Book Labels: Good, Bad or Ugly?

August 12, 2008 at 2:25 pm 24 comments

What do you do when your book is mislabelled? No, I’m not talking about some spotty teenaged kid at Wal-Mart putting the wrong price sticker on it. I’m talking about something a lot more annoying and something which can potentially affect your book sales – sometimes to the negative.

When readers head over to a bookshop or to an online bookseller to find a book to purchase, they might go to a specific category, be it crime, romance, science-fiction, chick-lit, self-help, whatever. They then have certain expectations of what these books will be about. But what happens when a book isn’t quite what it says on the tin? Well, readers may get more than they bargained for and have their reading experience elevated to a higher level. At least this is what we as writers hope will happen! But what about those readers who miss out entirely on a book because of the way in which it’s labelled?

Labelling isn’t necessarily done as a sinister plot to mislead a book buyer into purchasing something he or she doesn’t want to buy (though if a recent article about publishers suddenly labelling everything chick-lit is anything to go by…), but rather a matter of expediency. If it says sci-fi on the cover, booksellers know to stock it on the sci-fi shelves, and readers know to find it there. Simple, right? In the majority of cases, this works just fine for most categories of fiction and non-fiction. But what about those times when it does not work just fine?

I’ll draw upon my own experiences in this area to demonstrate my point. Although much of my work has been in the area of erotic fiction, or “erotica” as it is more commonly referred to, the label has on occasion been misapplied. Case in point: my anthology Dying For It: Tales of Sex and Death (Amazon US/UK/Ca). This is a multi-genre collection of short stories ranging from crime, romance and horror, to literary fiction and erotic fiction. Before it went to press, I spoke on the phone to my publisher in New York discussing this very issue: how to label the book. We both agreed that classifying the work as “erotica” was not really accurate, therefore it was agreed that the anthology would not be labelled as such. But when the book came out, there it was on the back cover: “erotica.” Clearly the opinions of the creator and editor of the book (me) and the gentleman who’d so enthusiastically agreed to publish it were overridden by someone with no concept of what the anthology was about (they probably just saw the word “sex” in the title) and had probably not even read one story contained within it.

The problem is, there are many readers out there who are not interested in reading erotica – or what they either rightly or wrongly perceive to be “erotica.” However, they might not be averse to reading material that contains sexual themes or content, providing this is placed within a wider context. These readers probably don’t bat a proverbial eyelash at the sexually explicit and often even purple prose to be found in a John Updike or Philip Roth novel, but will they buy a book that proclaims itself to be erotica? Unlikely. Which means, you’ve lost a reader, and you’ve lost a sale.

Don’t get me wrong – labelling a book in a specific genre can have its advantages, providing said book is labelled properly. But this requires a bit more than a one-size-fits-all mentality by publishers. It requires some thoughtful analysis of what a book is actually about and who might be interested in reading it. It should be the goal of a publisher to attract the widest possible audience to a book, which will result in higher sales figures – and a label can either help or hinder this process. Placing a book such as my Dying For It into a specific classification can undermine what the author (or editor) is trying to accomplish. Likewise, it can keep readers away from books they might have considered, were it not for the label. A book is not a garment with a tag sewn into the collar listing its size and washing instructions. By treating it as such, we not only shortchange writers, but readers as well.


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24 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Crystal  |  August 12, 2008 at 2:34 pm

    How disappointing. 😦

    Try not to let it bother you too much… it’s done now, and at least the word ‘erotica’ covers the stories that *do* contain it. You might even attract some that wouldn’t have viewed it without that label?

    Cress – looking on the bright side of life :-p

  • 2. mitziszereto  |  August 12, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    True, but it’s always the ones that got away…

  • 3. jt  |  August 12, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    Not sure you can get away with describing Roth – Pulitzer winner and one of the handful of great novelists still alive – as writing ‘purple prose’. And if anything his style is very pared down.

  • 4. mitziszereto  |  August 12, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    Did you read “American Pastoral”? That had more explicit prose in it than a lot of stuff in my books! 😀

  • 5. Ashok Banker  |  August 12, 2008 at 3:24 pm

    Hey, tough luck. Why does this happen in US publishing, and why are even the editor and publisher of a book unable to have a say in how their book is categorized? I’ve had it happen to me, and it sucked. I guess it’s especially hard when you’ve edited anthologies of erotica, and this one clearly isn’t erotica. I’d read a story or anthology of stories about sex and death–I’ve even contributed to an anthology with those twin themes–but erotica wouldn’t interest me at all. You also risk alienating reviewers and critics who feel misled and then feel they’re at pains to point out why the stories are not erotica because…etc.

