Cover Matters: Silver Phoenix


The hardcover of SILVER PHOENIX by Cindy Pon

Recently there have been rumblings in the blogosphere about the re-jacketing of Cindy Pon‘s book SILVER PHOENIX that have been brought to my attention. Reactions have been mixed, from outrage to support, with many bloggers pointing to the re-jacketing as yet another example of publishing cover racefail (the first being Justine Larbalestier’s LIAR and the second being Jaclyn Dolamore’s MAGIC UNDER GLASS).

This is a bit of sensitive subject and I was a little wary of writing about it. It isn’t the topic; I’ve blogged about race and cover matters before and I try to champion novels with POC themes, settings, and characters whenever possible, but this situation requires delicacy for a few reasons.

  1. This is not directly analogous to situations in either LIAR or MAGIC UNDER GLASS.
  2. I am not Cindy Pon’s editor or publisher so I obviously don’t know all the details.
  3. Despite my best intentions to keep neutral, there may be some finger-pointing (not at Cindy or her publisher).
  4. What I say may come off as a little defensive even though I don’t mean it that way.
  5. Contrary to what we want the outcome to be, in this situation, we as the concerned reader may not be able to effect much change.

Those reasons aside, I did feel I was qualified to say something about this topic based on these reasons:

  1. I work in editorial.
  2. I am a woman of Asian descent.
  3. I ain’t happy about this either.

Above is the original cover for SILVER PHOENIX. The re-jacketed cover is below the cut.

Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon

The paperback cover for SILVER PHOENIX.

As you can see, they’ve gone in an entirely different direction for the paperback reprint. The next book in the series will follow this look. Many people have complained about the “whitewashing” of this new cover, although in all honesty, because you can’t see Ai Ling’s eyes, you could equally claim that the model is white or Asian, depending on how you choose to see her. (I always see Death from Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN as an Asian girl.)

Personally I’m disappointed that the new covers draw away from the epic high fantasy feel of the original and make it seem like a dark, contemporary paranormal, which it is not. However, the real clincher is that they’ve stripped all identifying Chinese elements from the cover, which is really sad, especially for those of us who want to see Asian-themed fantasy succeed.

Nevertheless, personal feelings aside, I am going to explain why a re-jacketing may need to happen for a series and why Cindy Pon’s case is a little different from Justine Larbalestier’s and Jaclyn Dolamore’s.

Dear Mr. Book Buyer

I’m not sure if the public is aware of this, but there are only a handful of people who determine which books get stocked in every Barnes & Noble and Borders in the country. A handful. They are not tied to a publishing house; they work for their corporate overlords and their position is called “book buyer”. (Pretty self-explanatory, although insufficient to describe exactly what they do.)

Everyone in the publishing industry views someone else as the gatekeeper, and this is just as true for the publisher as it is for the writer trying to break in. For the publishing house, it’s the book buyer. We produce several titles every year, but not all titles make it onto the shelves. Why? Because Mr. or Ms. Book Buyer didn’t take any copies. The publishing house has no control over this.

Now, we do everything to try and sell them on our books. We hold sales conferences with these national accounts and pitch them our titles. Yes, publishers have to pitch books too. We compile sales packets to try and make the title as strong as possible: awesome story, kickass cover, comparative sales, etc. Please, please, please stock our books!

The book buyer will then decide to take a certain number of copies. Maybe they commit to 3000 copies. Sometimes they commit to more. Sometimes less. In the case of SILVER PHOENIX, it didn’t seem as though the buyers took very many. Cindy Pon wrote that Barnes & Noble stocked her books in limited quantities while Borders didn’t stock them at all. This is a frustrating position to be in: if people don’t ask for the book, it’ll never get stocked but then how are people going to know the book exists if the store didn’t shelve them in the first place?

What is a publisher to do?

