Chapter no 5



publicity and marketing teams.

I’m so nervous I could puke. My last experience working with a publicist was awful. She was a pinched-face blonde woman named Kimberly who only ever sent me interview requests from bloggers that had, maybe, five followers. When I asked for anything more, like maybe coverage at a website that people had actually heard of, she’d say, “We’ll look into that, but it depends on interest.” Kimberly, like everyone else, had known early on that my debut was dead in the water. She just didn’t have the heart to say it to my face. Half the time, she misspelled my name as “Jane.” When I left my old publisher, she sent me a curt little email that read only, It’s been such a pleasure to work with you.

But this time around, I’m struck by everyone’s enthusiasm. Emily, who does publicity, and Jessica, who does digital marketing, kick things off by telling me how much they adore the manuscript. “It just exudes the gravitas of a much older writer,” Jessica gushes. “And I think we’ll be able to position it really well between historical fiction, which women really enjoy, and military fiction, which suits a male audience.”

I’m shocked. Jessica seems to have actually read my book. That’s a first—Kimberly always seemed confused as to whether I’d written a novel or a memoir.

Next, they walk me through their marketing strategy. I’m overwhelmed by how comprehensive it is. They’re talking Facebook ads, Goodreads ads, maybe even metro station ads, although it’s not clear if anyone pays attention to those anymore. They’re also investing big in bookstore placement, which means that from the day that it’s out, my book

will be the first thing people see when they walk into any Barnes & Noble across the country.

“This will, for sure, be the book of the season,” Jessica assures me. “At least, we’re doing everything we can to make it so.”

I’m speechless. Is this what it was like to be Athena? To be told, from the beginning, that your book will be a success?

Jessica wraps up the marketing plan with some dates and deadlines for when they’ll need promotional materials from me. There’s a short pause. Emily clicks and double-clicks her pen. “So then the other thing we wanted to ask you is, uh, positioning.”

I realize I’m supposed to answer. “Right—sorry, what do you mean?” She and Jessica exchange a glance.

“Well, the thing is, this novel is set in large part in China,” says Jessica. “And given the recent conversations about, you know—”

“Cultural authenticity,” Emily jumps in. “I don’t know if you follow some of the conversations online. Book bloggers and book Twitter accounts can be pretty . . . picky about things these days . . .”

“We just want to get ahead of any potential blowups,” says Jessica. “Or pile-ons, as it were.”

“I did hours and hours of research,” I say. “It’s not like I, you know, wrote from stereotypes; this isn’t that kind of book—”

“Of course,” Emily says smoothly. “But you’re . . . that is, you are not . . .”

I see what she’s getting at. “I am not Chinese,” I say curtly. “If that’s what you’re asking. It’s not ‘own voices,’ or whatever you want to call it. Is that a problem?”

“No, no, not at all, we’re just covering our bases. And you’re not . . . anything else?” Emily winces the moment those words leave her mouth, like she knows she shouldn’t have said that.

“I am white,” I clarify. “Are you saying we’ll get in trouble because I wrote this story and I’m white?”

I immediately regret phrasing it like that. I’m being too blunt, too defensive; wearing my insecurities on my sleeve. Both Emily and Jessica begin blinking very quickly, glancing at each other as if hoping the other will speak first.

“Of course not,” Emily says finally. “Of course, anyone should be able to tell any kind of story. We’re just thinking about how to position you so

that readers trust the work.”

“Well, they can trust the work,” I say. “They can trust the words on the page. The blood and sweat that went into telling the story.”

“No, of course,” says Emily. “And we don’t mean to invalidate that.” “Of course not,” says Jessica.

“Again, we think anyone should be able to tell any kind of story.” “We’re not censors. That’s not our culture here at Eden.” “Right.”

Emily then shifts the conversation to where I’m based, where I might be up to travel, etc. The meeting fizzles out pretty quickly after that, before I’ve gotten a chance to get my bearings back. Emily and Jessica tell me again how excited they are about the book, how wonderful it was to meet me, and how they can’t wait to keep working with me. Then they’re gone, and I’m staring at an empty screen.

I feel awful. I shoot off an email to Brett, airing out all my anxieties. He responds an hour later, assuring me not to worry. They just want to be clear, he says. On how exactly they can position me.

