Sad

No book excited me more last year than Cindy Pon’s debut, Silver Phoenix. I rushed out and bought the hard cover. I told everyone I knew about it. Plastered it all over my blog. One fan even wrote me after reading the book because she thought Cindy Pon was my pen name since I’d gabbed about the book so much! (I redirected said fan to the right place)

The morning I sold, I literally ran to my computer and typed an excited e-mail to Cindy. I felt like a giddy schoolgirl running through the playground to a friend  who was a grade higher than me. “Cindy, Cindy! I sold!”

Silver Phoenix is lush and gorgeous and the original cover reflected the mood of the book perfectly:

Then I saw the cover of the sequel today:

And I saw how they want to rework Silver Phoenix:

SilverPhoenix2

The covers are dark and urban in appearance. The clothing modern. The faces hidden. To me, they look like so much of what’s out there in YA land. Black covers. Dark brooding mood.

I’m going to be emotional and unedited for a moment: They took away everything that was bold and special about Phoenix. They made it look modern and non-descript and non-Asian. The reasoning is that it will reach new readers this way. By hiding. By HIDING.

I lied about the unedited part. I’m a writer. Everything I post is edited. I thought very carefully about this post, because I do admit, I know next to nothing about the publishing industry. I don’t know about marketing books since I’m so new in this game. And I make it a habit not to rant too much about things I don’t know about.

But I am a reader. A consumer of books. And yes, I am biased. I write historical romances set in the Tang Dynasty. I love wuxia fiction. I started writing what I write because there weren’t many books like Silver Phoenix in the English-speaking market.

So I’m going to speak as a fan. Perhaps sales were low and the publisher had a responsibility to try to change that. I get it. This is a business. But what principle of marketing says that the way to success is to downplay your strengths? Cindy Pon writes fantasy. The selling point of fantasy is the worldbuilding. What principle of marketing dictates that you should NOT differentiate yourself from the crowd? That you should look like every other product on the market? Maybe people will think they’re buying Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, but really they’re picking up the generic store brand instead.

And that brings me to my biggest confusion. What makes the powers that be believe that READERS WANT TO BE FOOLED? That readers will pick up a book expecting one thing, and will actually be happy when it’s not that at all? That’s one of the main complaints I read in reviews. I expected a different book. So what happens when a reader picks up Cindy’s next book expecting a dark urban fantasy and gets a sweeping and epic adventure instead?

Maybe 2009 was just a tough year. Maybe people just stopped buying hardcovers except for huge big name authors with established readerships. Debut authors need to build a readership and it takes more than one book. That’s what everyone keeps telling me right now. The best way to sell more books is to write the next book. Well, Cindy did that. Fury of the Phoenix is coming out in April and Silver Phoenix‘s paperback release is in February.  If the publisher had stuck with the same look and feel, then they’d be building the brand and message. More sales on the second book, renewed interest in the first.

But the way they’ve done it now muddles the message. I don’t know what to think. If I wasn’t constantly checking up on Cindy’s blog, if I had walked by the bookshelves come April, 2011, I would have missed this sequel.

Consistent messaging. Building a brand. Increasing loyal readership. Aren’t these written into a big book somewhere?

I’m going to read Fury of the Phoenix in April. I’m going to tell everyone I know and I’m going to plaster it all over my lonely blog. I’m going to do it with love and not sadness or anger because I’m getting that out now. I’ve wanted to read this book since I finished the final sentence of the last one.

I hope the marketeers are right. I hope this new look nets a bunch of new readers who are happy to discover Cindy’s work. I hope all her current readers know to look for this book in April and buy it. Because I know the general reading public isn’t online and stalking authors the way I do. They’re walking into the bookstore and browsing shelves.

I hope the marketeers are right about this move, but I hope they’re wrong that an Asian cover doesn’t sell books.

32 Comments

  1. Inez Kelley
    Jun 30, 2010 @ 21:22:29

    Okay I am disgusted for her. It looks Twilighty-rip-off instead of lush and magical. Poor Cindy.

  2. Jeannie Lin
    Jun 30, 2010 @ 21:26:31

    @Inez – I know. No one’s going to beat Stephanie Meyers at her own game, and we all know there are plenty of people trying! Let Phoenix play it’s own game, I say.

  3. Bethanne
    Jun 30, 2010 @ 21:27:45

    I hope so too, Jeannie. I LOVE that first cover. It’s fabulous. Beautiful.

