I was reading a book and all was going along swimmingly. I was INTO it. There was banter! Chemistry! Humour! It had one of those cute illustrated covers! A hero and heroine I could totally root for! Great supporting characters! And then—BAM. Plot twist out of nowhere about two thirds in that made this adorable rom-com get really heavy really fast.
Now, I am not particularly triggered by the turn of events in this book, though it did hit on some universal anxieties that most people probably feel/have felt before. But man, I could have used a warning for what was coming. I don’t want to be spoiled, but I also want to be able to brace myself a bit.
So let’s talk content warnings – should you use them, why to use them, how to use them.
A content warning (CW – also sometimes TW is used interchangeably for “trigger warning”) is a blurb that tells the reader what issues are being discussed in the book that might be uncomfortable for them – things like violence, rape, infant/child death, animal death, suicide, infertility, miscarriage, homophobia, descriptions of abuse, ableism, etc.
Unsurprisingly, I come down on the side of yes, you should use CWs.
It’s not going to hurt you to include it, but it might hurt someone else if you don’t. People often read romance to escape reality for a bit; if they’re reminded of past trauma while trying to get away from it, the book’s not doing its job.
None of this “oh, it’s just people being snowflakes” bullshit – your readers are real people with real emotions, which is something you count on when you’re writing, that they’ll use their emotions to connect with your characters. You can show them the same respect in turn.
It gives the reader the chance to opt out of reading it. Yes, this might mean you lose a sale this time – but it might not mean permanently. When the reader is ready to read books with those CWs in it or wants to read another book of yours, they might come back because of the respect you’ve shown them in giving them the out. On the other hand, if you don’t include a CW and the reader reads it and feels terrible afterwards, you’re looking at a possible bad review AND the loss of a potential fan.
I get that you don’t want to give away the plot of the book or a twist, but you can keep it vague enough that people won’t be spoiled but that they can also be warned.
It prevents people from being misled by the cover, especially with this recent trend of illustrated covers that look cheerful and fun and light but belie some of the heavier content included in the pages.
On a larger scale, CWs can also help rid us of the mistaken notion that romance is only about sexytimes and men with eight-packs (cartoon or not) on book covers. Like any genre of literature, romance talks about real issues that matter to people. CWs are a visible indicator of how romance comments on concerns that have a cultural impact on readers.
Using CWs Effectively
The real question about CWs is how to use them effectively. I often see writers put them in the front matter of the book, around the copyright page. It’s great that they’re there, especially for paperbacks, but ebooks usually open up to the beginning of the first chapter, not at the cover or the front matter, so the CW might be missed entirely. (I forgot to check if the book I was reading had a CW at the front of the book – but if it did, I didn’t see it.) Likewise, putting it at the back of the book isn’t going to be helpful after they’ve already read through.
What’s the solution, then? Putting into your blurbs on Amazon and other platforms may be a good start – readers will then know before they buy what they’re getting into. The problem with this is that Amazon’s algorithm pulls keywords from the blurb, which might end up skewing the things people are looking for when they search.
You can also put CWs in your promo on social media. Just like you might put in the tropes your book uses to attract people, you can also include CWs in a comment or a tweet under the main promo. It doesn’t need to be front and centre all the time; it just needs to be there.
You should include your CWs on your website. Jennifer Hallock, historical romance writer and romance scholar (off-topic, but please check out her stuff on romance chronotopes, just because I think it’s absolutely BRILLIANT), has a really fabulous page on her site for content warnings in all of her books, based on feedback she saw from romance bloggers and other people talking about CWs.
If you review books on your site/blog, you should also post content warnings to let your readers know what to expect. Suzanne over at Love in Panels has a great post on why they do it at LiP.
Truth be told, the publishing world has not yet adapted for content warnings. From how a book opens to how a product is found, Amazon needs to start figuring out how to do this in a smart way. And readers have yet to really expect CWs in their books, so we have to start showing up for them and making this a regular thing that they know to look for and can find easily.
Do you use CWs for your books? Why or why not? Have I convinced you here? Let me know.
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