Thoughts about Book Content Warnings and Disclosures
There's been a controversy brewing for awhile on content disclosure and warnings. As a reader, I tend to favor disclosure, because I like good smexy scenes (if they're plot-driven) as well as the next person, but I like advance notice. I especially want to know if the sex is non-vanilla and involves dubious consent or rape, force, pain, restraint, humiliation, public setting, multiples (including if it's MFM or MMF – it's a world of difference) etc., and doubly especially if it involves the main characters. Bottom line: I want to know what I'm getting into, because there are some things I will definitely read, some I don't mind, and some I find distasteful and won't ever read. Stumbling across them unexpectedly makes me testy. The more learned and clever writers and commenters at DearAuthor.com have a more nuanced view. That said, I'm happy that there are readers who like the things I won't read and that there are authors who will cater to them, because it makes the world a much more interesting place.
Authors and publishers with an erotica line are mostly pretty good with disclosure this, probably because they were tired of having to refund book purchases from disgruntled readers, either because the book had too much sex, not enough sex, or unexpected sexual practices. Independent authors probably don't see refunds requests as often, but the readers might be inclined to leave bad reviews if their expectations went unfulfilled. For a recent “readers also bought” book I saw on Amazon, at least 25% of the reviews on Amazon were one star and “Not recommended” because there were two(!) rape scenes involving the heroine that weren't even hinted at in the blurb, which billed the book as a sexy paranormal romance. With the backlash against 50 Shades of Grey for implying sexual sadism and violence against women is somehow the same as consensual BDSM play, you'd think the author or publisher might have updated the book's description.
Some publishers have their own rating systems, but there's no consensus I could find, so you probably need to check with the publisher to find out what they mean by “sweet,” “sensual,” “steamy,” or “graphic.” Reviewers and book review sites can be good sources of this information if the publisher or author has been coy (and thank you, brave reviewers, for telling me what I'd be getting into). Some of the content warnings are fun and snarky, too, a trend I believe was started by Samhain Publishing, which helps ease the sometimes bitter medicine of needing to give content and trigger warnings.
I believe it all comes down to what I expect as a reader, and having my expectations met. It's true in other areas as well. Rachel Leigh Smith wrote a recent post wherein she pointed out that a book labeled as romance MUST be a romance — main characters who learn to trust and love one another, and have a happily-ever-after (or at the very least, a happy-for-now) ending. “Romantic elements” don't count. And as she pointed out, an unfulfilled romance AND a cliffhanger, both undisclosed, make readers want to throw the book against the nearest wall, or pound their e-reader with the nearest mallet.
Sneak up on me (or just plain lie to me), and I won't ever buy your books again. Tell me what I'm getting, and I'll come along on the ride with you all the way to the end.