  4. R.G. Alexander
    Jun 30, 2010 @ 21:28:04

    That first cover was so vibrant. I don’t claim to have this marketing thing down, but I don’t get it.

  5. Hailey Edwards
    Jun 30, 2010 @ 21:28:33

    I dislike the sameness of the new cover. The old cover was eye-catching and gave me a sense of what might be inside. The new cover could be anything from YA to UF, and neither new offering is distinctive.

  6. Jeannie Lin
    Jun 30, 2010 @ 21:50:41

    Couldn’t they have done a dark, brooding Asian fantasy cover?

    I’m not getting the reasoning either. Just not. Maybe something needed to change, but I don’t get the direction they’re going. I’m being pouty about this now, but my hope is that things will work out when the paper back is re-released. I’m hoping that it’s just me that’s so obviously biased towards that gorgeous, shining, eye-catching, distinctive, and bold cover for Silver Phoenix.

  7. TigerBlak
    Jun 30, 2010 @ 22:39:55

    As someone who’s watched several books with characters of other races get the white washing treatment, I have to say, I don’t buy it from the publishing industry that they’re trying to give these books a chance to mainstream. What I do buy into is that they’re too afraid to let the covers stand on their own and let readers make an informed choice by judging a book by its cover. There have been a few cases when the author and ultimately the fans complained so much that they were forced to go back to press and redo the cover, but unfortunately, those are few and far between. I wish publishers would stop imposing their own ideas about what sells and what doesn’t and give books with the correct covers a chance. I know my bookshelves would be happy to welcome them.

  8. Jeannie Lin
    Jun 30, 2010 @ 22:49:49

    @TigerBlak – Thank you for that. I feel that with only a hardcover release, it was too soon to tell. Let Cindy Pon’s brand stand and fight. Use all the awards and reviews she’s gotten on Silver Phoenix to push forward boldly. Cite a growing fan base. Sell that to distributors. Don’t fold and run. Don’t deny all the work that’s already been done. What of all the debut books that fail with standard non-Asian covers? What’s to blame then?

  9. Jodie
    Jun 30, 2010 @ 22:57:37

    That is very disappointing. It irks me when the art department can’t even get it right. It’s marketing but so what? The author’s title and blurb is what works, it has to match the voice. If I see a dark cover with gal with a knife, I’m expecting gritty stuff like a paranormal or UF. Not an epic, fantasy infused with wild descriptions and such.

    I’m worried Cindy is going to get those low star reviews on amazon because of people picking it expecting something else.

  10. Jeannie Lin
    Jun 30, 2010 @ 23:14:02

    @Jodie – Exactly! To me, the insult to the reader’s intelligence is worse than the white-washing. They didn’t just obscure the race, the genre is all off.

    But the cover will have Asian designs on it and the blurb is the same. So maybe in execution it’s not as obscured as it seems here. See? I’m ever hopeful.

  11. Jha
    Jun 30, 2010 @ 23:31:49

    This is so very disappointing indeed, and very discouraging for those of us writing Asian characters in general. Thank you for speaking out against it.

    And although I don’t often read romances these days, I’m quite excited for your book! ^^

  12. Ereza
    Jul 01, 2010 @ 01:13:27

    I hope they’re wrong about asian covers not selling books. What about the international best selling (historical fantasy) Tales of the Otori by Lian Hearn? All the different versions of that cover feature asian people/influences and didn’t diminish their selling point.

  13. Joyce Chng
    Jul 01, 2010 @ 02:18:15

    I am still hopping mad. I don’t like the white-washing of Asian characters on book covers. I am really thankful that you spoke out against it.

    I love the cover for “Butterfly Sword”: it’s gorgeous and spot-on!

    Now I worry for my book when it comes out next year. 😛

  14. M.C.A. Hogarth
    Jul 01, 2010 @ 03:29:35

    Wow, what an absolutely boring cover. Plus, I am so not a fan of the poorly Photoshop-edited photo covers. A book like this would have been an awesome candidate for a lushly painted piece of artwork with some of the gorgeous Asian textile and architectural and design motifs. What a lost opportunity! I would have loved to paint a cover like that!

  15. Jeannie Lin
    Jul 01, 2010 @ 03:47:36

    @Jha I was very disappointed too. I happened to glance at Cindy’s cover once on an internet forum and was compelled to seek out the book. The original cover had such spirit in it! I knew that this book was what I’d been searching for. And thanks for sharing your excitement. It’s good to hear.

