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#SATurday: Content Disclosures for Novels

#SATurday: Content Disclosures for Novels

This past Wednesday, my content disclosure tree for Minutes Before Sunset released by Clean Teen Publishing. What is a content disclosure tree? Well, I’ll leave that up to my publisher to define on their website. (Click here to read the definition. Click here to read my full content disclosure tree.) I suggest reading both before continuing, but I’m going to write the article as if the links are broken.


In summary, Clean Teen Publishing allows readers to understand what they’re picking up when they choose a book—which I completely support for numerous reasons, but I will mainly talk about personal experiences, both from working with readers and from traumatic topics I’ve lived through myself, and how these examples have helped me understand the consideration of a content disclosure.

Starting off at my day job, I help authors find readers interested in their work. One of the topics I always discuss with authors is whether or not there is incest, rape, or other controversial topics in the story. Why? Because many of the reviewers I have worked with requested to know this for various reasons. By talking to numerous readers every day, I started to realize how many readers would prefer to know certain things up front—again, for various reasons. Sometimes, it’s triggering for those with PTSD. Sometimes, they are simply disinterested in that scenario. Sometimes, it’s just a preference of how they are feeling that day. While I’m not one to be against any particular topic in a novel, I can understand why someone wouldn’t want to read about certain topics, especially involving traumas.

That being said, this sort of disclosure hasn’t happened without controversy. Simply Google “disclosing content in novels” or “content ratings for readers” and I guarantee you’ll find a forum discussing the pros and cons of this. The main arguments I see revolve around ruining surprises and the effectiveness of even preventing someone from reading something they won’t enjoy. And that’s what I want to discuss.

First, as a writer who has written about controversial topics—particularly with violence and language in November Snow and The Timely Death Trilogy, and drug use in Take Me TomorrowI would – by no means – want a reader to pick up one of my works and accidentally be triggered by something. Speaking from personal experience, my mother died from a drug overdose when I was eleven, which is why I wrote Take Me Tomorrow, but through years of counseling, I met many kids like me who reacted very differently than I did. Reading Take Me Tomorrow would be extremely upsetting for them, and knowing what they went through, I would never want to cause them distress about such a personal topic. As a fellow reader, I would also rather find them something else they might like to read.

Granted, I understand the “just put it down” argument, but—at the same time—why can’t we prevent readers from picking up a book they definitely won’t like in the first place? This isn’t about ratings or reviews. This is about caring about your readers’ feelings and time. Now . . . here is where I hear the “but that ruins the surprise” argument . . . which I don’t understand, because—if done correctly—the content disclosure will say the topic, not which character and on which page. Take my full disclosure for example (if you click on this link, it’s at the bottom of the page). Clean Teen Publishing lets us know that Minutes Before Sunset talks about a parent’s suicide. It doesn’t say which one. It doesn’t say how it happens or when it happens. It doesn’t even say how much it is discussed. If anything, I’ve given away SO MUCH more on my website about the topic of suicide in The Timely Death Trilogy and November Snow.

I know I write about controversial – and often violent – topics in my stories, and I, by no means, have an issue with readers knowing that up front, especially because my novels fall under the YA genre, and genres alone don’t warn about the insides. TV and movies have had ratings for a long time, and while I understand that it’s much easier to be surfing channels and accidentally comes across a movie (and a book takes much more time to get into), I think content disclosures can help a large portion of readers find more suitable books that they will enjoy.

Content disclosures can help those that feel like they need it, and those who feel they don’t need content disclosures can ignore them. If you want to be surprised about all the topics, for instance, don’t read the disclosure. It’s as simple as that. At this point, I will say that I don’t think it needs to be an industry standard but rather something that is up to an author and their publisher (and of course, the reader). Personally, I love them. I see too many benefits coming from them for me not to love them. Content disclosures can help those avoiding triggering topics and even help parents choose books for their children that they deem appropriate. Disclosures can help readers find exactly what they’re looking for, maybe even a controversial topic they’ve struggled to find. Everyone who wants them can read them, and everyone who doesn’t want them doesn’t have to use them, but as an author, I’m glad my novels now have one.


P.S. On a fun side note, my publisher actually makes these for anyone interested! Click here to check it out.

P.S.S. I reviewed Ex Machina and talked about robots during my latest YouTube video on Coffee & Cats!

19 thoughts on “#SATurday: Content Disclosures for Novels

  1. I don’t know if you’re into historical drama, but she’s in a Dutch (I believe) movie called A Royal Affair, if you like those type of movies I suggest you watch it (it’s on Netflix)! Her acting is a little dull in it, but her crying/screaming scenes are really powerful.

    1. I will have to check it out. I love Netflix. :] I’ve been having some issues with mine recently, but if I can get it to work, I will look that movie up. Thanks for the suggestion!

  2. Is this meant only for books which will be labeled YA?

    I keep getting caught in books meant for adult readers which suddenly raise the level of either violence or sex higher than I’m comfortable with, leaving me to either stop reading, or start skimming those scenes – and to never pick up another book by that writer.

    And as someone about to publish my first book, I wonder how much to telegraph that I don’t do explicit sex, for example – it is perfectly possible to write a book with adult themes without being graphic about it,

    As a teen, I read everything and anything, and skipped those parts which I didn’t understand (some teens look for those parts specifically). But in those days, the publishers and the writers had limits on what they would/could publish, so I was, in a sense, protected by the codes others enforced in ALL books (except the forbidden ones, which I had no way to find, in English, growing up in a foreign country).