A Second Life

It’s clear Greenwillow believes in and supports Cindy Pon to reprint her books in trade paperback. Some books in hardcover never get a second life on the shelves as paperbacks. But if the first cover didn’t sell, then what are they going to do?

Try and convince the buyers to take copies by re-jacketing the series.

What’s selling these days? Eyeless girls vignetted against a dark background with some sort of magical glowy object. (Please see: Kelly Armstrong’s THE SUMMONING, Alyson Noel’s EVERMORE, Melissa Marr’s WICKED LOVELY, et al.) That is the direction the new covers have gone. The chances of a buyer taking paperback copies of a book with the same cover as a hardcover they didn’t take are slim at best.

In the case of both LIAR and MAGIC UNDER GLASS, the cover matters happened before or very shortly after these books went to print and we as the concerned reader could say something about it. Unfortunately, we may not be able to effect the same amount of change for SILVER PHOENIX.

Now, I do believe that Greenwillow could have done more to keep the Chinese elements. (I’m a little wary of this because I despise shorthand, but this is not a contemporary–this is a novel set in ancient, mythical China.) Other Asian-themed fantasy YA covers have sold and are still in print.

Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale

The hardcover for BOOK OF A THOUSAND DAYS by Shannon Hale, which is set in a fantasy world inspired by Mongolia.

Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale

The paperback of BOOK OF A THOUSAND DAYS, in which you can clearly see that Dashti is Asian.

The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen by Lloyd Alexander

THE REMARKABLE JOURNEY OF PRINCE JEN by Lloyd Alexander. Not one of his best known works, but I believe it's still in print. I have a pretty old copy.

What Can We Do?

In this case, writing to the publisher isn’t necessarily going to change the fact that the book buyers won’t take the original cover. However, writing to them about retaining the Chinese elements on this new cover may help. I certainly would like to definitely know that the girl on SILVER PHOENIX’S new cover is Asian.

(On a side note: coming up with covers is tricky process, but that’s a post for another day.)

The best thing we can do is to walk into the nearest Borders and Barnes & Nobles and request as many copies of SILVER PHOENIX as we can. Even if you don’t buy a copy (although it would be great if you did), this forces the account holder to stock her books. We have to demonstrate to the corporate overlords (who unfortunately have about 95% of the business) that there is a demand for Cindy Pon and for Asian-themed fantasy. We have to ask for we are the customer and the customer is always right, yes?

The more we ask for books like Cindy’s, the more the chain bookstores will be forced to carry them. What we must do is ask.

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18 Responses to Cover Matters: Silver Phoenix

  1. Aja 1 Jul 2010 at 6:34 pm #

    Thank you for this post. It is helpful and makes a lot of sense. And also makes me want to kick something.

  2. Aja 1 Jul 2010 at 6:36 pm #

    ALSO i would like to add: Book of a Thousand Days is yet another book I bought–the book that introduced me to Shannon Hale, in fact–purely because it had an Asian character on the cover.

    I refuse to believe that I’m an isolated exception to some general rule that says buyers won’t seek out diverse covers. Or, even if that rule exists, I refuse to believe that more and more people aren’t changing and gradually coming to expect more representation from the books we read.

    • JJ 1 Jul 2010 at 7:11 pm #

      I’m not sure how many buyers actively seek out diverse covers; I only buy books that I think have a story I would like.

      HOWEVER, I don’t think buyers are actively NOT buying diverse covers. I don’t think people have ever been turned off a cover because there was someone of a different race on it. I certainly haven’t. Hell, I buy books with white people on them all the time! [/feeble joke]

      I’ve always said that if I could identify with a red-haired, green-eyed orphan living on Prince Edward Island, I’m pretty sure a red-haired, green-eyed girl could identify with me.

  3. Liz 1 Jul 2010 at 6:47 pm #

    I specifically bought the hardcover of this book because I saw the cover and thought, “OMG an Asian fantasy! I must read this!” If I had seen the book with its new cover I would have thought, “ugh another Twilight copy!” and bought something else. This makes me sad.

