Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Bollywood Confidentially: A Hard Look Back

Ever have one of those "If I only knew then what I know now" moments? Sometimes, it feels like my entire experience in romance publishing is that moment. More and more, I circle back to what was initially my great joy: my Bollywood Confidential novellas for Samhain Publishing. I was so proud to get these stories out there. And then so demoralized when they did poorly. But I learned a lot and if I could go back, there are so many things I would do differently. Here are just a few.

1. I would take the people off the covers. I mean, I LOVE these covers. They are stunning. Cover artist Angela Waters is a goddess. But POC on covers don't sell well -- particularly for authors of color. It's hard lesson to learn and a tough truth to swallow, but them's the breaks. Mainstream romance readers (by which I mean primarily white ones) take one look at these covers and go, "Oh, this isn't for me." Similar to why they won't hang a left at the African-American section at the bookstore. The sad-funny thing is, my books don't do well with Indian readers either!

Sometimes you just have to slap a piece of furniture and a puppy on a book to get folks to realize it is for them to read. 

2. This ties into #1 somewhat, because it involves Rocky in Bollywood and the Beast. She's biracial and, yes, I admit a fraction of that choice was because I wanted to make her more palatable to those readers the first two books couldn't hook. Half-white heroine and a fairy tale redux...? How could I go wrong? Well, so many ways, apparently. For one, the woman on the cover doesn't look remotely white, so it doesn't work as a visual hook. Priya from Spice and Secrets looks more likely to pass than Rocky does!  

For two—and this is where I'm pissed at myself on a philosophical and activist level—in trying to make her relatable (oh, how I hate that word!) to an audience I don't  even have I shortchanged the racial issues in the book. Bollywood, and India as a whole, has a huge problem with colorism. The paler you are, the more valued you are. And I pretty much sidestepped all of that subtext in Bollywood and the Beast. I think I mention it in passing, but Rocky being fair and thus getting more work is not explored with any depth. She really doesn't think about having white privilege or any sort of socio-economic advantage over India-born women. Because, at the time, I was trying to make her whiteness the entry point for white readers...not something uncomfortable to push them away. "Look, she's safe! Look, she comes from your world! She just wants to fit in and find love!"

In a weird way, I fell into the trap of the Exotic Other and the Sexy Biracial Character despite always railing against it. And it was all for naught because, well, she's brown on the cover. Plus, very few people read B&B and, therefore, very few had to grapple with their comfort level.  

3. I would split Spice and Smoke into two novellas. I was so hungry to get published that I wrote "Part II," Sam and Vikram's story, to boost the word count and make it a submittable manuscript. On its own, the first half was either too short or got rejected all over the place. And I think the weakness there is pretty obvious. The two halves would work much better as separate but linked stories. Also, this would've enabled me to better market the tales to m/m readers...who weren't interested because there's a het romance in the first half.

This also ties back to the cover woes:  If I did keep people on the covers, I'd take Trishna off of Spice and Smoke, because it looks like a ménage + m/m readers tend to not like ladies in their stories. I mean, I love Trish to pieces, but did it work for me as a marketing decision? Nope.

4. I would market better in general. More fool me, I thought just the act of writing Bollywood books—because Bollywood is, like, so cool and trendy—would be a smart move. See the above "nope." You have to have a push of some kind. Just writing stories that speak to you and have a good hook isn't going to sell copies. Spice and Secrets is basically a category romance, complete with a secret baby, and it's my poorest seller. No1curr. If I'd had any sense at all, I would've built a campaign around the Harlequin-i-iness. Also, there's a white dude in it. Maybe he should've been on promo materials. (You laugh, but I weep bitter tears.) 

5. I'd build a stronger web and community presence before putting the novellas out. The Suleikha you know now...who mouths off all the time and freely admits she's also Mala from Soap Opera Weekly and RT Book Reviews, is not the one who was trying to get people to read Spice and Smoke. I had ties in the NYC romance community, sure, but that was about it. I had virtually no online footprint as Suleikha and not a whole lot of reach in "real life" either. And when you have a tiny, tiny circle...yeah, it's no wonder your magical, wonderful, book baby makes little impact.

If only, if only, if only...


  1. This is a tough read, but I'm glad that you're letting people know about the very real difficulties of marketing romance that centers on POC characters. I'll never forget only being at RT for, what, a few days (?), when we went to Lady Jane's and you read from Spice and Smoke — it blew me away, and I bought the book five minutes later. I'd have read a whole book about Avi and Michael, but you had to follow your instincts at the time.

    I tell you this all the time to your face, but I'm happy to say it here, too: You are doing good work and don't undersell or downplay that in your self-analysis. That doesn't mean you can't wish for more people to read and buy your books, or that you shouldn't want to market accordingly; just don't let the $$ be the final say on your worth as a writer, or as a person. Sometimes we just need to remember that the work is what we have and what we can control. You're amazing. <3

  2. Thank you. <3. It's hard because I think I had more fun and more drive when I was writing just to write. When you turn it into a business, it becomes work and all that comes with work -- including the business of getting it into readers' hands. And that requires a different muscle than the creative one!

    I have to hang on to how much I love the actual writing, and how much it means when people love to read it!

  3. Cringing at number one. My Inbetween series has nothing but non-white male leads and the publisher I'm with wanted the eye candy (the incubi I write) on the cover. Understandably. They're sexy as hell. For book one, we had to color-correct a white guy. There were no Egyptian models to be found. Book two has a man from central Africa. Book three will have a Native American lead. Based on your experiences and what I've seen, book one will be the best seller of the group, only because the cover model can still "pass" as white. And it pisses me off. This shouldn't be an issue still.

    1. I think finding models of color is a huge problem, too. The fact that there's a dearth of stock art and few publishers have photo budgets is just sad. Because if covers with more POC *were* marketable to the mainstream, then there should be a source for them!

  4. Can you get the rights reverted and then do (most of) these things differently?

  5. I love all three of these covers. They're beautifully done and I think they match your writing style. It's so rare to see this! Any cover (or title, or author name) that hints of POC could be a problem for some readers. Catering to those readers seems counterproductive. But maybe an object cover would bring you more sales. It's so hard to say why something isn't working.

    I think POC covers do very well for some authors/lines. I know of a Kimani author who writes some white characters and gets all POC covers. I imagine this is because Kimani readers like to see POC on the cover.

    For other demographics, I just don't know. There seems to be two (often separate) markets for romance: mostly AA and mostly white. Books that don't fit neatly into either market have a harder time finding an audience. I've talked to Jeannie Lin and others at length about this. Of course it's a lot of speculation and "they say..." info.

    I hope we'll see more POC covers and more crossover and less silent acceptance (from authors and readers) of whitewashing. Every time an author, especially a very successful author, accepts a cover that clearly depicts a white model instead of a POC, they're adding to a negative cycle. POC covers can't sell if they aren't there.

    1. But I also think very successful authors have an advantage over those of us who are up and coming or just starting out. Their readers are more willing to pick up MC/IR covers because they're a known quantity.