Barnes and Noble has pulled a set of reimagined classic book covers featuring diverse protagonists after the project prompted an online backlash, with critics calling it a superficial stunt.
The campaign was a joint effort between the book chain’s store on Manhattan’s 5th Avenue, TBWAChiatDay and Penguin Random House, timed to commemorate Black History Month. The publisher printed 42 covers across 12 different classic titles such as Moby Dick and Romeo and Juliet, re-casting lead characters whose race was never explicitly indicated in the source text as people of color.
But the effort rang hollow to many online detractors, who saw it as a shallow ploy to inject false diversity into the works of white authors, when books by authors of color could have been elevated instead. One Twitter user called it an attempt to “find & replace race” and “literary blackface.”
The day after the book covers were unveiled, Barnes and Noble issued a statement that it “acknowledged the voices who have expressed concerns” and was suspending the initiative in response.
“The covers are not a substitute for black voices or writers of color, whose work and voices deserve to be heard,” a spokesperson for the company said in a statement. “The booksellers who championed this initiative did so convinced it would help drive engagement with these classic titles.”
TBWA also said in its own statement that the agency “sincerely apologized for any offense this has caused,” adding that the initiative was “an effort to raise awareness and discussion during Black History Month,” and that Barnes & Noble stores across the country “will continue to highlight a wide selection of books to celebrate black history and great literature from writers of color.”
The project was originally inspired by another online uproar a few years ago over the decision to cast a black actress as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the J.K. Rowling-sanctioned theatrical play that serves as a sequel to her book franchise. Though she did not write it, Rowling was involved with the production and stepped in to shut down the backlash by pointing out that the character’s race was never specified in any of her Harry Potter novels.
TBWA chief creative officer Chris Beresford-Hill and chief diversity officer Doug Melville thought the Cursed Child episode signified an important cultural conversation. To create the Barnes and Noble campaign, they tasked the agency’s data team with creating a custom machine learning tool that searched for language patterns indicating a character’s skin color and seized on titles in which none were found.
“We just had a long conversation about how a lot of assumptions are made when books are made into films or books or even packaged and illustrated book covers,” Beresford-Hill said in an interview before the campaign’s launch. “But really the power of reading is, as we were both told when we were young, you can imagine whatever you want beyond the words on the page.”
Melville and Beresford-Hill said they tried to be mindful of the cultural context of certain texts, omitting all religious texts as a rule, for example. They also favored books centered on a grand adventure with some clear protagonist.
Melville, who has experience working in the literary industry, had hoped the campaign might help a struggling publishing industry find a way to build relevance with new audiences.
“We can build awareness to the larger challenges that publishing has about being hip and modern,” Melville said, also prior the project’s debut. “The whole publishing industry—from writers to editors to literary agents, to authors to designers and illustrators—historically, there hasn’t been a lot of diversity in publishing.”
In the end, that historic lack of diversity ended up being the project’s fatal flaw, as backlash showed that papering over that homogeneity wasn’t as simple as new book covers.