Book events rarely garner national media attention—or, for that matter, much attention at all. But on Wednesday, Barnes & Noble canceled the launch of “Diverse Editions,” a series of 12 new covers of American classics that “reimagine protagonists as people of color,” after the initiative was decried as “literary blackface.”
“Editions” is something of a misnomer—these were not new books being sold but rather cover print-outs featuring artist renderings of characters from works including Moby-Dick, The Wizard of Oz, and The Secret Garden. Think Captain Ahab depicted as a black man, Dorothy as a black girl, and Frankenstein’s monster with an Afro.
As with the American Dirt fiasco, the furor surrounding the Diverse Editions initiative reveals not only the publishing industry’s ongoing diversity problems but its struggles in addressing those problems. The main players—Penguin Random House, Barnes & Noble, and the advertising agency TBWA\Chiat\Day—insisted on their “good intentions.” But the story behind the long-in-the-making initiative raises more questions than answers about an industry whose attempts to “fix” its diversity problem keep making things worse.
The brainchild of Doug Melville, the chief diversity officer of TBWA, the project was inspired by the casting of a black actress as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter sequel The Cursed Child. But the people close to the project seem to have been unaware that J.K. Rowling’s late-in-the-game embrace of diversity was criticized by others for being an “afterthought” that did little to change the otherwise largely lily-white YA fantasy series. Melville and Cal Hunter, of Barnes & Noble’s flagship Fifth Avenue location, were also inspired by the controversy over rumors that Idris Elba was being considered to play James Bond. (TBWA and Barnes & Noble’s Fifth Avenue store have had a relationship going back several years.)
The thinking was straightforward, if rather shallow: By changing the cover art, they could change the way readers think about literary characters and, by extension, race. The project was “intended to remove biases from our assumptions about literary characters,” a TBWA spokesperson said in a statement. “When you’re a kid in school, they always tell you that the wonderful thing about reading is what’s on the page is fixed, but you can imagine it any way you want,” TBWA’s chief content officer, Chris Beresford-Hill, said in an interview prior to the backlash. “And we started to think, well, if J.K. Rowling can say she never identified race, and it’s open to any interpretation you choose, then a lot of books have covers with white protagonists just because of some shitty marketing back in the day.”
Things really went off the rails during the selection process. Citing problems of “scale”—the time it would take to assess hundreds of works of classic, public-domain literature—the project’s leaders relied on a “custom-built A.I.” to identify “books in which the race or ethnicity of the protagonist was never explicitly stated.” This extraordinarily narrow, contextless approach omitted crucial information that human readers would have caught. It also led to strange choices. Race is central to Moby-Dick, which features a number of nonwhite characters; The Secret Garden, as Slate’s Rachelle Hampton wrote, is “a book about a child of British colonialists who considers Indians subhuman.” Everyone I spoke to identified the use of artificial intelligence as the project’s central flaw, though its narrow parameters—seemingly set by a 2015 J.K. Rowling tweet, in which she noted that she never explicitly stated that Granger was white—also deserves blame.
With the books selected, Penguin Random House came on as a publishing partner. The project was ultimately completed by four people from the three companies: Melville, Hunter, and two Penguin Random House employees, all four of whom are people of color. A launch date, February 5, was set at Barnes & Noble’s Fifth Avenue location. A panel discussion—featuring Melville, Hunter, author MK Asante, and agent Nena Madonia Osham—would address diversity in publishing. Customers who purchased one of the Diversity Editions titles would receive a book cover featuring an artist’s rendering of the nonwhite protagonists.
There is some confusion over the project’s ultimate ambitions. A number of people I spoke to stressed that this was a one-off event, taking place at only one store. But others suggested that there were big hopes that the project would gain a different kind of virality than it ultimately did and that actual new editions—as opposed to just book covers—would follow.
The project’s rollout only made things worse. An outside P.R. company was brought in to garner media coverage; Melville himself posted a since-deleted video on LinkedIn touting Diversity Editions and his role in making the book covers happen.
The backlash quickly followed. “This fake diversity nonsense (where they replace white characters with people of color) is disgusting. It is not sincere or a solution. New stories by people of color about people of color is the solution.… Stop using us and get out of the way!” author Nnedi Okorafor tweeted. “The only thing you’re disrupting is #BlackHistoryMonth and the literary dignity of communities of color,” tweeted David Bowles, the Latinx writer and poet. Less than 24 hours after the project was announced, the launch was canceled, with all three organizers issuing apologetic statements.
Some involved with the project speculated that the backlash wouldn’t have been severe—or perhaps wouldn’t have happened at all—if the publishing industry had not spent the previous two weeks debating the merits of American Dirt. But the superficiality of the project itself was its biggest flaw—a flaw that would still be present even if American Dirt were a very different novel. This superficiality is, of course, part of a systemic problem. Without systemic changes, publishers can only make gestures toward increasing diversity—gestures, like Diverse Editions, that end up highlighting the industry’s problems instead of fixing them.