As it turns out, they want to position me as “worldly.” Jessica and Emily send us a longer email detailing their plans the next Monday: We think June’s background is very interesting, so we want to make sure readers are aware of that. They highlight all the different places I lived when I was little—South America, Central Europe, a half-dozen cities in the US that were stops on my dad’s never-ending tour as a construction engineer. (Emily really likes the word “nomad.”) They highlight the year I spent in the Peace Corps in my newly written author biography, although I never went near Asia (I was in Mexico, making use of my high school Spanish, and I quit early because I got a debilitating stomach virus and had to be medically evacuated). And they suggest I publish under the name Juniper Song instead of June Hayward (“Your debut didn’t reach quite the same market we’re hoping for, and it’s better to have a clean start. And Juniper is so, so unique. What kind of name is that? It sounds Native, almost.”). Nobody talks about the difference in how “Song” might be perceived versus “Hayward.” No one says explicitly that “Song” might be mistaken for a Chinese name, when really it’s the middle name my mother came up with during her hippie phase in the eighties and I was very nearly named Juniper Serenity Hayward.

Emily helps me pitch an article about authorial identities and pen names to Electric Lit, where I explain that I’ve chosen to rebrand myself as

Juniper Song to honor my background and my mother’s influence in my life. “My debut, Over the Sycamore, written as June Hayward, was rooted in my grief over my father’s death,” I write. “The Last Front, written as Juniper Song, symbolizes a step forward in my creative journey. This is what I love most about writing—it offers us endless opportunities to reinvent ourselves, and the stories we tell about ourselves. It lets us acknowledge every aspect of our heritage and history.”

I never lied. That’s important. I never pretended to be Chinese, or made up life experiences that I didn’t have. It’s not fraud, what we’re doing. We’re just suggesting the right credentials, so that readers take me and my story seriously, so that nobody refuses to pick up my work because of some outdated preconceptions about who can write what. And if anyone makes assumptions, or connects the dots the wrong way, doesn’t that say far more about them than me?


I’ve done in the revisions. All she requests in her third pass are some light line edits, and a suggestion that I add a dramatis personae, which is a fancy term for a list of all the characters accompanied by short descriptions so that readers don’t forget who they are. Then it’s off to a copyeditor, who from my experience are these superhuman, eagle-eyed monsters that catch continuity errors unseen to the naked eye.

We only run into one wrinkle, a week before my copyedit pass is due.

Daniella emails me out of the blue: Hey June. Hope you’ve been well. Can you believe we’re already six months out from publication? Wanted to bring up something to get your opinion—Candice suggested that we get a Chinese or Chinese diaspora sensitivity reader, and I know it’s late in the process, but do you want us to look into things for you?

Sensitivity readers are readers who provide cultural consulting and

critiques on manuscripts for a fee. Say, for example, a white author writes a book that involves a Black character. The publisher might then hire a Black sensitivity reader to check whether the textual representations are consciously, or unconsciously, racist. They’ve gotten more and more popular in the past few years, as more and more white authors have been criticized for employing racist tropes and stereotypes. It’s a nice way to avoid getting dragged on Twitter, though sometimes it backfires—I’ve heard horror stories of at least two writers who were forced to withdraw their books from publication because of a single subjective opinion.

I don’t see why, I write back. I’m pretty comfortable with the research I did.

A response instantly pings my inbox. It’s Candice, following up. I feel strongly we ought to hire a reader familiar with the history and language. June is not Chinese diaspora, and we run the risk of doing real harm if we don’t check any of the Chinese phrases, naming conventions, or textual recounting of racism with a reader better suited to catch mistakes.

I groan.

Candice Lee, Daniella’s editorial assistant, is the only person at Eden who doesn’t like me. She never makes it so evident that I have grounds to complain about it—she’s unfailingly polite in emails, she likes and retweets everything I post about the book on social media, and she always greets me with a smile during videoconference meetings. But I can tell it’s all forced

—there’s something in her pinched expression, the curtness of her words.

Maybe she knew Athena. Maybe she’s one of those wannabe writers daylighting as an underpaid, overworked publishing junior staff member with a China-inspired manuscript of her own, and she’s jealous I’ve made it big when she hasn’t. I get that—in publishing, that’s a universal dynamic. But that’s not my problem.