  4. Kristan 1 Jul 2010 at 7:38 pm #

    Without taking a stance (because this is the first I’ve heard of the issue) I will just say this: The girl on the new cover of Silver Phoenix appears to have a chin cleft. I don’t know of any full-blooded Asians with that feature, although I have met halfies who have one. It’s a small thing, but it immediately labels her “non-Asian” in my mind.

    • JJ 30 Jul 2010 at 3:23 pm #

      I know a few full-Asian kids with cleft chins. Including this kid (whom I adore SO MUCH).

      • Kristan 30 Jul 2010 at 3:27 pm #

        Can’t see the cleft – his violin is hiding it! :P

        But yeah, haha, there are some. (Also, wow. I never played violin, but if I could play piano half that well…)

  5. Adam Heine 1 Jul 2010 at 7:53 pm #

    Great post about a hard topic. I totally agree with you on I think all points: (A) The cover is not (strictly) white-washed. (B) The cover change is a good move when compared to other covers in the same genre. (C) I’m sad to see zero Chinese elements on the cover.

    Honestly, the Asian-ness of the book is what attracted me to the story in the first place (personally, I think the the Indonesian cover is the best one). But I also understand that I am not Every Reader. If the cover change sells more books, I’ll be very happy for Cindy. Getting Asian-themed books out there will be good for Asian-themed books in general, and maybe with some luck the covers will change over time.

    • Kristan 1 Jul 2010 at 8:58 pm #

      Ooo, I concur with Adam on 2 points! (1) The Indonesian cover is the best. (2) “Getting Asian-themed books out there will be good for Asian-themed books in general, and maybe with some luck the covers will change over time.”

  6. Jodi Meadows 1 Jul 2010 at 11:57 pm #

    This is great. Thank you. I wasn’t aware of the cover change. I’m disappointed; I want to buy this book, and I really love the first cover. I will look for that.

  7. Ari 2 Jul 2010 at 2:30 am #

    I recently learned that only a few people are in charge of buying books for chain bookstores. Um that needs to change.

    Thank you for this post and clearing up a few things :) I am glad that Greenwillow is sticking with Cindy Pon, but like everyone else, I wish the Asian fantasy aspect of the cover had been retained. Although Ciindy has said there will be chapter drawings, etc. that clearly determine the book as Asian-inspired fantasy. So perhaps this go-round we should target the bookstores and not the publishers? Hmmm.

    I concur, the Indonesian cover is awesome!

    I will be buying the sequel and supporting Cindy in whatever way I can, which includes ordering a beautiful orginal HC from Borders.

  8. June 2 Jul 2010 at 10:42 pm #

    I would never have thought the new cover was of an Asian girl. The obscuring of the Asian character has removed a distinctive feature of the book. I’m sure there is a reason this was done. I wonder what it was?

  9. Marie Lu 10 Jul 2010 at 6:56 pm #

    Aw–they changed the cover of this? I have seen that beautiful original cover grace many a prominent spot in the local Vroman’s/Borders/B&N! What a shame.

    And I do have to say, New Cover Girl’s slight chin dent seems decidedly un-Asian. :)

  10. Blanca Welsh 17 May 2013 at 3:50 pm #

    To be honest, I actively seek out cover depicted POC on the cover. While I’ll read a book and enjoy many books that dont feature diverse characters, as a POC myself, I feel like Im bending over and accepting that white is the “All American Mainstream.”

    Im Afro-Cuban, and I know it’s always been too much to ask to feature Black Latinos in books, so Im happy with Non-Latina Black women in books. But I also actively seek books with Asians, Native Americans, I suppose what mainstream has accepted as the “Latino” look( I say it’s ridiculous because Latino isn’t so much a race as being “All American” being a type.) or any other racial identities.

  11. Niklas 24 Jan 2014 at 12:53 pm #

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