    This kind of mislabeling ranks up there (or down there) with cover illustrations that depict visuals unrelated to the book’s contents, and back cover blurb copy that reads like the copywriter never read the book.

    As for ‘chick lit’, you mean everything out there that’s written by a woman isn’t chick lit? Gasp! I never knew! 🙂

  • 6. Ashok Banker  |  August 12, 2008 at 3:28 pm

    I meant to say there that the label erotica on this particular book wouldn’t interest me at all. And not only Roth, Updike writes in more sex in some books than most erotic supernatural novelists!

  • 7. mitziszereto  |  August 12, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    Tell me about it. In fact, you may have anticipated another blog post of mine with regard to critics/reviewers.

  • 8. mitziszereto  |  August 12, 2008 at 3:43 pm

    Yes, Mr Updike as well, but I didn’t want to make a shopping list of writers whose prose is a lot more sexually explicit than much of what I’ve written – or edited! Let’s add Jilly Cooper to the fray while we’re at it.

  • 9. jt  |  August 12, 2008 at 5:27 pm

    ‘Purple prose’ doesn’t mean ‘erotic’ or ‘about sex’ though, it means overblown, self indulgent description. Updike and Roth do write about sex a lot, but neither of them write purple prose about that or anything else.

    And, although this is unrelated, they generally both write about sex in a very unerotic way, they certainly aren’t trying to titillate. Their books aren’t ‘erotica’ anymore than a text book on sexual function is.

    That’s not to say that you weren’t mislabeled, but it is to say that neither Roth nor Updike can be accused of writing purple prose or erotica.

  • 10. mitziszereto  |  August 12, 2008 at 5:43 pm

    We’re playing semantics here. You have missed my point – Roth and Updike and a whole slew of people write material that is far more sexually explicit in nature than a lot of work that is classified as “erotica.” I agree that their sex writing is highly unerotic, especially Updike’s. Definitely “Bad Sex in Fiction Award” stuff – and yeah, he’s been nominated too. As for writing about sex in a very unerotic way, have you seen a lot of what passes as erotica these days? It is hardly titillating. And you also prove my point in that anything with the label of “erotica” on it is assumed to fulfill only one function: to titillate. This tosses a lot of writers onto a scrapheap, in that their work is thought to have no value beyond that of a masturbatory tool.

    PS – If you were my student at uni I’d have to mark you down. Wiki is not a recognised source for either quoting or research! :p

  • 11. jt  |  August 12, 2008 at 7:14 pm

    But I only missed your point because you misused ‘purple prose’… I was rather more trying to educate you than study under you ;p

  • 12. mitziszereto  |  August 12, 2008 at 7:33 pm

    Study under me? That sounds very suggestive, sir. 😛

  • 13. Will Entrekin  |  August 12, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    jt’s right.

    That said, I’ve never read Roth (got bored), nor Updike (ditto), but I basically get your point. It’s really not about publishing or writing or reading so much as it’s about marketing; I’ll bet those are the people who decided Robert Sawyer is sci-fi but Michael Crichton is not. Lots of people would simply just never pick up a science fiction novel, period (or a fantasy, or whathaveyou).

    The list is long, but really it seems to come solely down to marketing.

  • 14. Brenna Lyons  |  August 12, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    Oh, don’t get me started on it! Between publishers that decide to mismark them…to publishers that decide to “redefine” established market expectations, no matter that readers KNOW what the market should be and don’t appreciate this…to book store clerks who decide to shelve an author where she usually writes and not to the genre of the book… The poor readers rarely have a fighting chance.

    That’s why I use my own rating system on my site. It saves my readers a lot of grief.


  • 15. Carol Fenlon  |  August 13, 2008 at 11:26 pm

    At least yours got a label. Mine is mostly listed in Fiction A-Z under F.