Again, I’m quite comfortable with the research I did in preparation for this book. I don’t find it necessary to delay things for a sensitivity read at this point in production, especially since we have a tight turnaround for review copies to early readers. Send.

That should be the end of it. But an hour later, my inbox pings again. It’s Candice, doubling down. She’s addressed the email to me, Daniella, and the entire publicity team.

Dear all,

I want to emphasize again how important I feel it is that we get a sensitivity reader for this project. In this current climate, readers are bound to be suspicious of someone writing outside of their lane—and for good reason. I understand this would slow down production, but an SR would protect June from accusations of both cultural appropriation and, worse, cultural leeching. It would show that June meant to represent the Chinese diaspora community in good faith.

Jesus Christ. Cultural appropriation? Cultural leeching? What is her


I forward her email to Brett. Can you tell her to step off? I ask. Agents are wonderful intermediaries during heated exchanges like this; they let you keep your hands clean while they drive in the knife. I think I’ve made my stance pretty clear, so why is she still bothering me with this?

Brett proposes that perhaps, instead of bringing in an outsider, we can have Candice do the sensitivity read instead. Candice responds curtly that she is Korean American, not Chinese American, and that Brett’s assumption otherwise is a racist microaggression. (It is at this point that I determine Candice exists entirely to complain about microaggressions.) Daniella jumps in to smooth things over. Of course they’ll default to my authorial judgment. Hiring a sensitivity reader is entirely my choice, and I’ve made it clear that I don’t want one. We’ll stick to the original production timeline. Everything is fine.

The following week, Candice sends me an email apologizing for her tone, on which Daniella is cc’d. It’s not a real apology; in fact, it’s passive-aggressive as fuck: I’m sorry if you felt offended by my editorial suggestions. As you know, June, I only want to help publish The Last Front as well as we can.

I roll my eyes, but I take the high road. I’ve won my battle, and it never pays to bully a poor editorial assistant. My reply is succinct:

Thank you, Candice. I appreciate that.

Daniella follows up in a private thread to inform me that Candice has been taken off the project. I won’t have to interface with her anymore. All further communications about The Last Front can go directly through Daniella, Emily, or Jessica.

I am so sorry you had to deal with this, Daniella writes. Candice clearly had some strong feelings about this project, and it’s affected her judgment. I want you to know that I’ve had a serious conversation with Candice about respecting boundaries with authors, and I will make sure this never happens again.

She sounds so apologetic that for a moment I feel embarrassed,

nervous I’ve blown this out of proportion. But that’s nothing compared to the relief that finally, for once, my publisher is firmly on my side.


semifamous—a polished, artificial front familiar to hundreds of thousands of people? A musician from high school who made it big, perhaps, or a film star you recognize as the blonde girl on your freshman floor with the eating disorder? Have you ever wondered at the mechanics of popularization? How does someone go from being a real person, someone you actually knew, to a set of marketing and publicity points, consumed and lauded by

fans who think they know them, but don’t really, but understand this also, and celebrate them regardless?

I watched all this happen with Athena the year after we graduated college, in the run-up to the launch of her first novel. Athena was a Known Entity at Yale, a campus celebrity who received regular declarations of love in that year’s iteration of the Secret Valentines Facebook group, but she wasn’t yet so famous that she had a Wikipedia page, or that the average reader’s eyes would light up with recognition when you said her name.

That changed when the New York Times ran a hype piece on her titled “Yale Graduate Lands Six-Figure Deal with Random House,” centering a photograph of Athena in a low-cut blouse so sheer you could see her nipples, posing in front of Sterling Memorial Library. They ran a quote from a famous poet then adjuncting at Yale dubbing her a “worthy successor to the likes of Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston.” Everything ramped up from there. Her Twitter follow count shot up to the mid–five figures; her Instagram numbers hit six figures. She did puff-piece interviews with the Wall Street Journal and HuffPost; once, while driving to a doctor’s appointment, I was startled to hear her crystalline, unplaceable, occasionally suspiciously fake, somewhat-British accent drifting through my Uber.

