Controversy can be a great marketing tool, or a divisive way to get your book mentioned for free by journalists who want a story that sells. If your book is picked up in this manner, even negatively, it can actually be a boon for you. Think of the negative press that the Twilight series and 50 Shades of Grey have received (though I’ve read neither I certainly know a lot about them). It lends credibility to the phrase: “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” This is a quote often credited to P.T. Barnum (from the well-known Barnum and Bailey circus), but nothing has surfaced to prove he said it. However it has been well documented that Oscar Wilde said: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” This quote strikes closer to the core for me. The Twilight series and 50 Shades of Grey both received different kinds of negative reviews about their writing – not something either author wanted, but the controversy was more prominent for the latter due to the subject matter, and it was this controversy that elevated sales to epic proportion.
I recently attended a seminar about Publishers and Literary Agents, and what they did for their clients – as well as how to become their clients. Considering my current series of books contains something that I foresee as controversial (unintentionally), during question time I brought it up. Both the publisher and the literary agent both declared they didn’t really care about whether the book was potentially controversial. This was not a decision maker for them! The biggest factor is the target demographic – would it appeal widely enough to the target audience? I was surprised that the idea of a book with potential for being controversial wasn’t a main consideration. Of course this was the opinion of only two people, and other publishers or agents might disagree, but I thought all of them would have a strong opinion one way or the other. I’d assumed they’d either love the idea of controversy or hate it. It was recommended to me by both of them not to change anything I was doing because the controversial matter in my book was unrelated to the story arc. If the story itself was written well and could appeal on a commercial platform, the conversation about the controversial part of it could come later, once I’d garnered interest in the project.
Something else I knew but also had confirmed; publishers are not in their business for the money, much like writers. We don’t write to make millions. If we were motivated by money, we would not be writers, we would be entrepreneurs or property investors or any other kind of business-related field (or professional field through academia, such as doctor, lawyer, and so forth). We write because we want to, because we have to. Today I read an article by Rob Garbin, where he discusses the matter of controversial topics coupled with the idea of publishers being “money hungry”. While I understand his point – one that was well-made amid candid self-analysis – I have a different perspective. Publishers aren’t going to reject a controversial tale because it might upset their readers because they target specific readers – it’s about understanding your target market. People like you, for instance; if you’re interested in writing it, there must be people like you that are interested in reading it, so identify your own demographic. Don’t be concerned about the remainder of the public, who prefer to be like the people in this cartoon panel. Publishers are trying to do the same thing writers are – to put our words in the hands of the readers. They’re on our side.
Is it enough to be well-written, well-thought, well-researched to be well-received? In a perfect world, sure, but we don’t live in a bubble. We have to make our stories interesting. We have to craft each word and waste none. We have to think about who we are writing for, because if we don’t think about our readers, they won’t think about us.