    @Ereza – Absolutely wonderful series! I don’t understand marketing much. Maybe it’s a matter of another time, another place? Different marketing philosophy? The Otori books did hail from Australia, I believe. Perhaps in international markets, the feeling is different?

    @Joyce – Thank you. The art department at Harlequin really went all out and embraced the time period. I’m very grateful. I’m very hopeful that, bit by bit, the trends are changing. Good luck with your book! I’ll have to look for it.

    @M.C.A. – When we see the original cover, we know exactly what could be. You reminded me that Cindy Pon herself is a painter. How she must feel inside as an artist and an author!

    I know Cindy gets fan art. I’d like to see what her fans come up with for a cover for Fury of the Phoenix.

  16. Peach
    Jul 01, 2010 @ 06:45:45

    Disappointed. The original claver was vibrant and interesting, it really stood out and caught my eye. The remade one? Bleh. On a bookstore shelf, it was so much ‘the same old thing’ that I think it would have blended in to the point it was invisible among so many others that were far too similar.

  17. Shawntelle Madison
    Jul 01, 2010 @ 06:51:17

    The new cover is attractive–yes. But the feel is urban fantasy and not the type of fantasy that is reflected in such a wonderful story with historical elements. I also feel like the cover has been whitewashed. After the issues with Justine Larbalestier’s LIAR book and Jaclyn Dolamore’s book MAGIC UNDER GLASS, I’d hoped for a true Asian-inspired fantasy cover. The first cover was so beautiful. So perfect. I could see Ai Ling in her beautiful clothes and use the image as I went through the story! And to see the new one is a bit disappointing! To be honest, the girls in the new cover don’t look Asian. And their clothes are modern like others posted.

    If I was a consumer and picked up this book I would wonder why this fantasy book had people in modern clothing on the cover.

    No matter what, Cindy is an amazing author. I wholeheartedly support her and hope this move works in her favor.

  18. Jeannie Lin
    Jul 01, 2010 @ 07:00:22

    Okay, I’m going to have to put Cindy in touch with Courtney Milan, who did a hilarious post on an alternative cover for her book, Proof by Seduction. Though Courtney’s book was beautiful, she was joking about people who might not want to read it on the subway because of the romance cover. I laughed so hard and won a sepia toned cover of my own which I’m very proud of.

    Cindy is so positive about this thing. I think she should totally hold a “Design a Cover” contest and offer a printout of the dust jacket on her site. Sometimes you have to roll with the punches.

  19. Kristi
    Jul 01, 2010 @ 07:03:49

    I think a lot of books are getting the Walmart treatment. Not knocking Walmart themselves (or in any way insinuating that they’re somehow responsible). But making a book look “mainstream” is like taking a small unique restaurant and plopping big golden arches out front to lure in customers.

    Walmart and the like are huge and popular, yes. But the more people connect online with a larger pool of other people, the more we’re dividing up into smaller, more customized groupings. There is a market for fiction, fantasy, etc with an Asian feel, or with protagonists of other non-white ethnicities. But making covers bland and indistinguishable is not the way to find those customers.

    Alas, it may be a while before the publishing industry catches on to how to really connect with the end users (instead of the mass-distributors, which is who these cover-art changes seem to be targetting).

    And I think I have another author to add to my TBR list…

  20. Jha
    Jul 01, 2010 @ 07:12:30

    I know Cindy gets fan art. I’d like to see what her fans come up with for a cover for Fury of the Phoenix.

    Oh, this is so on.

  21. Dara
    Jul 01, 2010 @ 09:07:18

    I have to admit, while this cover is nice, I was slightly disappointed. I LOVED the last cover. I am always attracted by the exotic covers depicting different cultures. In fact, that’s normally what draws me to them.

    I’m still going to rush out and buy the sequel but only because I know the story. There’s not really an Asian feel to the new one at all. I suppose if it will help her get more sold, then it’s OK, but I’m still saddened at the lack of Asian covers.

  22. Kate Pearce
    Jul 01, 2010 @ 10:40:55

    I love the first cover, I would pick up that book in a heartbeat. The new look? Not so much… what a shame

  23. Katrina
    Jul 01, 2010 @ 14:38:39

    Jeannie, thanks for speaking from your heart. It’s so hard to do that these days and I applaud your bravery. I agree it’s misdirection at the very best. I read a book many years ago with a blond on the cover but the heroine was a brunette. I’ve never forgotten that and it ruined the story for me. I can’t even imagine how the publishers expect readers to take something like this. I would be curious to hear their side.

