Sunday, 4 July 2010

Whitewashing. Who’s to blame?

Something’s happened.

In 2009 HarperCollins imprint, Greenwillow Books, published Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia. The book tells the tale of an Asian girl, Ai Ling, who journeys to retrieve her father from a corrupt, powerful advisor. It’s got gods and other cool stuff in it. Think Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Avatar: The Last Airbender (the cartoon, not M Night Shyamalan’s atrocious, racist depiction).

Turns out Phoenix didn’t do so well commercially, and Greenwillow opted to repackage it in time for its sequel’s release. Now, from what I understand, Borders refused to carry Phoenix, and only a select few B&N stores stocked limited quantities of it. The author said readers did not embrace Phoenix as much as she and her publisher would have liked, and thus, Phoenix was given a makeover ... Ai Ling was transformed from an Asian girl to a generic white chick.

Silver Phoenix Silver Phoenix2

Old cover

New cover

These days, a lot of readers don’t take kindly to whitewashing, and publishers have found themselves staring down the serrated ends of pitchforks when they pulled that stunt.

Furore over Silver Phoenix’s unfortunate cover alteration is growing, and you best believe bullets will be flying Greenwillow’s way pretty soon.

Me, I’m taking a different stance on this issue, and I’ll explain why.

Phoenix’s situation is much different from Liar’s or Magic Under Glass’. When Phoenix was published in 2009 it wasn’t whitewashed. It featured a beautiful Asian girl on its cover. The publisher chose to whitewash it after poor sales figures. That they even bothered to do so, AND publish a sequel, shows how much faith they have in Cindy Pon’s story and her ability as a writer. (Don’t publishers usually dump authors at this point?)

Greenwillow believes Phoenix is epic and deserves better attention from the public than it got. I agree.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending whitewashing. I think it’s disgusting. However, this time I’m not going to point my sniper at the publisher. This time I’m going to say what I’ve always wanted to say for a long while – the truth.

And the truth is booksellers are the racists. Most of them, at least.

Listen, the math is very straightforward: booksellers are the ones who pick books out of publisher catalogues, stock them and sell them.

A lot of people say that publishers whitewash books because they believe only white people read, and that white readers won’t buy books depicting people of other races on their covers.

You know what I think? I think most publishers whitewash books because they believe most booksellers believe white people are the only readers out there, and that white people are squeamish about picking up books with non-white people covers.

And that’s exactly what happened with Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix. Borders didn’t like it and skipped it. B&N barely stocked it. The publisher repackaged it with a white girl on its cover.

Why would a publisher repackage a book and publish its sequel despite poor sales, in this present economy? Makes no sense at all.

Oh, but wait, average reader reviews for Phoenix was positive; average critic reviews was positive; the original cover was aesthetic and cool.

Why the poor sales then?

Answer: the booksellers didn’t like Phoenix, thus Phoenix was hardly available in their bookstores, and thus a plethora of readers couldn’t find Phoenix to buy.

The guys at Greenwillow must have thought “Why didn’t booksellers like Phoenix then?” and went on to consult these booksellers, which eventually led to their decision to change Phoenix’s cover.

I guarantee you, when Phoenix is published with this new cover Borders and co will pick it. I promise you.

So, I’m not going to blame Greenwillow. In my opinion, they tried. They did everything they could. In the end, this is a business, and unfortunately if racist booksellers refuse to stock up your books then you have no choice but to give into their outrageous demand: whitewash your books.

The situation, I’m afraid, is out of the publisher’s hand. Greenwillow is not the villain here. The booksellers are.


  1. I think you demonstrate a very interesting point towards the debate!

  2. Your post really brings a lot to mind. I had to post on this:

  3. Yes, you have a very interesting and valid point. I still won't let the publisher off the hook though. They could have chosen a cover without a model (like the covers for the Twilight books).

  4. @ Tarie, you're right. They could have gone with something abstract, and beautiful, kinda like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

    Maybe they chose this route cos they're trying to tap into that Alyson Noel market. I know for a fact that some people like these covers with the half-hidden faces. I don't understand why, but I just know they do.

    However, my biggest beef is with the booksellers. It could be the publisher asked the booksellers and they said something like, "You could make the cover look like Alyson Noel's. We would definitely pick your book if you do that," which would explain the cover choice, even though it's a wrong choice.

  5. Good points are raised *puts down pitchforks and torches and map to Greenwillow, lol.

    Srsly, I'm a white chick and nothing infuriates me more than the lack of diversity on book covers. I make it a point to always have characters of color in my books. It's ludacris when you think of all the frolicking white people on book covers. Didn't we work to change the literary cannon in HS and college away from Dead White Guys to some diversity? Sheesh. It's like we take one step forward and nine back. Eesh.

  6. @ Krista: "It's like we take one step forward and nine back." Couldn't have put it any better.

  7. I believe that their is no real blame. That a marketing campaign and sales push could have made this book successful. Also, I agree, they didn't have to put someone on the cover that doesn't look like the actual character.


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