible interaction with her publisher regarding the cover design for The Shadow Speaker.

The Shadow Speaker is a young adult novel that was originally published in 2007 and received a James Tiptree Jr. Award. The book is set in 2070 in a time after a nuclear war that occurred in the early twenty-first century. It follows the story of Ejii who lives in a Nigerian village and is the 14 year-old daughter of her tribe’s former chief. Ejii is Muslim, and though her family has a complex ethnic background, she is undeniably African.

Which is why it was such a surprise when the publisher sent Okorafor proposed cover art featuring a white woman.

The Shadow Speaker Twitter.PNG

Yesterday Okorafor tweeted a comparison of that original image and the final version that she fought for. Though it is hard to see, the original images features the back of a young woman with pale skin and light hair with blond highlights. Okorafor was horrified by the proposed cover. The book describes Ejii as “black skinned”, and the publisher erased that identity. After some vicious back and forth between the author and the publisher – Okorafor said that she had to throw “a sh*t fit” – the publisher submitted a new cover. This one featured a woman with dark hair and skin. This one looked more like Ejii.

Though covers can serve as marketing tools, the also play a role in whether or not different people see themselves reflected in the world. Eliminating the cultural and racial background of a character has larger social and political repercussions, and I’m glad that The Shadow Speaker ended up with a cover that expresses who Ejii really is.

Now hopefully Okorafor’s current publisher will have a bit more respect for the identities of her characters.

43 thoughts on “When Book Covers Get Characters Wrong

  1. Well Done Nnedi Okorafor – If I’m requested to include figures or faces on book covers, I make SURE they’re appropriate AND approved by the author – but mine are custom made, not foisted onto the authors (as done by many publishers)

    Liked by 3 people

      1. You’re right. People in media (book related and otherwise) really do have a responsibility to represent characters and authors correctly. Unfortunately sometimes public outcry is the only thing that seems to nudge them in the right direction.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. All too often cover models look nothing like an author’s written description of their characters. The fact this publisher had no problem presenting this cover to the author…and that she had to throw a sh*t fit simply to get a more appropriate cover is quite telling of the level of ignorance/ambivalence…or just plain disregard authors deal with (and some have to accept) on a regular basis.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. My favorite example of this is a book my mother owns (The Gate of Ivrel) which features a female warrior wearing a white bikini — whereas the female warrior in the book pages wears neck-to-toe body armor, since she is, you know, a WARRIOR. My mother was so annoyed that she literally took a black Sharpie and colored in the character’s body on the front cover so it looked like she was wearing black armor.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Same thing happened to me. Character is mixed; described as having brown skin and dark hair that’s always braided. They gave me a red-headed Caucasian with free flowing hair. :/

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It was for Existence, yes. I asked them to correct it and they did it no problem. Not sure why they made her that way (maybe to make her stand out on the cover because I had a darker background?) and I went back and made sure the character’s description was clear/clearer to prevent any more confusion.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’d like to hear what the publisher’s argument was for keeping it. They didn’t want to change it because they were convinced that…no one would buy it if there was a POC on the cover? What other argument could they have, and HOW could they have that argument with her? Or anyone? Is that really something they have metrics for?? Sorry, in my mind I’m just trying to formulate everything that leads up to that even being a thing, and it’s so disturbing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It also makes me think of when the Hunger Games movies were first coming out. There were a lot of people that were upset that Rue was played by a black actress, but in the book, Rue was clearly described as having dark skin and dark hair. People can be pretty terrible about things like this.


  6. I found out recently that this also happened to Octavia Butler: her book Dawn had a white woman on the cover though the main character was black. They changed the cover later to reflect that. I hate that they still feel the need to do this anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. That’s sad she had to throw a fit to get the cover changed. It baffles me when this happens. The character isn’t white, so what on earth is the publisher thinking putting a white person on the cover?????? You’d think with the need for diversity in books and the fact people are clamoring for them, the publishers would jump on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is very strange. I wonder if some publishers just don’t think about it and are stuck in design ruts. (Ruts full of white people…) Maybe hearing about these cases will help inspire more publishers to change.


  8. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I don’t even know what to say. This makes me angry. I’m a book cover designer and I was looking for some cover design inspiration and I happened along your blog. Thanks for sharing this story. I re-blogged it because this is the type of thing that I feel is necessary to share.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is sometimes horrifying how books can be misrepresented. Luckily I think that more and more people are speaking up about problems like this, and hopefully that will make a difference in what covers are created in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

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