22 January 2010

Faces on Book Covers and the Lack of Market Research

Back when I was a book editor, one of my projects was the reissue of a book about business presentations. The art director brought me a set of stock photos of people giving presentations, and I chose the image that best reflected how we were repositioning the book. The model was young, energetic, confident. He was also black.

I knew there weren’t a lot of business books with a single black person on the cover, so I wondered if this was a daring choice. I also wondered if using this photo would play into one of American culture’s varied stereotypes of black men—the hyper-articulate public speaker. But book covers have to push buttons in the customers’ minds, so would playing on a recognizable positive image be a bad thing? In the end, I didn’t want to make race a factor in the choice, and that image’s energy won the day.

We sent an image of the new cover to the author, and he called to ask if putting a black man on the cover would affect sales. (He used the grating phrase “politically correct” in his question.) I told him that photo was clearly the best choice, and we didn’t anticipate problems.

Of course, I had no market research to back up that belief. General-interest, retail-based publishing never has market research. The industry doesn’t have the resources for focus groups, test marketing, or gathering systematic feedback on specific books. There are general studies on the bookstore customer base, but with stores carrying tens of thousands of products, each competing with all the others for readers’ time and yet each in some way unique, it’s impossible to apply those findings to the nuances of individual titles.

Our Sales Department never told me of any complaints about our new cover. But yesterday I quoted two children’s book professionals on seeing some white people silently pass over books about non-white children. So would booksellers have told our reps that they were ordering fewer copies of this one title because its cover showed a black man? Would customers have told bookstore clerks why they chose another title on business presentations? Would people even be conscious of prejudices affecting their choices?

Lack of definite answers might be a good thing because math and economics aren’t necessarily on the side of inclusion. In the US today, there are six non-Latino white people for every one African-American; the ratio among bookstore customers might be even higher for a variety of factors (disposable income, store locations, etc.). Let’s imagine that the image of a black man on that business book cut sales to white customers by only 10%. The same cover would have had to increase the book’s appeal to black customers by 60% to cancel out our loss.

And the American book industry is capitalist and market-driven. These days, even the biggest trade publishers are relatively small divisions of massive media corporations. Corporations are set up to make their employees care about revenue and profits, not politics (except insofar as they affect revenue and profits) or inclusiveness (except insofar…). From my employer’s point of view, if I’d knowingly chosen a photo that promised to limit sales, I wouldn’t have been doing my job. Lack of definite answers let me decide according to my values and tastes rather than by the numbers.

I just found that edition of the book still on sale, with the same photo (and my smoooooth cover copy on the back). Does that mean the reissue was so successful that it’s lasted on store shelves for more than a decade? Did the photo actually help the book keep looking up-to-date? Or was the book so unsuccessful that the company hasn’t bothered to reissue it again? Did the cover image have any effect whatsoever?

I doubt anyone knows. There are 100,000 stories in every big bookstore, and the industry doesn’t have the resources to track them all.

TOMORROW: Can advertising change the market?


beth said...

Would a Latino be more likely to pick the book up? Maybe you only need 50% more sales in the non-white population. Nobody knows.

My sons don't seem to care about the race of the people on their book covers. They care a bit about girliness (girls are OK, girls in fancy dresses less so). They are still in elementary school.

J. L. Bell said...

The boy/girl question probably has similar math, especially in the teen years. The market is so heavily tilted toward female readers that a cover which increases a book's “girl appeal” by 10% might be worth sacrificing 75% of the potential male readership. Hence so many pink covers.

Mama Librarian said...

This is very interesting. Consider the difference between picture book covers (lots and lots of POC, mixed groups of kids, etc.) versus novel/chapter book covers (fewer POC, even fewer actual faces). I wonder why that would be.