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What if a publisher demands to ‘sexy up’ my manuscript?

Written By: Eddie Snipes - Jan• 07•11

An editor of a major publishing house liked my writer friend’s story and said he would contract it if she would make the story more ‘sexy’. I communicate with many writers, and often I’ll see someone post that he / she is sexying up his novel to meet the publisher’s standard. It’s a common demand to add sex scenes to a book. I know authors who turned down contracts because they don’t want gratuitous sex in their books, and I also know authors who add this to get published.

Why do publishers insist on adding sex to books? To understand the answer to this question, we have to consider the type of people who serve as gatekeepers to the world of entertainment. Whether it’s books, music, movies, or television, the entertainment world is a close-knit community. Entertainment professionals interact with other entertainment professionals. By nature, people congregate with those who have similar interests. This applies to our social and business world. People who only interact with others from their own groups believe the entire world thinks the same way  their inner circle does.

Oftentimes we’ll hear celebrities talk, and wonder how they could be so out of touch with reality. The truth is, celebrities hang around with celebrities and Hollywood insiders. The more isolated they become, the more they think the world is like Hollywood. It’s no different with entertainment from the publishing perspective. The more isolated publishers become within their circles of influence, the more they believe others are like them, and the more out of touch they become with the mainstream world.

Let’s look at a few reality checks to show the truth of this. Have you ever heard anyone say, “That would have been a great movie if they had only used more profanity?” Or have you heard anyone say, “That comedian was funny, but he ruined the show by not using vulgar language?” Since I don’t live among people who thrive on vulgarity, I don’t think this way, and I have never heard anyone say such a thing. But I have heard the opposite. Many times.

Have you watched a movie with a good plot, but then were completely distracted from the storyline by the non-stop swearing? I’ve seen comedians who actually were funny, but ruined their performance by spewing filth from their mouths. Why do they do it? I’ve often wondered what benefit they think trash is giving their act. A funny comedian with a clean mouth would double or triple his audience. Those who don’t mind vulgar language wouldn’t turn away.  So by ‘sexying up their act’, they are alienating a large portion of their potential audience.

I have never turned off a show because it was too clean, nor have I heard anyone else turn off a show because it didn’t have enough sex or vulgar language. Yet, the entertainment world demands artists, actors, scriptwriters, and authors to add trash to their material in order to meet a standard that only matters to their circle. It’s no coincidence that the majority of Oscar-winning movies and Pulitzer prize novels fail at the box office and bookshelves.

As writers, we must decide whether we are going to draw the line, or become part of the circle of immorality. As a Christian writer, I can’t imagine adding material to my writing that would glorify activities I profess to disagree with. It’s one thing to show the consequences of immorality, it’s quite another to place it on a pedestal. Even non-Christian writers should understand the importance of this issue. Unless your target audience is looking for smut, sexying up a story actually distracts readers from the plot, and alienates the majority of your audience.

Let’s go back to the comedian. If I can’t enjoy the humor, then the foul language is a distraction. Some people will laugh about pushing the limits of acceptability, but the majority of the audience is trying to wade through the stench to find the humor. Why not remove what distracts so people can enjoy the talent of the performance?

A book is no different. If I’m having to filter out the language, I’m not getting into the story. If the language is bad enough, I put down the book. Some readers will drop the book at the first sign of foul language. I have never read a sex scene in a novel that added to the story.  In fact, a sex scene forces the reader to step away from the storyline, peep through the window of a bedroom, and then somehow  re-engage with the plot.

Every rule of writing warns authors not to do anything that will distract the reader from the story, but for some reason, this rule is tossed out when it comes to sex. Why? There is only one reason. Because the entertainment industry demands that writers climb into the sewer with them. It’s a standard that only exists in the minds of those stuck in a circle that’s already out of touch with mainstream society.

I realize there is an audience for sleazy romance novels and erotica. But can’t the rest of the writing community pen their work by a higher standard?

As Christian writers, we are not exempt from these demands. In fact, this becomes a test of faith. Do we bow to the pressure when the kings of publishing demand it, or are we willing to set aside our success in order to stand firm? I know an author who faced this very issue. She was told to sexy up her novel, but she refused and lost the contract. In the end, she independently published her novel and was later awarded Georgia Author of the Year. She lost some notoriety, but published with a clear conscience.

The industry is changing. As the bloated corporate mindset becomes intolerant of those who won’t adopt their de-values, independent publishing doors have opened. Writers no longer are forced to choose between the entertainment mentality and Christian values. I would encourage all writers, especially those of faith, to hold to a higher standard. Those who are not of faith, hold to a standard that will please your readers, not just your publishers. Publishers don’t buy books. Whether you are honoring God or your reading audience, the higher standard sells to the vast majority of readers.

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Eddie Snipes
Author of I Called Him Dancer
President of the Christian Authors Guild

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2 Comments

  1. FT says:

    “People who only interact with others from their own groups believe the entire world thinks the same way their inner circle does.”

    I hear you but it goes both ways. That statement also applies to Christians as well and not just Non-Christians. If your novel is meant to bring people to Christ or show a growth in the protagonist and sexual immorality was a challenge for her, do you take it out? You can have sex in it if that’s what she did but just not graphic, in my opinion. If your audience are people in the church only, maybe not but even Christians falter and we can write about it. How do we reach people (even Christians) who are struggling with sin if we never portray sin? And if it’s to appeal to people outside the church and bring them into the church and all your characters are not Christians (at least not from the beginning of the book), don’t you have to write something that is real to both worlds?

    I however do not agree with adding more sex just because the publisher or editor thinks so but if that is a part of your storyline, it’s not a problem for me, as long as you’re not graphic about it and naming body parts, like it’s being glorified. Then it would cease to be an inspirational.

    Believe it or not, I read a Christian novel recently that sounded wrong and off because the storyline came across as dumbed down to fit the genre of Chritian fiction and therefore unrealistic for the story she was telling.

    While I don’t hang out with people who use profanity, if every character in my book is not a Christian, they cannot all sound the same.

    Christians also become isolated from the world (not to talk of very judgemental) when they only interact with other Christians and when you get to a point where you get out of touch with everything that is not exactly how you think, you also sound almost like Hollywood actors, just reversed.

    This is the reason why I am not sure if my fiction will fit in with Christian fiction better or with mainstream fiction with a strong element of faith in it. Thankfully, I now see a lot of Authors who are people of faith publishing mainstream. This dilema is not because I want to write about sex but because I want to bring people to Christ more than I want to entertain those who are already in the church.

    What to do…What to do…

    I got to this article from your comment about the video trailer for “Rachel’s Contrition” but it appears you viewed the wrong video on that website for Book Candy.

    Blessings!

  2. Eddie Snipes says:

    You are right that isolation applies to Christians as well. However, living contrary to the world system is naturally going to create a certain amount of separation.

    One of the problems I knew would come up when I wrote this article was that some would take this to the extreme. Notice that the main point is to address Christian authors being asked to ‘sexy up’ their manuscript. This article isn’t directed to those who are trying to show the consequences of poor choices – including sexual choices. If you completely read the article, you’ll see that I specifically mentioned the very thing you are saying I should consider.

    The point of the article is not that Christians should write like prudes. It is to point out that we should hold to a Christian standard. Putting sex scenes in books in order to satisfy a publisher’s world view is a compromise Christians should not make. It’s selling the soul of the book for the hope of worldly success. Finish reading the article and you’ll see that I never said Christians must put every character in a holy role or avoid addressing real life situations.

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