Friday, November 27, 2009

What Makes a Book Marketable? #1

Since I have NO time to read books for pleasure—and haven’t had all this year—I cannot offer any recommendation for a “must-read.” However, I can comment on two different areas that have come up in recent discussions about books.

The first addresses an issue from a recent dialogue on Murder Must Advertise, an online writing group capably monitored by 2009 Anthony Award Winner, Jeffrey Marks. The discussion explored the pros and cons of using foul language in writing, particularly fiction. Various contributors commented that they had lost sales at book signings when potential readers questioned whether the book being offered included swearing/obscenities. Points of view ranged from the writer’s right/obligation to present information or dialogue that is honest and realistic to arguments that readers shouldn’t be exposed to material that they find offensive.

The bottom line, however, is sales. What makes a book sell? What keeps a book from selling?

Limiting our discussion here to strong language and two companion issues—graphic violence and explicit sex—let’s consider whether “shock” value translates into book sales. In other words, does the inclusion of one or more “shockers” turn readers “on” or “off”?

Statistically, I can’t answer that question. But like “R” rated movies, such books will no doubt attract a certain element of readers who are curious or who thrive on dirty words, blood and guts, and salacious scenes. Other readers, however, will refuse to buy these books because they are offended by the very things that attract the first group. Back to that bottom line: a significant number of potential readers may be lost.

So let’s examine the other side. Would the writer forfeit the same number of readers by penning a story so compelling that the reader wouldn’t miss the profanity, violence, and sex? Would readers who prefer hard-core language and details be offended if these elements were absent, but the gripping story kept them turning pages? In other words, can powerful writing win out over bad words, sex, and gore? And what is more important—harsh reality or appealing to the widest reading audience to sell books? What do you think?

Writer/editor/publisher Linda Lane offers “team edits” that benefit the writer because two (or three) sets of eyes are far better than one in finding flaws that make a manuscript mediocre and transforming that story into an enthralling work of art.


  1. I read and write on both sides of that question, Linda. If the words and graphic scenes are organic to the story and necessary for the character, then I don't object to writing them or reading them. Although I do draw the line on erotica and soft porn. :-)

    To just throw the sex and violence in because that suits popular culture is not something I would be comfortable with writing, and I avoid entertainment that panders to that.

  2. I remember writing about this some time ago. Yeah, here it is.

    For the most part, I'll read anything. I prefer stuff that doesn't offend me, but I won't shun a book just because it has that stuff.

    Likewise, I write what doesn't offend me (or my alpha reader, aka my wife). Beyond that, I figure you can't please everybody, so you might as well write what you want to read.

  3. Every story I've written has been a CR targeting category romance publishing. My love scenes are real, use the real words etc, but can be altered if necessary to suit a publisher's requests. However, I cannot write a love story without the sex. Plus, I write the story that's given to me by my characters. Currently, I have a shock jock (female) and a criminal profiler. The sexual elements might offend some readers, other not so much. But they are not as easy to nullify as the first three stories I wrote. I keep asking myself why I am writing it at all because I KNOW it won't do well in contests, and I know it might offend some publishers/readers. But I can't NOT write it. I'll cross the marketing bridge on this one later.

    In a way, not being published and still desperately seeking an agent leaves me the freedom to explore a lot of aspects about writing and my style/writing voice. But I'm looking forward to having someone inside the industry guide my writing direction. Meanwhile, I focus on the people in my head and what they need me to write.

    If I chased publishing trends, I'd fail to catch any of them. I do know at that bookstores, if a book is super spicy/hot, when it comes to romance, the books are clearly marked that way. The reader that picks up those books wants to read them.

  4. Mark and I write the Eva Baum detective series, which are not cozies. The bad guys speak like bad guys, action scenes are graphic (not to excess, but enough to leave no doubt about what's happening), and there is sex (no where near what I've read lately in the romance arena; I think we pass the PG test here).

    The only reader/reviewer who slammed us for this was upset because the book starts out sounding like a tamer novel and has been compared to books by Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone series and Sue Grafton's Kinsy Milhone series. Basically, the reader was expecting something different and felt scammed.

    Lesson for us - black cover, bloody sounding title, and using words like 'brutal' on the back cover are not enough. We need to find a way to let potential readers know what lives between the covers. I haven't yet figured out how to do this on the book cover unless we select an excerpt that demonstrates. Any ideas?

  5. Like Maryann and others, I feel the language and actions need to fit the character. One of my characters was a rough, thistley young woman who used curse words extensively. But I wanted to sell to a milder market so I had her make a deal with her best friend to use cleaned up language. She struggles with it and I missed some of her pithy remarks, but it worked.