    Now it seems as if EVERY writer spices things up – to the point of indigestion.

    A voluntary rating system – enforced by someone else – seems like a very good idea: it won’t be until several books are out that I could even point to my own ‘brand’ in that department. Like movie studios having their movies rated pre-release, and changing one little thing for different audiences – and different ratings.

    Your reader has to be able to figure out what she wants – and what she will be getting.

    1. I think it would be great for both adult and YA books. Clean Teen Publishing has a sister publishing house for adult books – Crimson Tree Publishing – and they also provide content disclosures for those novels.

      1. Hi again, Shannon.

        I received an email from with the following lower price for their system of content description for adult books:
        Hi Alicia! We can do the exact same service for adult books as well. For an adult book it would only be $59 as we don’t have an image tree to provide with it. Here is an example of how we share our content disclosures on our adult books. We usually just use a button on our website that allows the user to open the PDF of the disclosure.

        Thank you for contacting us about this and being interested in our disclosure system.


        Rebecca Gober
        Chief Executive Officer
        Clean Teen Publishing

        The interesting thing is, that if you go to the website and check the sample, both the author and a reviewer are listed.

        What isn’t clear is which of these people filled in the checkboxes OR the comments in the text boxes below the ratings.

        Anyway, a good idea, and something that wouldn’t take that long to do with a wordprocessor file – count the swear words, for example.

        I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the rating system. For example, under ‘Violence,’ we have:
        ‘Level 2: Squabble or fist fight, verbal aggression (more than just name calling),
        threatening, bullying, talk of killing someone, Making fun of religious beliefs.’

        I personally wouldn’t put ‘fist fight’ and ‘making fun of religious beliefs’ even in the same category, I wouldn’t have chosen ‘Violence’ for the category, and I’m mystified as to why ‘making fun of religious beliefs’ is considered Violence rather than Blasphemy (which would be where many people who care about content disclosure might put it.

        Anyway, thank you to the folks at Clean Teen and Crismson Tree for answering my questions. And for making this service available for a reasonable fee, especially if their reviewer fills in the form.

      2. Last little bit: I asked CleanTeenPublishing whether the reviewer or the author filled in their form for the book, and she wrote back:

        “On May 18, 2015, at 8:02 PM, wrote:

        Hi Alicia,

        We pay a reviewer to read the full book and fill in the comments.”

        I like that – an independent observer.

        I stored the information for myself, though I haven’t decided what to do. But since I started it here in the comments, I thought I should put this bit in, too.

        Thanks for the very useful topic; a lot of readers do care.

  3. I write for adults, and I decided (after some blogging about it) to add a trigger warning to one of my books. I knew that some readers would find the content offensive and I was okay with that, but I didn’t want to trigger anyone’s trauma. To me there is a distinction.

    1. Oh, yes! I think there is a difference for triggering content and content that might be offensive, but I find many readers will tackle the same content in a different way but still want to know about content. For instance – like I mentioned above – while working with book blogs that want to know up front if there are drugs in the novel. Most people don’t consider that a triggering topic, but as a person who lost a mother to drugs, I met many other people who did find drug use triggering. So, I think that’s why they cover drugs, violence, language, and romance/sex. It’s the same topics movie warnings will cover.

  4. It strikes me that this publisher is trying to control something that is beyond their reach: the readers, and what is in their minds. This is one of the great inscrutables of being a writer. We can’t know what our readers’ past experiences are or what they’ll take from our work. My first sale was a poem I thought was pretty straightforward, and the editor who bought it thought it was the funniest thing she’d ever read. Another book, The Seven Exalted Orders, started with thoughts about coloring outside the lines (with magic) but was reviewed as a political fantasy. Who knew?

    Even if it was possible to “keep readers from picking up an inappropriate book,” which I doubt… I wonder if it’s truly desirable for publishers to decide what is appropriate. That decision belongs possibly with the parents but ultimately with the reader.

    1. But the publisher isn’t deciding what it appropriate at all. They are allowing the reader to have all the control. By providing some information, you can allow the reader a larger chance at picking what is appropriate – like allowing parents to look at a novel to see if there is a large amount of cursing beforehand (without making them read the entire book). The publisher isn’t telling people what to pick up and what not to pick up. They are simply providing a deeper description for those that are interested.

  5. I had not heard of Content Disclosure before. I think that is an awesome idea!! The “put down the book” argument is fine, but I was trying a new book. It was ‘a classic’ by a popular author and he used 1/2 a sentence, offhandedly, in just such strong imagery that I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It still kind of sits there, haunting me. I’d have loved it if I could have known he was going to delve into such deep things. I did put the book down, but too late.

    I was reading another book by an author who had stayed pretty clean, and I’d loved his writing style, but the sequel was just so… I was totally unprepared for it. I realized I probably couldn’t expect any book written in this day and age to stay in the innocent plane I mainly operate in, and I’m not really interested in reading about things that delve into – er – less innocent areas just for a story. I’m trying another new book, and I am so far loving it, but I wonder if it will dive into seedier regions. If it had a content disclosure, I could look ahead, and either be prepared, or decide to move on.

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