Cue the mythmaking in real time, the constructed persona deemed maximally marketable by her publishing team, paired with a healthy dose of neoliberal exploitation. Complex messages reduced to sound bites; biographies cherry-picked for the quirky and exotic. This in fact happens to every successful author, but is weirder to witness when you’ve been friends with the source material. Athena Liu writes only on a Remington typewriter (true, but only after her senior year, after she got the idea from a famous visiting lecturer). Athena Liu was a finalist for a national writing competition when she was only sixteen (also true, but come on; every high schooler who can string sentences together places in those competitions at one point or another; it’s not hard to beat out other kids whose definition of art consists of plagiarized Billie Eilish lyrics). Athena Liu is a prodigy, a genius, the Next Big Thing, the voice of her generation. Here are six books that Athena Liu can’t live without (including, invariably, Proust). Here are five affordable notebook brands Athena Liu recommends (she writes only on Moleskines, but check these other brands out if you’re poor)!

This is so wild, I’d texted her, along with the link to a recent Cosmo shoot.

I didn’t realize Cosmo readers were, like, literate.

HAHAH I know! she’d responded. I don’t even recognize that girl on the front page, they’ve airbrushed me to death. Those are not my eyebrows.

It’s the hyperreal. Back then it was still cool to quote Baudrillard as if

you’d read him in full.

Exactly, she’d said. Athena.0, and Athena.1. I’m a work of art. All construct. I’m Athena Del Rey.

So when it was my turn to release a novel, I had wild expectations that

publishing would do the same thing for me and Over the Sycamore, that some well-oiled machine would build my public persona without my lifting a finger, that the marketing department would take me by the hand and coach me on precisely the right things to wear and say when I showed up for all the major media interviews they had set up for me.

Instead my publisher threw me to the wolves. Everything I learned about self-promotion I learned from conversations on a debut writer’s Slack, where everyone was as lost as I was, throwing out outdated blog posts they’d dredged up from the corners of the internet. One absolutely had to have an author website, but was WordPress better or Squarespace? Did newsletters drive sales, or were they a waste of money? Should you hire a professional for your author photographs, or was a selfie taken with Portrait mode on your iPhone sufficient? Should you create a separate Twitter account for your author persona? Could you shitpost on it? If you got into public beef with other writers, would that tank your sales or drive up your visibility? Was it still cool to have public beef on Twitter? Or was beef now reserved only for Discord?

Needless to say, the high-profile interviews never materialized. The closest I got was an invitation by some guy named Mark, whose podcast had five hundred followers, and which I immediately regretted saying yes to when he began ranting about the overpoliticization of contemporary genre fiction and I began to worry that he was maybe a Nazi.

This time around, I get far more support from Eden. Emily and Jessica are on hand to answer all my questions. Yes, I should be active on all my social media platforms. Yes, I should include preorder links on every post— Twitter’s algorithm reduces visibility for tweets with links, but you can get around that by including links farther down the thread or in your bio. No, starred reviews don’t actually mean anything, but yes, I should still brag

about them because artificial hype is still hype. Yes, the book has been sent to reviewers at all the major outlets, and we’re expecting at least a few to run something positive. No, we’re probably not going to get a profile in the New Yorker, though perhaps a few books down the road we can talk.

I have actual money now, so I hire a photographer to take a new set of author photos. My old set was done by my sister’s friend from college, an amateur photographer named Melinda who happened to be in the area and charged me a fraction of the rates I’d found elsewhere online. I contorted my face in a number of different ways, trying to evoke the sultry, mysterious, and serious vibes of the photos of Serious Famous Woman Writers. Channel Jennifer Egan. Channel Donna Tartt.

Athena always looked like a model in hers: hair floating loose around her face, skin porcelain pale and glowing, full lips loose and slightly curled up at the edges as if she knew a joke that you weren’t in on, one eyebrow arched as if to say, Try me. It’s easy to sell books if you’re gorgeous. I made peace a long time ago with the fact that I’m only passably hot, and only from the right angles and lighting, so I tried for the next best thing, which is “tortured in a very deep and brilliant way.” It’s hard to transpose those thoughts to the camera, though, and the results horrified me when Melinda sent them in. I looked like I was trying to hold in a sneeze, or like I had to take a shit but was too afraid to tell anyone. I wanted to take them all again, this time with maybe a mirror in the background so I could see what the fuck I was doing, but I felt bad for wasting Melinda’s time, so I picked the one where I looked the most like a human being and the least like myself and paid her fifty bucks for her trouble.

