Book Labels: Good, Bad or Ugly?
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 (
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.
Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: anthology, book labelling, book labels, books, booksellers, bookshops, Dying For It: Tales of Sex and Death, erotica, genre, genre fiction, John Updike, multi-genre fiction, Philip Roth, publishers, publishing, sales figures, sex, Wal-Mart.