Wednesday 16 February 2022

Indie-Spotlight: Selling Books with Asian Main Characters - Part I


Indie Spotlight is a column by WWII historical fiction author Alexa Kang. The column regularly features hot new releases and noteworthy indie-published books, and popular authors who have found success in the new creative world of independent publishing.

In recent years, the publishing world seems to be undergoing a cultural shift to feature more “diverse books” and “own voices”. Traditional publishers have been making a show of promoting new writers from less-represented backgrounds and books with diverse characters. While the new public awareness is good to see, I'm skeptical of the latest bells and whistles because the demand for more diversity in publishing is driven by political voices rather than consumers. Traditional publishers are answering to an ideological trend, not readers. Without more proof of a genuine readers' demand, I wonder how long this trend will last.


From an indie author perspective, this top-down approach of pushing diversity feels like window dressing. For the time being, it can make bestsellers out of selected books that are heavily promoted by the big publishers and make stars out of their authors. Big traditional publishers might even be willing to promote diverse books at a loss without the corresponding readers’ demand if having a selection of diverse books in their catalogues would elevate their overall image and branding. But for indie authors, we’re still faced with the question of how to sell a book with diverse characters without a big promotion budget and traditional advertising resources. If we try to publish such a book, we have to assume the risks that the book will not appeal to readers at all.

Books with Asian characters are particularly challenging if the themes and settings are foreign to Western readers. Matthew Legare, author of Shadows of Tokyo of the Inspector Aizawa crime thriller series, found that Western readers of his books tend to be interested in Chinese and Japanese culture, but that pool of readers is fairly small. "When my agent submitted Shadows of Tokyo to an editor, she rejected it because she felt the culture and politics were so different that she felt lost,” he said. “Another time it was rejected because the publisher had put out a book set in Japan, and it struggled to find an audience.” Other indie authors I talked to confirmed the same experience.


Is it possible then for indie authors to successfully sell Asian-themed books? In my experience, the answer is yes. However, we cannot sell such a book by promoting the same way traditional publishers do, or rely on trends to carry us. Instead, we need to go back to the basic rule of delivering to the audience what they want.


Set Your Focus on Genre

Diversity is a noble goal. But for selling fiction, diversity as a selling point is not a winning strategy in the long term because, fundamentally, fiction reading is a form of entertainment. When readers are looking a new book, the first thing they will search for are books in their favorite genre. An avid romance reader will not be sold on a LitRPG book simply because the LitRPG features diverse main characters, and vice versa. However, readers hungry for a new romance or LitRPG read are potential ripe audience for a book featuring Asian main characters if it is a good story. Therefore, your target audience should always be your genre audience.


But don’t readers today want more diversity in what they read? To this question, Legare observed, “There just isn't as big of an interest in Asian-themed stories. There are Westerners who are interested in Asia, but not as many as people who are either neutral or have no interest whatsoever.” Further, he noted, “There is also the ‘own voices’ marketing that some publishers use to promote Asian authors who write Asian-themed stories. Though, this seems to be more for YA.”

In fact, marketing a book as “Asian-themed” can backfire and depress sales. Normally, advertisements with attractive visual graphics yield better results. But when Veronica Skye, author of the The Duke & I historical romance series, advertised her novels on Facebook, her ads performed better when they contained only ad copies in text than those that showed images of an Asian woman’s face. One reason may be that Facebook’s algorithm automatically shoved her ads into a niche. “My book covers with the woman's face got lumped together with other books with non-Western-looking women on the covers, and they are very niche and not necessarily the niche I share as well (e.g. fictions about Indian or Middle Eastern culture etc.). It kept the exposure of my books low as well. When I changed the covers to text only, my list [of target ad audience] is completely different, and I get exposure to audience of books of similar covers. So far, based on KENP read [the number of page reads of books in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited subscription program], it's better for me.” 

I had my own poor results when I ran Facebook ads for my WWII historical fiction trilogy Shanghai Story. My ads had a sharp, professional ad image that featured an attractive Jewish woman and a Chinese man, and a tightly composed ad copy. The ads got me a lot of “likes”. The combination of WWII and diversity was a winning formula to garner social media clicks. The problem was, my ad was running on CPC, ie: Cost Per Click. It became a clickbait for FB users to show support for diversity, but these users weren’t necessarily readers of WWII fiction, or even readers of anything. The clicks were not converting to sales. I was bleeding money for random people clicking to show they like the idea of diversity, but had no intention to actually read my book. I terminated the ads before they broke my bank.

I ran into similar problems when I  advertised on Amazon. My ads shown to WWII historical fiction readers consistently sell more than my ads shown to readers purchasing Asian-related books. The Amazon algorithm likely plays a big part leading to this result. Amazon’s book categories for Asian-themed fiction are a hot mess. The categories for “Asian-American”, “Chinese Literature”, or “Japanese Literature” include books as wide ranging as Pachinko to steamy ex-convict romance which cover showcasing the ever-popular chiseled man chest. The mishmash of genres has no conceivable readers crossover. Further, the “Asian World Literature” category is currently dominated by cultivation fantasy novels featuring anime covers. When I target my Amazon ads to “Asian” readers, my ads are shown to readers across this spectrum of reading interests, most of whom have no interest in WWII novels at all. I now advertise only to WWII fiction readers.


Drawing from these experiences, I believe diversity in fiction is an aspiration, not a sustainable sales strategy. Even for diverse books that became bestsellers after heavy promotion by big publishers in traditional advertising channels, I wonder whether the buyers purchased those books because they were genuinely interested in the books, or if they bought them to support “diverse read”. Will these book buyers actually commit the time to read the book? Or will the heavily touted diverse read sit unread on their coffee table or bookshelf like a trophy? Will they buy more books on the basis of diversity once they’ve assured themselves that they have done their part to support diversity?


Of course, there are readers who do seek out diversity in reading, and look for books on that basis. But in the long term, they will still always go to their favorite genres. We’re just as likely to find them by selling to the genre. To successfully sell our books as indies, our marketing should target genre, not Asian theme, Asian characters, or diversity.


Notwithstanding the difficulties I laid out above, there are genres which are by nature Asian-themed and in which Asian characters are the norm, and they are growing in demand and popularity. For example, cultivation novels with elements of Asian historical fantasy, xinxia (Daoist cultivation novels), and wuxia (Chinese martial arts novels), are niche genres with very strong followings. These genres are also dominated by indie authors, so an indie author can bypass some of the challenges in more mainstream genres if they write in these genres.

Genres with younger audiences may also be easier sells, as younger readers may relate to diverse characters more immediately. Eva Chase, author of The Witch’s Consorts series, who writes reverse harem novels, said that she hasn’t noticed any difference in sales or read-throughs for her books with Asian characters vs. those without. “[My] readership tends to skew younger than the average romance reader,” she said. “My first series that had an Asian hero was my second RH series, and nothing about that series's performance made me hesitate to include another Asian hero in my seventh RH series. Both launched into the top 200 Kindle books (across all genres). Advertising doesn't seem to be affected either.” She noted, however, that her book covers featured only her non-Asian heroine, a typical trend in RH novels. Also, RH offers multiple love interests to the readers, so she is able to write with more flexibility than the larger romance genre norms.

Next week in Part II of this blog, I will share some ways on how you, as an indie author, can drive sales for books featuring Asian themes and Asian main characters.

To find out more about authors who shared their insights in this blog post and their books:

Alexa Kang

Shanghai Story trilogy

Matthew Legare

Reiko Watanabe/Inspector Aizawa series

Veronica Skye

The Duke of Qi series

Eva Chase

The Witch's Consorts series