Zoe’s Tale Cover Art, Teenage Girls, and You (Yes, You)
Got an e-mail from someone who loved Zoe’s Tale but is completely confused about its cover art:
I don’t know if you can change this at this point, but the cover of the book SUCKS. “An Old Man’s War Novel” is up there so big that it is going to scare away teen girls looking for a good read (I’m assuming readers who enjoyed the Old Man’s War books would find this novel without the big reference on the cover.) I’m guessing teen boys who like war books would be turned off by the girl’s name in the title…so the cover is just going to sooo limit the audience, which is a shame for such a good book. It looks like an action-packed war book, which will turn off the majority of girls…or middle-aged ladies like me.
I actually didn’t want to pick this book up because of the cover, but I saw the “winner” announcement (the only thing the cover does right) and took a chance. Glad I did…
I know you’ll probably sell a gajillion of these books based on your existing reader base…I just think it’s a shame more people won’t be picking it up because of the poor cover.
This isn’t the first time someone’s questioned me about the cover art, incidentally, and specifically about questioning whether it’s appropriate for the content of the book. I recently shared a cab ride with a Young Adult author who spent a fair chunk of the ride taking a mallet to the cover art, because she was convinced it was doing me no favors selling the story inside to whom she assumed was the books intended audience, which was YA readers (to be clear, this particular YA author is a lovely person, and wasn’t criticizing me; we were just having shop talk).
Well. I don’t think the cover art sucks, or that it’s inappropriate for the book. It’s a good cover, and it does its job — i.e., signaling to both booksellers and readers a basic idea of what’s inside — pretty well. What the cover also does, however, is point out the challenges publisher have and decisions they have to make when dealing with a book, particularly in an existing series, that doesn’t completely color within the lines.
A brief recap: Zoe’s Tale came about in part due to a conversation my editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden and I had, in which he suggested that at some point I try writing a YA-friendly book in the Old Man’s War universe: “YA friendly” being something that could speak to teenagers without driving away the adult market that already exists for the books.
I thought this was an interesting idea and some time later — and adding in my own motivations for writing as well — Zoe’s Tale was the result: sixteen-year-old main character, stand-alone book, designed not to raise flags to nervous school boards while at the same time neither condescending to teens nor boring the crap out of existing adult fans of the series (incidentally, if you think doing all three of these at the same time is easy: try it sometime). ZT was designed to be able to read across between reader demographics, and I think by and large everyone who’s read the book agrees that I pulled this off. So well done, me.
But when it comes time to sell the book, it also comes time to look at the hard-nosed economics of the situation and ask: Where will its market be first? Hardcover books, as we all know, are relatively expensive, and Tor spent a decent-sized chunk of change both extracting the book from me, and then producing it. Among the considerations (I would imagine, since I didn’t sit in on the marketing sessions):
1. I have an established base of adult readers and very high name awareness in the adult science fiction market.
2. Correspondingly, although Zoe’s Tale is YA-friendly, I have no name awareness in the YA field and no base of readers.
3. Although Tor has recently had good success with Little Brother, Cory Doctorow’s YA novel, it’s still feeling its way around in the YA market.
4. Tor could try to boost YA awareness of the novel with heavy marketing and touring, but Tor just toured me extensively for The Last Colony, and neither they nor I are ready to have me do another weeks-long tromp across the country.
5. Although Zoe’s Tale is a stand-alone, it’s also the fourth book in an existing series.
And so on. And thus, at the end of the day, it made sense for Tor to say: “We’ll go after the adult market first.” And thus, the cover art and design, which is in line with the other books in the series: same artist, same typography, same basic design. Was it the right decision? We’ll find out, I suppose. The early sales numbers that I’ve seen suggest that it hasn’t been a detriment: the book is chugging along nicely in sales right now, and will hopefully continue to do so into the holidays.
Does this mean that Zoe won’t be discovered by YA audiences after all? Well, no. Two things here. First, the hardcover release is just the hardcover release; there will be a paperback release as well. Tor has some time left to decide whether it wants to do a YA-specific version of the book. There are hard-line economic reasons for and against doing this, and at the end of the day those will dictate what happens, but personally speaking I certainly wouldn’t mind having a version of the book that sits in the YA section and has a cover that appeals to YA readers. I like Zoe a lot; I’d like teens to meet her.
Second, and to my mind far more importantly:
Well, look: if you are one of those who think teenage girls (or even boys) would love Zoe’s Tale, could you do me a great big ginormous favor and give the book to one of them? Please? I mean, really: Help me out, people. I understand that a lot of you out there think I’ve reached a point in my career where my books don’t need any more help to reach the public, but — surprise! — I really wouldn’t turn down the offer. Word of mouth has made a huge difference in the success of my work so far — Old Man’s War took off specifically because of friends telling friends, online and off, “hey, there’s this cool book I’ve found.” It makes a difference.
And it would make a huge difference if the people who’ve read Zoe’s Tale and liked it handed one over to a book-loving teenager of their acquaintance and said, “here, try this. You’re going to like it.” Because if they’re right and that teen does like it, she’s going to tell her friends to read it, too, and then off we go. All the massive marketing campaigns Tor could do, or the covers they could design, or the tours they could put me on, can’t replace the simple act of someone saying to someone else, “I loved this book.”
And, you know. If you think the cover of the book will keep a teenage girl from reading the book, here’s what you do: Take the cover off. It’s a slipjacket; it comes off nicely, and the hardcover nature of the book means it’s somewhat resistant to wear. It’ll survive. And the book wants to be read. Won’t you please help it fulfill its dream? It’s a simple dream, it is.
So, yes, pretty please: Champion Zoe’s Tale to the teens you know (and for that matter, any and everyone else. But especially teens). I would be very much in your debt, and so would Zoe. And I’ll say this much: If you think Tor should make a YA-friendly version of Zoe’s Tale, the absolute best possible way to do that would be to show them that there’s a market for one.