This time I drop half a grand on a professional photographer in DC named Cate. We shoot in her studio, where she employs all sorts of lighting equipment I’ve never seen before, and which I can only hope will wash out my acne scars. Cate is brisk, friendly, professional. Her instructions are clear and direct. “Chin up. Relax your face a bit. Now I’m going to tell a joke, and just react however you want, just don’t pay attention to the lens. Lovely. Oh, that’s lovely.”

She sends me a selection of watermarked photos a few days later. I’m amazed by how good I look, especially in the photos we took outside. During golden hour I come off as nicely tanned, which makes me look sort of racially ambiguous. My eyes are cast demurely to the side, my mind full of profound and cryptic thoughts. I look like someone who could write a

book about Chinese laborers in World War I and do it justice. I look like a Juniper Song.

At Emily’s suggestion, I start cultivating a social media presence. Until now, I’ve only tweeted random shitposts and jokes about Jane Austen. I had barely any followers, so it didn’t matter what I was tossing out. But now that I’m drawing attention for my book deal, I want to give off the right impression. I want bloggers, reviewers, and readers to know I’m the kind of person who, you know, cares about the right issues.

I study the Twitter feeds of Athena and her mutuals to see which community figures I should follow, which conversations I should be a part of. I retweet hot takes about bubble tea, MSG, BTS, and some drama series called The Untamed. I learn it’s important to be anti-PRC (that’s the People’s Republic of China) but pro-China (I’m not terribly sure how that’s different). I learn what “little pinks” and “tankies” are and make sure I don’t inadvertently retweet support for either. I decry what’s happening in Xinjiang. I Stand with Hong Kong. I start gaining dozens more followers a day once I’ve started vocalizing on these matters, and when I notice that many of my followers are people of color or have things like #BLM and #FreePalestine in their bios, I know I’m on the right track.

And just like that, my public persona springs into being. Farewell June Hayward, little-known author of Over the Sycamore. Hello Juniper Song, author of this season’s biggest hit—brilliant, enigmatic, the late Athena Liu’s best friend.


does everything it can to make sure all of America is aware of its existence. They send ARCs—that’s “advanced reader copies”—out to other big-name authors at Eden, and though not everyone has time to read it, a handful of bestselling writers do say kind things like “Engrossing!” and “A

compelling voice,” which Daniella will have printed on the jacket cover.

The cover art was finalized about a year before the release date. Daniella asked me to put together a Pinterest board of ideas for the design. (Authors usually get some input on themes and general design ideas, but otherwise, we accept that we know nothing about cover art and leave the process alone.) I tooled around Google for some photographs of the Chinese Labour Corps and found some nice black-and-white photographs of the laborers themselves—there’s one in particular that I thought was

charming: eight or so laborers crowded beaming around the camera. I sent it off to Daniella. What about this? I asked. It’s in the public domain now, so we wouldn’t have to get the rights.

But Daniella and the art department didn’t think that was quite the right vibe. We don’t want it to look like a nonfiction history book, she responded. Would you pick that up if you were strolling through the bookstore?

In the end, we went with a more modern theme. The words THE LAST FRONT are printed in massive block letters, against an abstract duo-chrome rendering of what looks like some French village on fire. We want colors that emphasize bold, epic, and romantic, wrote Daniella. And you’ll notice the Chinese characters on the edges of the inner jacket—that’ll let readers know they can expect something different with this one.

The cover felt hefty, serious, attractive. It was somehow simultaneously every World War I novel that had been published in the last ten years, and also something new, exciting, and original. Perfect, I wrote to Daniella. That’s perfect.

Now that we’re much closer to release, I start seeing ads for it everywhere—Goodreads, Amazon, Facebook, and Instagram. They even get an ad for the subway. Either they didn’t tell me about it, or I forgot, because when I get off the train to Franconia-Springfield and see my book cover plastered on the opposite wall, I’m so stunned that I stand frozen on the platform. That’s my book. That’s my name.

The Last Front,” a woman behind me reads out loud to her companion. “By Juniper Song. Huh.”

“Looks good,” says the man. “We should check it out.” “Sure,” says the woman. “Maybe.”

A thrum of joy comes over me in that instant, and though it’s so trite you’d think I was imitating an actress in a CW pilot, I ball both hands into fists and jump high into the air.

