When I decided to self-publish my next book, one of my first decisions was to include a content warning page at the start.
It’s not something which is required to publish a book. I’ve never felt pressured by anyone to add a content warning to my books. Nor was it an issue which came up when working on the Sand Dancer series with my small press. Yet in recent years, discussion around content warnings has grown louder, with some readers arguing that they help protect the vulnerable from reading triggering content, and others arguing that content warnings aren’t necessary and actually detract from the reading experience by listing spoilers. Why would a horror story need a content warning, for example, when the genre often contains scary and gruesome imagery?
Personally, I’m not someone who requires content warnings. In fact, I enjoy reading dark and depraved books. But not everyone does. As an author, when I produce a book, there’s this unofficial contract between myself and a potential reader. This contract promises that I’ll offer them a fun experience, an adventure, if they choose to read my book – or I’ll attempt to offer them a good time, at least! But part of this unofficial contract is the implication that I won’t set out to hurt my readers. That’s where content warnings come in.
Only we, as readers, can choose what types of books we want to read and what types of content we want to expose ourselves to. Unless we share DNA, you have no obligation to read my books and I won’t feel bad if you decide my books aren’t for you. With so many books out there in the world, it can be hard to determine whether a book is for you or not, and content warnings can help narrow that down. I would sooner make it clear from the start what my books are, rather than for a reader to get to a particular scene and throw my book against the wall because they weren’t comfortable with it.
And of course I want my readers to be comfortable. The choice should always be yours.
Some readers argue that content warnings can be spoilers, but I disagree. Content warnings don’t need to be super descriptive of particular scenes and you can leave out the details. I think just a generic warning of what the content entails is enough. But I’ll show you how I do them.
When you open my new adult fantasy book, The Cruel Gods, you’ll be greeted with the following page:
This content warning is somewhat vague. It gives you an idea of the content in this book, as well as the tone; it’s dark and full of terrors. For most readers, this page will be enough, and I imagine most will probably skip past it. For some, they may want more detail. The link below will connect to page on my website (soon to be added) that will offer a full list of content warnings that goes into more detail, but even here I don’t list the exact nature of particular scenes. There’s no “Character X kills character Y with a sledgehammer on page 9” level of detail. See the content warning page for Sand Dancer for example.
However, I am willing to provide exact details for those who’d like to know exactly what triggering content may be in my books. Just send me a message, and I’m happy to go over it.
To me, content warnings in books are no different from having age ratings for movies or video games. We already categorise books by age with middle grade and young adult titles, but even YA books can feature profanity, sex, drugs, and violence. I’d be all for some sort of industry standard rating for books that work in the same way as movies by warning of explicit language and violence. That way, everyone is happy, right?
It takes no space at all just to slap a warning on a book, or to add a section on a website, and if it helps a reader feel more comfortable, then why not add content warnings?
And if like me, you enjoy reading naughty books, you’ll know exactly what you’re getting yourself into!