Was Swearing in my Book Title a Sh*tty Idea?
When not traveling the world, Jeff Wheeland lives in California with his wife and baby daughter. This is his first novel and he may even write another if anyone likes this one. Hell, he may even write another if no one likes this one. In this article, Jeff talks about his decision to swear in the title of his novel, how doing so affected the marketability of his novel, and the role that sensitive language plays in the publishing industry.
I glanced at my inbox and saw an email from my Reedsy book designer, Kevin Barrett Kane. After hundreds of back-and-forth emails about the design of my book cover and interior, I was expecting a few more questions since we had just submitted my novel for approval on Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). However, this email was far more entertaining (and an ominous glimpse into my upcoming marketing travails):
"KDP identified 17 spelling errors in your book, including, but not limited to: shitty, bitchin’ness, bitchin’ly, gringositters, fuck, untz, and ffffttttttttttt. Haha."
I committed a mortal sin in the eyes of some people: I swore. And I didn’t simply swear under my breath after spilling chocolate pudding on my last pair of clean pants (“Shiiiiiiiit,” he whispered ruefully). Oh no, it was on a much grander scale than that: I put a swear word in the title of my book, There’s More to Life than a Shitty Cubicle. (Egads, avert your eyes!) And I have been dealing with the repercussions of this word ever since I self-published my book.
Why I put the word “shitty” in the title of my novel
The decision to place this word in my title was not taken lightly. It wasn’t simply that I lacked the literary capacity to conjure an apropos adjective for cubicles and was unable to locate my thesaurus under the pile of unwashed pants on my floor. Nor was the choice of this word intended to be viewed as a literal description of my cubicle. In reality, the use of "shitty" was a deliberate strategy that I hoped would serve a twofold outcome:
Shitty is a funny word. Well sure, that might depend on the style of humor you're going for but it's much more effective than the alternatives...
There's More to Life than a Crappy Cubicle. Bleh, sounds like a children’s book.
There's More to Life than a Bad Cubicle. There’s more to life than reading a book with a bad title.
There's More to Life than a Stupid Cubicle. Doesn't come close to summarizing my true feelings about cubicles.
I have grown tired of the demonization of a simple word like shitty, especially in comparison to the glorification of violence in mass media today. A perfect example of this juxtaposition is in the television series, The Walking Dead. [SPOILERS]: After the main character has just watched his son get shot through the eye socket in all its gory detail, he graphically eviscerates, beheads, and smashes in the faces of a horde of zombies. At the peak of this stomach-turning display of violence, the main character turns to the person who murdered his son, squints his eyes, grits his teeth in fury, and excoriates him with the line, "Screw you." Really? The audience can handle a human's guts pouring from his abdomen but cannot handle more realistic language? Literally everyone in that situation (with the notable exception of Jesus Christ) would say "fuck you."
I truly cannot understand the ridiculousness of the crusade against swearing. What is driving it? Who do these words truly hurt? I understand that swearing can be inappropriate in certain settings: kindergartens, churches, and presidential inaugurations… hmm, in light of recent events I rescind that last example. But does a child reading the word “shitty” put down my book and immediately begin punching her cat? No. It is far more likely that the graphic display of violence on television will induce real-life violence. In the worst case scenario, the use of “shitty” in my book will lead to the real-life use of the word shitty. And I'd like to argue that this result is much more appealing than what dramatized violence begets.
How swearing in the title of my book affected marketing
Despite the initial warning about my language from Amazon KDP, I resolved to launch my personal protest against the contempt for swearing. Since the moment I self-published and slipped into the endless morass of marketing, with which self-published authors are so intimately familiar, I’ve encountered constant roadblocks.
It appears that the foes of “shitty” are more powerful than I imagined.
It began with book promotion newsletters I had applied to that told me they could not use my title as it was. They suggested using "There's More to Life than a Cubicle." I retorted that they might as well remove the interesting sections of the book, not because they all included swearing, although they might, but because they were diluting the spirit of my story.
The next obstacle I encountered was Amazon Advertising, which has a clause stating their ads should contain no "foul, vulgar, or obscene language." Even though I spoke with one of their customer service representatives, I am not allowed to advertise my book using their program. Facebook Ads has a similar clause but I skirted it with a few cleverly-placed pictures of my title as opposed to typing it in their website — which would draw the ire of the company’s auditing software. Take that, computer overlords!
On the other hand, publishers apparently have no established rules about swearing but are clearly intimidated by this language. Aren’t we past this debate in the progression of mankind? Don’t we have greater problems to focus on than a few raunchy adjectives? In these troubled times don’t we have more significant issues to confront than the mere use of words? I never envisioned that my progress as an author would be impeded by the powers-that-be enforcing inane rules that reflect a puritanical, outdated way of looking at the world. Nevertheless, this mindset makes marketing my book much more difficult than I ever imagined.
Sticking to my linguistic guns
I will also openly admit that maybe I am the problem. Perhaps my affinity for swearing and my stubborn refusal to adhere to literary norms makes me an outsider with inappropriate ideals. But I argue that following the masses is more detrimental than treading the seldom walked path. I also acknowledge that this is far from a world-changing issue. But, hey, principles are principles; if you don’t stand up for them, even those that are of lesser significance, you’ll quickly find yourself bulldozed over on the big ticket issues.
Thus, I have hit a crossroads. It seems it is my values versus my goal of becoming a successful author. This is my first novel and I never expected my sales to skyrocket up the charts. But without the ability to use the primary self-publishing marketing avenues, the only soaring I will do is on the New York Times Worst Sellers List.
I shan’t despair. I will keep plugging away. And I’m definitely not changing my book title. But consider yourself warned, if you are contemplating using a swear word in your book title, it can be rather shitty.
Find out more on Jeff's blog.
What do you think of Jeff's bold choice to swear in the title of his book? Have you published a novel with characteristics that made it difficult to market? Leave your thoughts, experiences, or any questions for Jeff in the comments below.