Thursday, April 02, 2009

Looking for African Faces

Now that I’m not a book cover designer by trade anymore, there are certain things I don’t have to worry about, and so I find freedom in deleted emails that no longer pertain to my day-to-day activities. I don’t have to care if there is a new font available, and I don’t have to care if National Geographic has released new stock photography. I can delete emails from agents trying to tell me about the new artist they represent, and I can ignore all correspondence from Getty which owns more stock images than God.

I’ve still got my little finger in the business, though, because I will continue to design the occasional cover for a non-profit publisher that sells books to English-speaking areas of Africa. I’m not sure of all the countries where their books are sold, but I do know they are prominent in Nigeria. So, when they give me a project and ask for imagery of people on the cover, I have to hunt and gather for images of people from that part of the world. That’s no easy task in the U.S.

I have finally found a handful at least, though, and a couple of days ago while I was searching through a photographer’s collection of imagery from West Africa, I was struck by a difference between American and African publishing. In the U.S., publishers are often shy about putting the faces of people on the covers of books because they don’t want to lose buyers of other races. They say white people will buy books with anybody on them, but blacks are less likely to buy books with just white people on the cover. And then you run the risk of alienating the Asians and the Hispanics and whoever else is looking for an image they can relate to.

But so far there are no limitations on these books that are sold in Africa. Everybody’s black. Of course, that isn’t true. There are people of all races in Africa, but the market where these books will be sold just wants to see themselves—and they only want symbols they understand that don’t smack of Colonials. For example, a book about marriage can’t have a wedding ring on the cover because to Africans, rings are a white man’s symbol. And if you’re going to have a photo of flowers, it has to be a photo of flowers that would grow in Africa, not necessarily your typical bouquet from the States. And, apparently Africans really like red, and spiders are a positive symbol, not something creepy.

The same people who say black people in the States don’t want white people on their book covers also say that women will buy books written by men, but men are often hesitant to buy books written by women, especially if those books are about things like money or politics or spiritual guidance.

You can draw all kinds of conclusions about men and women and people of different races by the way they choose their books, but I think basically people want to find themselves in the market place. Maybe some of us just draw a stronger distinction between humans of all sorts than others.

Whatever the statistics say, my job as occasional book cover designer is now easier because I’m free to use people in the design, and the occasional spider.


kyle said...

I like red, too...and spiders. Perhaps you should use your own images.

Shazza said...

You know I never thought about this before but I see your point. People are facinating aren't they? A friend of mine was born and raised in South Africa has this beautiful braclet made of bright red seeds of somekind. Gorgeous stuff.

Enjoy your freedom to create!

lynn said...

Do you have to care if they want to make your penis bigger? Get you bigger results with Viagra? ;)

dive said...

Another excellent post, Robyn.
Hey, how does it feel to be your own editor? Hee hee.