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.
- This is not directly analogous to situations in either LIAR or MAGIC UNDER GLASS.
- I am not Cindy Pon’s editor or publisher so I obviously don’t know all the details.
- Despite my best intentions to keep neutral, there may be some finger-pointing (not at Cindy or her publisher).
- What I say may come off as a little defensive even though I don’t mean it that way.
- 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:
- I work in editorial.
- I am a woman of Asian descent.
- I ain’t happy about this either.
Above is the original cover for SILVER PHOENIX. The re-jacketed cover is below the cut.
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.
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.