  • 16. Chaz Folkes  |  August 14, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    It’s a tricky point. I went to a very interesting class where we were told that we needed to know exactly where out book would appear on the bookshelves in the library and in the local bookshop. It’s marketing, basically; the book is a product and that product needs to be in the right place for its core readership (ie, the people most likely to pony up £7.99 for a copy) will find it.

    We’re stuck with marketing as that’s how the publishers and agents make money, but there’s nothing to stop us plugging our books to reading groups, libraries etcetera and getting it to people who “…wouldn’t usually read that sort of thing…” How many people have read Harry Potter who hadn’t picked up a children’s book in the shop since they were children themselves?

    That aside, books, like any art form, or any other product to that matter, will find a wider audience than their target if they’re good or hit on the zeitgeist.

  • 17. Jean Roberta  |  August 14, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    My condolences in having your anthology mislabelled, though having a book which is clearly erotica treated as “romance” or some other genre can be a problem too. “Romance” now seems to be the elephant that is threatening to swallow up erotica – defined by someone in a writers’ loop as fiction about sex as an important, transformative experience as distinct from fiction about the development of a relationship, or the solving of a mystery, etc. When a book is in print, though, you never know who will pick it up – I once found the brilliant novel “Sula” by Toni Morrison shoved amongst the romances in a drug store! (I wasn’t looking for romance – I happened to notice Morrison’s name.)

  • 18. mitziszereto  |  August 14, 2008 at 7:44 pm

    I wonder if Stephen King ever ended up on the chick-lit shelf?

  • 19. Will Entrekin  |  August 14, 2008 at 9:24 pm

    Stephen King is a shelf.

  • 20. Mary-Ann Tirone Smith  |  August 16, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    I was one of the 100 writers who contributed to the book, DIRTY WORDS: A LITERARY ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SEX. We were assigned a “dirty word” (mine was hum-job) and invited to write up to 2000 words in any genre: short story, poem, script, personal essay, whatever wherein we demonstrate the meaning of the work. The book has been many things to many people, but no one expected that Borders would classify it as “reference.” It is shelved with dictionaries and, of course, the Enyclopedia Britannica.

  • 21. mitziszereto  |  August 16, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    Well, perhaps we should at least be grateful that “erotica” isn’t shelved with “self-help.”

    Or is it???

  • 22. geoffnelder  |  August 18, 2008 at 8:10 am

    I have a ditto problem to yours with my Escaping Reality. It is a humorous thriller and so cross-genre. I shouldn’t have written it cos the bookshops have no idea where to put it. My local Borders have no thriller section anyway but place it in Local Interest! I sneak in now and then to relocate them to Crime, Fiction, Humour and when no one is looking, on to the Staff Recommended Reads display. Hah.

    Besides labelling problem, my publisher used a hard-nosed crime cover art. OK it has a near-naked man but the book is more humour than noir crime, especially the naughty bits.

    Oh well.

  • 23. mitziszereto  |  August 18, 2008 at 10:38 am

    Local interest???? That really takes the biscuit!

  • 24. Kelly Jameson  |  August 21, 2008 at 1:52 pm


    Another excellent blog. My writing is multi-genre and I find in the US, some are squeamish about book labels and ‘erotica’. I consider my book DEAD ON a suspense thriller with an erotica edge, and somehow it’s ended up on the horror/erotica list. 🙂

    In this day and age, women authors should feel empowered by what they write. We have freedom of speech and never know when our words might empower someone else or break down some of those labels and barriers…

    always keep ’em guessing…


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What I Get Up To

I write, I blog, I Mitzi TV, I network, I breathe, I get my name in the press... I'm a true Renaissance lass! My books include IN SLEEPING BEAUTY'S BED: EROTIC FAIRY TALES; GETTING EVEN: REVENGE STORIES (crime); THE NEW BLACK LACE BOOK OF WOMEN'S SEXUAL FANTASIES (non-fiction/survey); DYING FOR IT: TALES OF SEX AND DEATH (multi-genre); THE WORLD’S BEST SEX WRITING 2005 (non-fiction/criticism); WICKED: SEXY TALES OF LEGENDARY LOVERS; the EROTIC TRAVEL TALES anthology series; the M. S. Valentine erotic novels; and a slew of titles available on Amazon Kindle. Find me on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Flickr, LinkedIn, Plaxo, Tumblr, Plurk, Social Median, and wherever else I might decide to turn up!

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