  24. Ari
    Jul 01, 2010 @ 16:54:58

    I agree with Katrina, thank you for this heartfelt post.

    I’m glad the publishers are trying to stick with the story and Cindy Pon, Silver Phoenix is a great book. At least they aren’t pulling the series or anything like that. BUT I don’t like how these covers look like all the others and there really isn’t an ‘Asian’ feel to it anymore. And what about young Asian girls who might have been encouraged seeing someone who looked like them on the cover?

    It makes me so sad that the author ended up in such a terrible position. It infuriates me that people would pass this book up simply because of the Asian girl on the cover.

    I will still buy the sequel and I’m going to some hardcover copies to send to friends and give away at my blog. *sigh*

  25. Kez
    Jul 01, 2010 @ 19:22:26

    Sadly while they may pick up more readers who are “tricked” into reading the book by the covers, they will lose people like myself who read the book because of the blatantly Asian heroine on the cover. As a student of Asian culture I have a passion for reading wuxia fiction and other novels set within historical China, Japan and Korea. When I saw this book I was so excited and couldn’t wait for it to come out in paperback so I could buy. Now I’m sadly going to have copies that don’t do justice to how different this fantasy series truly is.

  26. Jeannie Lin
    Jul 01, 2010 @ 19:30:40

    @Kristi – You make a very good point about how the audience is changing, but perhaps the old publishing traditions are just not keeping up. We want to imagine publishing houses as large corporations with huge market research pockets, but that’s not the case.

    @Jha – Once I read the book, I’ll even attempt some fan art. I draw a decent dragon, so it can’t be much harder to draw a phoenix, right? People are going to be an issue for me. I might have to, you know, cut the face off halfway.

  27. Jeannie Lin
    Jul 01, 2010 @ 19:39:07

    @Dara – I agree! I’m saddened by it too. It’s the mere exposure effect, the more people see something, the more they’ll feel a sense of identification and comfort with it. No one will want to see Asian covers until they see Asian covers. <– that really wasn’t meant to be circular, it’s a principle of psychology @Kate – But Cindy’s fans are actually quite positive about the covers, so I bet us old historical buffs aren’t the target audience. @Katrina – Thanks, I appreciate it. I was very emotional yesterday and am slowly accepting things. @Ari – That’s a good point. I’m not a girl anymore, yet I felt empowered seeing a strong Asian woman on a cover. I didn’t get to see that growing up. We read stories of oppression and subjugation, which have a very definite place. I really loved seeing strength and heroism to balance that out. It’s part of Asian identity that needs to be celebrated. I guess that’s why I took it so personal, the cover switch. I’m glad you’re buying the sequel as well as giving away the hardcover. That cover is really a work of art.

  28. Jeannie Lin
    Jul 01, 2010 @ 19:44:48

    @Kez –
    I’m glad to meet another wuxia enthusiast! Wuxia was a strong influence in my romances. I also fear reader disappointment, on both sides! Readers who loved the Asian setting and now feel marginalized and then readers who will pick up the new book expecting something modern and will feel tricked.

    I was so surprised, after seeing how much enthusiasm Cindy has in her fan base, that the book didn’t do well.

    The excitement you described is exactly how I felt when I saw the cover. I had to drop the extra bucks to have it as soon as possible!!! I had to search 3 B&Ns to find it (now I know why). I have to remember this is a business. The success of the book gets determined way before the book ever reaches an eager reader.

  29. Jha
    Jul 01, 2010 @ 19:51:54

    I read the summary of the book, and it gave me an idea. I unfortunately don’t have anything suitable in my portfolio right now (which is strange, because I do have the rep of doing the Pissed-Off Asian), but I will be headed down to Singapore for a shoot, so we’ll see what comes out of that.

  30. Jeannie Lin
    Jul 01, 2010 @ 20:01:44

    @Jha – Intense!

  31. Jax Cassidy
    Jul 02, 2010 @ 13:30:41

    I. TOTALLY. AGREE.

    I could go on and on but I am feeling the same way you are at the moment.

  32. Victoria Dixon
    Jul 05, 2010 @ 19:25:06

    I’m still astounded and horrified by the message this sends, Jeannie. I’m impressed by Cindy’s reaction, however. She’s been so professional about it. I’m beyond sad, though. Did they learn nothing by Justine Labalastier’s blog-fire on this very topic?

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