Monday, November 4, 2013

Early Warning Systems: Should Novels Come with Explicit Content Labels?

Recent events concerning the Great Erotica Purge of 2013 and subsequent discussions online have raised various issues for publishers. Independent publishers are even more sensitive to these developments because their books seem to be under more scrutiny. Other creative mediums have faced similar issues and have responded in different ways over the years, but one of the major responses has been the idea of informed notice. Is this response applicable to publishing? What are the benefits and drawbacks of this kind of warning? I'll take a look at this idea and the way that it applies to my own books.

Ratings, Labels and Codes

It's not hard to find examples of entertainment regulation in American media. The film industry has the MPAA that assigns ratings based on content determined to be adult (i.e sexual). Television has a similar system, so do graphic novels and video games. Music doesn't have a rating system, but it does have the explicit content stickers for albums with "objectionable" lyrics. In addition, certain songs are recorded twice; once in its original form and once in a sanitized "radio friendly" version. Novels and theater seems to be the only form of mass entertainment that doesn't have some kind of early warning system. I can't speak to the theatrical experience, but that kind of system could have a definite impact on the selling and reading of books.

Acceptance and Rejection

There are two potential benefits to placing explicit content labels on books:
  • Informed readers: potential customers will have a better idea of what they are getting. Readers who are more sensitive to sexual content (because the vast majority of backlash in any media with regards to content involves sex (See Erotica as a Literary Pariah) can avoid titles without the need to interpret the cover or book blurb.
  • Increasing cross genre pollination: while some readers avoid stories with sexual content, others specifically seek that material out. Stories with this kind of content that don't fit into the erotica genre can have an easier time finding readers and sales if readers know that in their historical fiction or space opera they might also find erotic themes. Mainstream readers can dabble in other styles and authors can add erotic concepts to their stories without the need to categorize themselves or their work as erotic if they don't want to.

There are four potential drawbacks to book labeling:
  • Lack of surprise: if a reader knows that sexual content is inevitable, then surprise is replaced by anticipation. Subconsciously, they could be looking for the characters or situations that will lead to the sex scene instead of experiencing the story organically. There might not be an inherent problem with this. Anticipation can keep a reader turning pages and pull them more into a story. But if you want the element of surprise, the warning label takes that away.
  • Summary rejection: some readers will refuse to read a book if they know there is sexual content up front. The context, treatment and craft of the writer isn't considered.  A reader who might otherwise be willing to accept and enjoy a well written scene that evolves naturally may never experience the story because of a prejudicial judgment based on the warning label.
  • Ease of purge: Online distributors recently removed huge portions of their self-published catalog because of complaints revolving around sexual content. The purge appears to be over as books are being restored, but some of those books will never go back up. If there is going to be another purge or ban, an explicit content label could be a bull’s-eye painted on your book cover, regardless of the type of content in your story.
  • Creative retreat: some authors might be willing to insert sexual themes in their non-erotic work if they can be placed quietly inside the rest of the narrative. If there was some kind of obligation to announce sexual content up front, some authors might alter their stories or change their writing style completely to avoid the scrutiny that might come with that disclosure. The label would have a chilling effect on the craft.
Self-Imposed Systems

After weighing the pros and cons, I've decided to try and put warning labels on my next novel, A Taste of Honey. Because the book is about criminal espionage, it might not be immediately clear that the book has sexual content (although some people will probably disagree with me). The way I see it, there is a benefit to attracting readers who like shows like Scandal. I also prefer to warn off people who are looking for a more traditional spy novel. There is still a chance that my book will be rejected out of hand by readers, but I'd rather have them not read it based on their own choice, rather than feeling like I tricked them.

What do you think? Are you willing to put a warning label on your book? Would you avoid a book with a warning label or would that make you more interested in the story. Please let me know with a comment.

Have fun


  1. I've been using content labels with my books for most of 2013. In my case I use "family friendly: no profanity, no explicit sex, and no explicit violence." The word "explicit" here is key because there IS some sex and violence in my books; they ARE medieval science fiction after all. In order to explore gender politics in medieval societies, not to mention in order to write multi-generational stories where characters marry and have children, there has to be SOME sex to the stories. But how the sex is conveyed matters. I do everything I can to avoid anything explicit while at the same time providing the details needed for my story telling.

    Some details ARE necessary -- especially in rape scenes -- in order to convey the truly villainous nature of (political) rape. If all I did was say "he raped her," the reader would not understand just how horrifying the experience really is and would be less repulsed by it (which, plot reasons aside, is rather my point).

    So it's a balancing act.

    I do think that putting approximate age suitability stickers/labels helps. My first book which has very low sex/violence I tend to label "age 13 up." Whereas my second book, a murder-mystery, I tend to label "age 16 up" to convey that there is more sex/violence and a bit more explicitly conveyed as part of that necessary story telling.

    1. Thank you Laurel.

      Have you received any feedback from readers or websites like Amazon about your content labels?

  2. I actually put the following "Content Advisory" in the description for my book on Amazon's website:

    Content Advisory: This book is intended for mature audiences and contains graphic violence, explicit sexual activity and disturbing imagery

    I like the idea of a content advisory, not for censoring purposes, but to ensure that the right reader finds the right book. For me, it's a matter of putting the book in the right "category" so that the reader has a sense of what they are getting into and is totally on board with it. That's not to say I don't believe in "being surprised" (both pleasantly and unpleasantly) by a book, as a reader I enjoyed that kind of thing all the time. But as a writer selling my book, I do feel an odd sense of obligation in making sure that the people who purchase it know a little bit about the content, just so that they can make an informed buying decision. Also, I have kids, and so as a parent, it’s nice to have a quick way of identifying what they may or may not be reading.

    But that's just me.

    1. That makes sense Anthony. Thanks.

      Do you think it's better to put the advisory on the sale page of the website instead of on the cover of the book, or do you think that both locations have the same impact?

    2. I think that the warning label on the book is more affective, as you are not always going to look for the book online or research it online. you may just come across it in a library and the label on the book itself is a nice and easy easy to know what is in the novel.