Diverse Editions, which dressed twelve classic books from Penguin Random House in new dust jackets featuring typically white characters reimagined as people of different races, was “suspended” following a quick wave of online criticism and accusations of “literary blackface.” Comprising such titles as Moby Dick, Romeo and Juliet, and The Secret Garden, the new covers were scheduled to launch Wednesday evening at the Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue in NYC. A panel discussion as part of that launch, including manager, business development and business department at the Fifth Avenue store Cal Hunter and assistant marketing manager at Penguin Random House Estefania Ospina, was cancelled as well.
The project was described as a collaboration among Barnes & Noble, Penguin Random House and ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day. It was BN that issued the first statement: “We acknowledge the voices who have expressed concerns about the Diverse Editions project at our Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue store and have decided to suspend the initiative. Diverse Editions presented new covers of classic books through a series of limited-edition jackets, designed by artists hailing from different ethnicities and backgrounds. The covers are not a substitute for black voices or writers of color, whose work and voices deserve to be heard.”
The statement continues, “It was a project inspired by our work with schools and was created in part to raise awareness and discussion during Black History Month, in which Barnes & Noble stores nationally will continue to highlight a wide selection of books to celebrate black history and great literature from writers of color.”
Penguin Random House noted in their own internal statement, “We collaborated with the B&N Fifth Avenue store on this promotion and we apologize to our authors, colleagues, and readers. We support Barnes & Noble’s decision to cancel it.” (Note that PRH uses the clear term “cancel,” whereas Barnes & Noble only said “suspend.”) PRH underscores, “During this month, but more importantly throughout the year, our priority is to promote authors of color and a publishing culture that supports diverse voices.”
A Fast Company article promoting the ill-conceived initiative before the reaction hit said “the idea started with TBWA,” with chief creative officer Chris Beresford-Hill and chief diversity officer Doug Melville. They cited the conversation sparked by the casting of the Hermione character in the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and said, “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 s—-y marketing back in the day.”You can see where the problems started from that statement.
TBWA starting working with artists to reimagine the covers to be more diverse and claims they “used artificial intelligence to analyze the text from 100 of the most famous titles, searching the text to see if it omitted ethnicity of primary characters.” Penguin Random House agreed to partner on the initiative as part of their broader Black History Month promotions. BN and TWBA presented the project to PRH, and the publisher says “our colleagues were interested in the opportunity to bring diverse visual representation to the covers of classic works.” The participants have pointed out that the people who were leading the initiative, including Melville, Hunter, and PRH executive vp and director of marketing strategy and consumer engagement Sanyu Dillon, are people of color.
Critics asserted that Black History Month should focus on promoting black authors, not repackaging canonical works from primarily white appears to appear more diverse. As Slate put it, “That choice, among others, reveals the fundamental problem with the ‘Diverse Editions’ concept: The project assumes that stories written by and about white people are somehow racially neutral and that you can just slap a black or brown face on them and declare them diverse. But just because a character isn’t described as having pale skin or golden hair doesn’t mean that their whiteness isn’t a part of their narrative.”
Frannie Jackson wrote in Paste Magazine, “instead of promoting books that champion inclusivity, Penguin Random House and Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue have teamed up for a project that amounts to literary blackface.” Critical tweeters included author Patrice Caldwell, who said that publishers should “spotlight books by actual black people if you want to honor black history month,” as well as author Justina Ireland, who tweeted, “what it says is that at the end of the day people of color want to be white.”
A PRH spokesperson pointed out that the program is just one of many of the publisher’s initiatives for the month. The intent, said the spokesperson, was to have different visual representation from artists of all different backgrounds. Another initiative is donating up to $10,000 to the Hurston Wright Foundation, every time someone tweets the hashtag #BlackStoriesHavePower.
There was a Diverse Editions website, branded as from BN and PRH and now gone dark, that was supposed to provide “bespoke book jackets…for download.” The site was also going to let “aspiring illustrators…share their personal designs to the website for the chance to be prominently featured in Barnes & Noble’s windows in February.” They had intended to donate copies to libraries and schools in the tri-state area at the end of the month as well.
In the original release, Hunter commented: “An astute orator once profoundly said: ‘If you are not in the picture, it is uninteresting’. Sustained applause to TBWA and the premier publisher partner Penguin Random House for coloring and widening the literary lens.”
Also in that release, PRH’s Ospina said: “We hope that seeing characters and beloved heroes in these classics embodying the diversity and inclusion to which parents and children can relate will make these works more resonant and meaningful for everyone. Diverse Editions is an initiative that is as opportune as it is essential.”