Labels in Book Marketing: Advantages & Pitfalls – Part I
Today, we’re talking about labels in book marketing. Now, when I first wrote this post, it became very long and convoluted. So, in an attempt to stay organized and on topic as well as not overwhelm you guys with too much at once, I’ve split this into three posts. ^_^
Labels exist in society for a variety of reasons, but the basic point here is that they are both imperfect by nature and necessary in order to properly market books and alter readers’ expectations in a favorable manner.
Everyone has been exposed to labels in book publishing. It’s how we classify books into their genres and search for them at online vendors. We look through lists of authors and publishers in labeled genres, and we even go onto forums asking people to help us compile lists of books that suit our tastes based on aspects of their content. Needless to say, there are a LOT of different labels that are thrown around the GLBT erotica and erotic romance publishing industry, and some of them cause a bit more of a stir than others. Given the recent craziness surrounding Paypal and third party vendors, I thought it would be great to just take a look at a few labels that have been more hot-button lately. Please keep in mind that these are just a few thoughts on my part and each of the three sets of labels in these blog posts will probably stir up quite a few firm opinions. I’m not trying to step on anyone’s toes here, but I’m sure some people will have knee-jerk reactions to the labels. (In a way, that’s kind of the point! The labels are imperfect and have stigmas attached that make them less functional in real life than in the realm of fiction. Keep that in mind as you proceed! ^_-)
Rape vs Non-Con vs Dubious Consent
The distinction between these three is definitely the cause of much debate. In fact, my fellow Storm Moon Press authors, Heidi Belleau & Violetta Vane, already did a blog post for SMP about it. 😄 To try to keep things simple, though, I’m about to make a bit of generalization (and there are always exceptions, so bear with me). Rape in fiction involves the absolute removal of consent. It can be shown explicitly (and be subject to accusations of titillation), hand-waved, or hinted at, but all in all, it’s still when one party did not consent. In the real world, this is black and white by necessity: no consent or the ability to consent being withheld is rape. In fiction, however, there are shades of grey that stem from the black that is rape.
The line blurs a little as you move closer to non-con, which is a term that generally accounts for fiction in which consent is pointedly not given, but then the party who withheld consent ends up enjoying the act. Now, in real life, this would still fall under the term rape, but the context of the fiction itself removes the act from reality. Does this kind of fiction have an impact on readers? I think it’s safe to say that there is potential for that, as there is for all fictional themes, but most readers who enjoy non-con stories (from the classic bodice-rippers to stories about power dynamics), the disconnect between fiction and reality is generally acknowledged.
If you thought non-con was difficult to define, then dubious consent is even more so! In my mind, dubious consent covers all fictional cases in which consent wasn’t explicitly given, which means this term covers a lot of ground. Sex through coercion (such as sleeping with the boss under threat of being fired if you refuse), sex under the influence (of drugs, alcohol, or anything that would impair judgement), and sex where consent is muddled by the paranormal (from vampiric powers to animalistic pheromones to bodily possession to alien interference) would all likely fall into this category.
Now, when it comes to things like the Paypal dispute, there are a lot of problems associated with labeling, but one of them that stuck out to me is that no one is taking the time to spell out exactly what would be restricted based on the exclusion of ‘rape’ in erotica. (And it’s a valid point that the label ‘erotica’ is being used while ‘erotic romance’ isn’t being addressed at all, as if the introduction of a romantic plot makes all the other labels null and void, but I digress.) If Paypal is going by the real world definition of rape, then most non-con and dubious consent titles are also subject to removal by third party vendors who are bowing to Paypal’s list of objectionable material. If they say ‘rape for the purpose of titillation’ is prohibited, but they’re using the real-world parameters for the ‘rape’ label, then that affects a lot more books than just those actual books that are glorifying the act of full-on, violent rape. Because the labels of rape, non-con, and dubious consent overlap a little bit, there’s no way you could regulate fiction based on the labels. That’s the inherent problem with trying to put a spectrum of fictional content into boxes. If you aren’t willing to judge books on an individual basis (and let’s face it, no one is going to put in that kind of leg work), then the censorship itself is ineffective.
Labels serve their purposes within the genre. Those who enjoy dubious consent might not want to read rape fiction. The two are different and must be marketed differently in order to reach target audiences. By placing the label, publishers and authors are doing their best to let readers know what’s in their books. To those who believe all non-con is still rape, both labels are, no doubt, quite offensive and spark heated debate. In my mind, what it comes down to is that fictional themes work along a spectrum and every reader will have a different comfort zone along that spectrum. Labels try to break up that spectrum to make it a little easier for readers to find their target area of the genre. Sometimes, they fail. Other times, they are willfully misused (see Part II). Overall, however, it’s an imperfect system that is currently the best we have.