Saturday, June 28, 2008

Sex Sells...or Does It?

L. J. Sellers

Sex sells. That’s what marketers always say. And it seems to be true for tight-fitting jeans and toothpaste. But it is true in crime fiction? In my experience—not necessarily.

Some of the best reviews I received for my novel, The Sex Club, started out with a disclaimer like this: “I didn’t think I would like this book, but . . .” The readers/reviewers went on to say that the title (and sometimes the cover) had turned them away from the book and that they’d read it reluctantly because another reader raved about it. They ended up loving the story, but still, their initial aversion concerned me.

After seeing the pattern, I asked members of Dorothly L (a reader/writer discussion forum) what they thought about the title. Many said they would never pick up the novel in a bookstore or library because of the title. So then I wondered: How many bookstores and libraries had decided not to stock the novel because of the title? From the comments of a few, I believe there might be many. After realizing this painful reality, I started adding this footnote to all my communications about the novel: “Despite the title, the story isn’t X-rated.” It is not a good sign when you have to explain or make excuses for your title.

On the other hand, many writers on the CrimeSpace and Facebook networking sites have posted great comments about The Sex Club’s cover and title. One writer posted, “Judging by the title, that’s a book I have to read right now.” Many others have simply said, “Love the cover!” and “I love the title!” Some even commented that they liked the book’s short pitch on Amazon: A dead girl, a ticking bomb, a Bible study that’s not what it appears to be, and a detective who won’t give up.

But when I started a discussion specifically asking how they felt about the word sex in a crime fiction title, the reaction was mixed. One writer said, “If sex is in the title, isn’t that a lot of emphasis, leading the buyer to think the book might be in the wrong section of the bookstore?” Another commented, “For me, the word sex would have to be relevant to the plot. I hate titles that just try to get people to buy even when it has nothing whatsoever to do with the story.”

The most interesting response was, “I just read an interview with the author of The Jane Austen Book Club and she said that everyone thought the words Jane Austen on the cover would be what sold the book, but in fact it was the words Book Club. It’s the same thing here, it’s the word club together with sex that’s interesting.”
In a similar online discussion, many people (mostly women) said they simply skip sex scenes when they come across them in mystery/suspense stories. I also feel that they drag down a fast-paced story, which is why I didn’t write any such scenes in the novel.

My publicist, who came on board after the book had been printed, felt very strongly that the title was a mistake and made both of our jobs a lot harder than they need to be. She thought that not only was I turning off mystery readers but also alienating other readers who were attracted to the title, then disappointed to find out the book didn’t have much sex in it.

I’ve come to believe she’s right. A quick search of Amazon brought up only one other mystery title with the word sex—Sex and Murder (A Paul Turner Mystery). But at least that author was smart enough to get the word murder in the title too. (Mystery readers love a good murder!) I’m sure there may be others, but after months of perusing thousands of reader postings on multiple list servs, I’ve yet to see another mystery title mention sex.

I debated the name, The Sex Club, for months, and finally went with it because it seemed perfect for the story. And, to be honest, I thought it might get media attention. But in retrospect, if I had it to do all over again, I’d change it. My conclusions: 1) Bookstores and libraries are critical to sales, and authors can’t afford to alienate them or their patrons, 2) Mystery readers prefer dead bodies to warm ones.

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist, editor, and occasional standup comic, based in Eugene, Oregon. She is currently writing a second Detective Jackson story, Secrets to Die For.


Anonymous said...

I'd have to say that I would be put off by the title, but not because of any implied content or prudishness. I'd just hate to have to explain my choice to everyone who saw me reading a book with such a title. I'm sure most would dismiss whatever explanation I would have to give and suspect me of naughty interests.

Nonetheless, I have found librarians to be an intelligent sort who would not be hesitant about the title as long as they could be confident about the subject matter.

Also, word of mouth might spread more quickly for you with such a title, especially among mystery readers who want to share a "good find" and confidently assure others that it going is safe.

L.J. Sellers said...

Hi Paul
That's encouraging to hear, especially about librarians, a group I worried about offending. An interesting note: One NY reader said she was delighted to carry my book around on the subway because of the title. She's probably the exception!

Peg Brantley said...

Just don't change the title of your new one to SEX TO DIE FOR.

Karen Olson said...

Titles are funny things. I've just handed a slew of suggestions to my editor for my tattoo shop in Vegas mystery, and she said her sales people all thought they were titles for an erotica line! Although as I pointed out, tattoos evoke the words "flesh, skin, and needles" and Vegas with the nickname of Sin City doesn't help.

I like your title. And I would bring the book out in public. Why not?

L.J. Sellers said...

SEX TO DIE FOR, now there's a great title. And Karen, let me know what you decide on. I imagine it's not easy to convey a Vegas tattoo parlor without sounding sleazy. (Love tattoos, myself.)

Sofie Kelly said...

I'm not sure what this says about me, but it was the title of your book that first caught my eye. (I like it.) I have read the book in public and both people who asked me about it assumed it was a mystery or a thriller.

Neil Plakcy said...

I think you're right that titles are really important. The titles of my first two books, Mahu and Mahu Surfer, didn't give any indication that they were mysteries, and the publisher didn't help much by giving me covers that didn't exactly shout out "Mystery! People die here!"

For the third book, my editor had me shift to Mahu Fire-- at least getting the idea of something dangerous there. The next one is going to be called Mahu Vice, and already I'm getting good vibes from people about that title.

Nell Dixon said...

Titles are strange things. I really like your cover but I did expect it to have lots of sex in it.

L.J. Sellers said...

I think many people expect THE SEX CLUB to have sex scenes. (Go figure!) I find myself saying, "It's really only PG." Then I feel a little like I've unintentionally pulled a bait-and-switch. Not the plan.

Neil: I like Mahu Vice; it works well.

Sandra Parshall said...

I think the cover is striking, but like some other readers I would expect the story to revolve around sex, sexual obsession, sexual fantasies.

OTOH, I'm totally turned off by flat titles like Murder in the Suburbs or whatever -- any title that starts with "Murder in" or "Murder of" turns me off because it seems to signal a lack of imagination. I like titles that are intriguing but don't hit you in the face with the central premise of the story.

Dani said...

Sex definitely doesn't sell me. (Although I wish questionaires would properly ask for my sex, and not my gender.) In fact, one of the reasons I like cozy mysteries is that I'm assured of not getting too much gory detail. I DO like the trend toward romantic mystery a lot. Some of the modern romance is just way too hot for a middle-aged maven like me to handle. I suppose that's a point to consider - who's your reader? The under-30 crowd won't be turned off by the sex title or theme.