Afro-themed image on a magazine cover shocks industry, ignites firestorm
Not that PW hasn't had its problems. The 136-year-old magazine, published by Reed Elsevier's (ENL) Reed Business Information, has been on the block off-and-on for the last couple of years -- and most definitely on since last July. PW has weathered all manner of cuts and layoffs, including that of editor-in-chief Sara Nelson at the start of 2009.
But it seems the magazine's newest strategy for survival is to court controversy. Last month its Best Books of 2009 roster raised hackles for excluding any books by women. This week, it's the magazine's cover (pictured), promoting a feature about African-American literature, that's sparking a debate in the industry.
'Have You Lost Your Mind?'
Julia Cheiffetz, an editor at News Corp.'s (NWS) HarperStudio, sounded the first alarm in the imprint's blog: "Publishers Weekly, Have You Lost Your Mind?"Reaction around the industry gave the resounding answer: Yup.
"The black woman as the exotic, wild creature with crazy hair is not, perhaps, the wisest choice of images," said HTMLGIANT's Roxane Gay. And MediaElite's Steve Huff wrote, "This one just comes from the land of fantastically stupid publishing decisions. Like, magnificently boneheaded in that way that only extremely educated – and surely mostly white – people can sometimes be."
The cover was conceived byan African-American senior editor at PW, Calvin Reid, who also wrote the "Afro Picks!" cover line and edited the feature package it promotes, along with PW's creative director, Clive Chiu.
'Startling and Alienating'
Tayari Jones, author of Leaving Atlanta and The Untelling, says she and fellow African-American writers had been excited by the cover package: "It's still rare for black fiction to be covered by black writers in a mainstream magazine." But Jones found the cover to be "startling and alienating," she says, and "a throwback to 1970s stereotypes." Dolen Perkins-Valdez, an African-American author featured in PW's story, added: "The disturbing thing about the PW cover is that somebody thought it was funny."
Some readers were disturbed not by the image so much as the cover line: "Afro Picks!" Joseph Sullivan, a book designer and proprietor of The Book Design Review, "It appears to come from PW editorial, and not from the creative from one of the books being covered or reviewed."
Of the image itself, Sullivan says, "I immediately think of Kara Walker's work, and how it polarizes viewers. This cover is not doing anybody any favors: There's clearly a larger context that's missing, and PW's running roughshod over that with cheeky copy."
The firestorm may stem from a photo taken out of context. PW editorial director Brian Kenney says the 1999 photograph, "Pickin'," by Lauren Kelley, came from W.W. Norton's October book Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present, which is highlighted in Felicia Pride's cover story on African-American publishing trends. (Pride Tweeted on Tuesday morning: "I too saw the PW cover yesterday. Mouth dropped. Still, I hope you can read my article.")
Posing Beauty was edited by Deborah Willis, chair of New York University's photography department, and a scholar of black photography and representation.
"PW sometimes assigns its covers to illustrators," Kenney says, "but when our cover story is about a specific area of publishing, we sometimes use existing art from one of the books mentioned in the feature. So our decision to choose an image from Posing Beauty is not unusual."
Controversial or Delightful?
Did PW intend to spark controversy with the cover? "Well, Ms. Kelley created a beautiful, strong, and powerful image that was meant, in part, to be provocative," Kenney says. "It would seem to be doing its job. I'm delighted that PW can help draw attention to her work, and especially to the wonderful collection that is Posing Beauty."
Senior editor Reid addressed the criticisms in an online column, as well as via the Publishers Weekly Twitter account. "While I respect everyone who may be offended," he wrote, "I think the photo is a delightful and wry expression of historical Afro Americana."
But the out-of-context explanation may not be enough. "Apologists for PW's cover and coverline are defending the indefensible," says publishing consultant Don Linn.
"At the end of the day," Jones says, "it's still a shocking cover, and it underscores the frustration of being told that you are an outsider."