Exploring Content Warnings in the World of Publishing

Have you ever started a book or movie but were shocked or even disturbed by content that you weren’t expecting? On the flip side, have you ever been interested in a form of media, but after reading reviews or seeing warnings about certain aspects of it (think doesthedogdie.com), decided to maybe shelf it for a later date?

There’s no shame in knowing your own limits with regard to troubling content. The difficult thing about content and trigger warnings as a whole, however, is that there is no “one-size-fits-all.” One thing that might put you off can go totally unnoticed by another reader. In the publishing world, the territory of content warnings is relatively new and largely unexplored, especially with new acquisitions.

Since every reader and writer is different, it can be difficult to decide what sort of things will trouble or disturb your readers. One important thing to keep in mind is your target audience. Who are you hoping will pick up your book and keep reading? What sort of things do you think would alienate them or make them put it down?

There are some areas that certain people will be more attuned to because those are areas that are relevant to their lives. For example, a bisexual woman will be more sensitive to microaggressions concerning bisexual erasure or even misogyny than a gay man might be. On the other hand, gay men have their own unique struggles to contend with. Instances of racial violence can be especially triggering to those who have experienced it firsthand. It all comes down to the individual, as we all have our own rich lives that intersect in various ways.

So what do we do? Looking at your own experiences can be a great place to start. Have there been instances where you wished you had some sort of heads-up about something in a book? Are there things that are hard no’s, where if a book contains anything relating to that subject matter, you won’t touch it? Are there things that are okay in certain situations or if you’re in the right headspace? Keeping these warnings in mind can prepare you and arm you with tools to decide whether or not you’d like to continue at a later date or pass altogether.

After looking at your own experiences, it’s a good idea to examine your own blind spots. Having conversations with others who have different lived experiences can help you expose those blind spots and help you empathize with different struggles. From there, you can start to formulate what content warnings might be best for your book so that you can add them to your manuscript queries and proposals.

Because Ooligan is a student-run press, there are lots of eyes on the manuscripts that come through our slush pile. Since it’s impossible for the acquisitions managers to vet every single manuscript that comes through, we find that content warnings can be a great tool to help us divvy up the work. If authors who submit to our press think about material in their manuscript that may or may not be triggering, it can help streamline the process for managers and keep our hardworking team members excited about the work that they do.

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