  6. I wasn't suggesting "G-rated" writing--I was posing a question. My latest novel includes a couple of sex scenes (both between husband and wife and neither explicit, but the reader will have no doubt where the characters are going (or have been). Also, there is an altercation, and one character gets shot.

    Graphic violence bothers me, but in my first novel I have some assault scenes between a wife and her abusive husband, as well as a fight scene that's brutal enough to leave one character unconscious.

    As for foul language, I prefer to switch to narrative rather than use words that I never say. This is a personal preference, and the reader can "hear" whatever vocabulary suits him/her.

    The comments here are interesting because they reflect the essential element of realism that must run through our stories. Fiction is a fantastic platform for reaching out to readers in a variety of ways about the human condition and perhaps even their own. It must ring true to be effective and to make the reader wait in eager anticipation for the release of our next book.

  7. It does depend on taste, just like movies. I don't write or read erotica, but it is very popular and sells well.

    As far as violence goes, if it's the protagonist, I want a very good reason for using it, even if I personally wouldn't use it in my own life no matter what happened to me. In fiction, I allow leeway.

    As far as swearing is concerned, I've used it in the villain's point of view, but I don't overdo it or it loses its effect.

    Morgan Mandel

  8. interesting topic!
    I've only written one book and it hasn't come out yet, but i made the choice to leave all out swear words, even the milder ones, despite the fact that I was using those words a lot when i was going through some of the physically painful situations in the book.

    As a comedian, it has been my overall experience that once you decide to "work clean" (no swearing, no graphic sexual content, no "dick jokes"), you have to be more creative and smarter on stage. However, I've heard some vulgar yet brilliant comedians, so i'm not saying that all clean comedy is smarter or all vulgar comedy is dumb. It's just a helpful exercise if you always swear or do sexual content to try and write something that does neither.

    Like everything else in art, it comes down to being true to yourself and using the right tools, whether they be "foul language" or squeaky clean, to get across what you have to say.

    The book I wrote is a collection of humorous essays about surviving and conquering illness. I want to help people with this book; I would not want to have people's minds closed to what I have to say because I decided to include a dirty word or 2. So, i decided to leave out the couple of dirty words.

  9. I am so happy I found this blog and especially this topic series. I had just finished writing my post for Mon 11/30 and I was asking questions similar to the ones posed here. In the novel I just complete for NaNo, I am dealing with Christian themes but about very bad and tough people. I think I pulled off the not using profanity issue (I agree with Singing Patient) but does the drug use, violence, and sex have a major conflict with the Christian themes?

  10. Do sex, violence, and drug use conflict with Christian themes? Probably not, Lee, since all are addressed in the Bible? (Drug use, by extension, can be considered with alcohol abuse.)

    How we use them in our stories, however, makes a difference. We have a responsibility to our readers because situations we create on paper may be their reality -- which is why it's essential to research the "facts" we present in our fiction. Are we inspiring those who read our stories to be more than they are? Or are we leading them down a wrong path? Do we provide answers to burning questions in their lives? If this is the case, those answers need to be "right."

    So how do we handle the topics your mentioned? Sex scenes needn't make a sailor (or the reader) blush. They can be discreet. Explicit details aren't necessary to allow most readers to envision the scene. Drug use can be presented in very real terms without glorifying it. Violence so graphic that it gives the reader nightmares doesn't add anything but shock value to a story. Yet we can realistically portray violence (a car wreck is a violence) without horrifying our more sensitive readers.

    Even "very tough people" are multi-faceted. They have another side. Otherwise, they are unbelievable two-dimensional characters who won't ring true to our readers. Can you allow that side to show on occasion to make them "real" people? What kind of tough people are they? Rapists, for example? A rape scene can be effectively depicted by getting inside the mind of the victim or even the perpetrator. The act itself doesn't need to be detailed. Explore how the victim "escapes" what is happening? Or what drove the rapist to commit this crime? In other scenarios, people can be shot without the reader "seeing" blood and guts in graphic terms. Drug use/abuse can be portrayed realistically from a user's perspective. What drove him or her to this method of excapism? If a character is a dealer, why? Money to pay for a parent, sibling, or child's heart surgery? A way to support his/her habit? A quick road to riches? What led the character to this point in life?

    The important thing is not to violate your conscience or compromise your beliefs. Whether we have actually "lived" a scene or "imagined" it on paper for readers to "live," we reap what we sow. With this in mind, we need to weigh our words and be true to ourselves. Christian values can be woven subtly into our stories without smacking the reader in the face with them or forcing them down the road of denominational religion.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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