The good news keeps piling up. Brett emails me with updates on foreign rights sales. We’ve sold rights in Germany, Spain, Poland, and Russia. Not France, yet, but we’re working on it, says Brett. But nobody sells well in France. If the French like you, then you’re doing something very wrong.

The Last Front starts making it onto all sorts of lists with titles like “Ten Best Books of the Summer,” “Debuts We Can’t Wait For,” and incredibly, PopSugar’s “15 Must-Read Summer Beach Reads.” Not everyone

wants to read about World War I at the beach, I joke on Twitter. But if you’re a freak like me, you might enjoy this list!

My book even gets chosen for a national book club run by a pretty

white Republican woman who is mostly famous for being the daughter of a prominent Republican politician, and this gives me some moral discomfort, but then I figure that if the book club reader base is largely Republican white women, then wouldn’t it be good for a novel to broaden their worldviews?

In the UK, The Last Front is chosen for the Readaholics Book Box. I didn’t know book boxes were such a major industry, but apparently subscription services like Readaholics send books out in cute crates with accompanying merchandise to tens of thousands of customers a month. The Readaholics Book Box edition of The Last Front will have special deckled edges, and ship out along with a cruelty-free vegan leather tote bag, a collectible key chain featuring various jade Chinese zodiac animals (for a special fee you can take a personality quiz online to determine your zodiac affinity), and a selection of sustainably sourced, single-origin green teas from Taiwan.

Barnes & Noble decides to do an exclusive special signed edition, which means that four months before release date, I get eight giant packages delivered to my apartment containing tip-in sheets, which are blank title pages that will be inserted into the printed books once I’ve signed them. Signing thousands of tip-in sheets takes forever, and I spend the next two weeks doing “wine and sign” nights, where I sit in front of my TV with a pile of pages to my right and a bottle of merlot, watching Bling Empire as I write “Juniper Song” in big, looping script.

Are these the signs of a bestseller in the making? I wonder. They must be. Why doesn’t anyone tell you, right off the bat, how important your book is to the publisher? Before Over the Sycamore came out, I worked my ass off doing blog interviews and podcasts, hoping that the more sweat I put into publicity, the more my publisher would reward my efforts. But now, I see, author efforts have nothing to do with a book’s success. Bestsellers are chosen. Nothing you do matters. You just get to enjoy the perks along the way.


I make it a nightly habit to scroll through new Goodreads reviews, just for that little boost of serotonin. They tell authors never to look at Goodreads, but nobody follows that advice—none of us can resist the urge to know how our work is being received. In any case, The Last Front is killing it; its review average is a healthy 4.89, and most of the top reviews are so gushingly positive that the occasional ambivalent three-star review hardly fazes me.

One night, though, I glimpse something that makes my heart stop.

One star. The Last Front has received its first one-star review, from a user named CandiceLee.

No way. I click over to her profile, wondering if it’s just a coincidence. Nope—CandiceLee, NYC, works in publishing. Favorite authors: Cormac McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson, and Jhumpa Lahiri. She’s not particularly active on Goodreads—her last review is for a poetry collection from 2014

—meaning this was no accident. Her thumb didn’t just slip. Clearly, Candice went out of her way to log in and give my book one star.

Fingers trembling, I screenshot the rating and send it to my editor.

Hey Daniella,

I know you said not to look at GR, but a friend sent me this and I’m a bit concerned. It seems like a pretty large lapse in professionalism. I guess technically Candice has the right to review my work however she likes in her off time, but after what happened with the SR this feels intentional . . .

Best, June

Daniella gets back to me first thing in the morning.

Thank you for letting me know. That is quite unprofessional. We will handle this internally.

I know Daniella’s email voice well enough by now to tell when she’s irritated. Curt, choppy sentences. She didn’t even sign off. Daniella is pissed.

Good. Hot vindication coils in my gut. Candice deserves it—putting the sensitivity read kerfuffle aside, what kind of psychopath would fuck around with an author’s feelings like this? Shouldn’t she know how stressful and terrifying it is to launch a book? I bask for a moment, imagining what kind of chaos I’ve sown over at Eden’s office this morning.

And though I would never say this out loud about a fellow woman—the industry is tough enough as it is—I hope I got that bitch fired

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