Nobody Wants to Talk About THAT

You can do all manner of things to human bodies in fiction and readers will snap you up in droves. Turn them into zombies and spill their intestines into the street. Run them through with arrows and broadswords. Make them fodder for carnivorous beasts and alien spore. Let their sparkly vampire selves glitter in the sun.

But God forbid, don’t give them cancer.

Despite fairly decent reviews, even praise from survivors and those who have lost loved ones to the disease, I can almost hear the mental door slam when I share the description of my new novel, Don’t Tell Anyone. It’s as if I were trying to sell them life insurance or rusted barrels of toxic waste. Who knew? It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Now, I didn’t come here to whine that sales are, well, uh, not that great. I’m a professional-type person and I knew this topic might present a marketing challenge. Various publishing folks had warned me that novels with cancer themes have to ride a careful balance. Can’t get too funny, or you’ll risk trivializing the disease. And don’t spend too long in the muck, or you’ll alienate the audience. These “facts” didn’t stop me from writing the book, because for personal reasons you can read more about here, I had to get this story out of my head. And because I try like heck to turn life’s lemons into lemony-tasting adult beverages, I hoped I could help people through this story.

I still have faith that the novel has the potential to find its market, but this is yet another example of how indie authors must be flexible with their marketing and promotion. Every book is different and from a marketing and promotion standpoint, needs to be approached differently. A thriller or a paranormal YA romance will be downloaded by the thousands on freebie days. Literary fiction or “difficult” topics, not so much.

This tightrope act, I’m finding out, is requiring the softest of soft sells. In-your-face “buy my book” doesn’t work here. Okay, I’m sharing the occasional review, particularly those from people who’ve gone from “I don’t want this in my head” to “I never wanted to stop reading.” I’ve had several private, online discussions with potential readers about the topic and its appropriateness for certain family members. I’m pitching the novel to book clubs and will gladly show up for the discussion, in person or by Skype. I hope to put together some health-related personal appearances and partner with caregiver support groups.

Oddly, though, I didn’t have this problem with my last book, Drawing Breath, which also tackled a “difficult” subject. I think it was because of the first crush theme, or because cystic fibrosis, a really horrible disease afflicting Daniel, the male protagonist, is diagnosed early. You know if you or a loved one has CF or doesn’t. Cancer can touch any one of us at any time, directly or indirectly, and perhaps therein lies the fear. It may be TOO real, unlike a fictional run-in with a pack of zombies.

It’s left me in a bit of a Catch-22 situation. If you write something you hope will help others in similar circumstances, you can’t help them if you can’t get word out. Is there a formula for the perfect balance of assistance and salesmanship? I’m trying to think outside the marketing toolbox, but where do you draw the line?

Have you written or read books about touchy subjects? What challenges did you face?

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

38 thoughts on “Nobody Wants to Talk About THAT”

  1. I couldn’t imagine the marketing challenges you must face on that, but the first step (I would imagine) must be in establishing the audience. For example, if you believe it is appealing to cancer patients undergone treatment, I think there are hospital newsletters you could target. Or perhaps leaving a sample copy in a waiting room to get them interested, so they will buy it when they get home? Wish you the best on that! Tough subject, for sure.

  2. Having read – and loved – the book I can say that it is not at all morbid. It does not dwell on the disease, but rather on the family dynamics that occur around the awareness of the disease. There is humour and warmth. This is not a ‘heavy’ read. If that is what’s stopping you from picking it up, go ahead. You’ll be glad you did.

  3. You think you’ve got problems, Laurie? I’m writing a series in which pagan gods and goddesses are preparing to rise up against Jehovah. 😉 One contest winner left a review on Amazon about how she didn’t like what she perceived as Christian-bashing in my first book. I’m now trying to figure out how best to market to pagans. Talk about trying to nail jello to a tree…

    1. Some people don’t like having their values challenged, I guess, Lynne. But there are quite a lot of pagans (and open-minded people) out there.

      1. Thanks for the encouragement, Laurie. 🙂 And btw, I’m now reading Kent Haruf’s Benediction, in which the main character is dying of — yup, you guessed it!

  4. There are people interested in human behaviour, psychology, customs and usage, changing social norms, relationships, phobias and fears, the shifts in etiquette and manners, the changes in what people find acceptable, privacy, and so forth. Proposing a book like this couched in the vocabularies of the different groups will get it attention. Good luck.

  5. Hi Laurie, I’m sorry, I haven’t had chance yet to read your book. My eBook, Silent Trauma, is fiction based on fact. It’s a story of four women coming together in friendship after finding out they’ve all been affected by the drug, Diethystilbestrol. I was lucky to have the charity DES Action USA behind me all the way and that I was given permission from a newspaper to reproduce an interview they’d printed with two women (two DES Daughters). The charity is doing all they can to promote the book. Perhaps if you could find someone from a branch of one of the cancer charities they might promote for you. I am, though giving ten per cent of all royalties to the charity. Hope my suggestion is helpful.

  6. No marketing ideas (that’s not my forte), but I do have a couple comments.

    First, I’ll add my name to the list of those who have read, loved, and would recommend Don’t Tell Anyone. As you point out, it required you to walk a tightrope between too heavy and too light and I think you hit that balance.

    Second, that your book points out the many advantages to going indie, especially for some authors and books. I understand why a traditional publisher would shy away. But don’t think it is for lack of a market for it or even that the market is too small, but that they don’t know how to economically find that market in the six weeks they’d have to do it. As an indie you have all the time you need to find the market and to some degree the market will find you. The common wisdom out there, that other books are the best marketing plan for the book in question might be even more true for you. I know that people who have read Drawing Breath are much more likely to read Don’t Tell Anyone. In fact, I could name names of people who bought the new book based solely on having read the last one.

      1. Actually you make a really great point about traditional publishers. Which explains why even some trad pub authors are taking their “quirkier” books off the table. Which explains on-the-surface confusing rejection letters like, “I like this, but I can’t sell it…”

  7. I think part of the difference is that in Drawing Breath, the disease is more an element of who the character is, while in Don’t Tell Anyone, the disease is the story. One of my takeaways from the book is that everyone copes with their fears differently, but you don’t stop being who you are in the process: Estelle is funny, so parts of the book are funny, and that doesn’t take away from the seriousness of the story. So, I would think an audience could be found in people one or two steps removed from a survivor. Maybe involvement in walk events or awareness days, things that have a combination of seriousness and cameraderie. Also I have run across a number of funny blogs that are not about cancer but do have that pink ribbon off to the side, so there may be potential readers there…

    1. Ilil, I’m pretty sure there’s a link to my Amazon author page on my bio. Click the “staff bios” tab at the top of the page. 8) “Seized” is the first book in the series. Hope you like it!

  8. Sorry, that was stream of consciousness in answer to the question of where to draw the line. In my experience with The Neurology of Angels, I have felt a lot better about being involved personally in events because of the reason I wrote the story, where I’m not participating just to market my book. In those cases, the book is truly more of an outlet akin to a memorial painting or cross-stitch on display.

  9. I’m betting there’s a niche for this thing.
    There’s a large “cancer underground” in the US and maybe they’re looking for a novel to read.

    I don’t think it’s the kiss of death for mainstream, though. I just read “Diary of A Small Fish” by Pete Morin in which a wife dying of cancer becomes a catalyst.

    1. Interesting…years ago, Gail Godwin’s The Good Husband featured that as well. I also guess that being Gail Godwin helped in the process. 🙂

  10. Laurie, I think the sales success of your book will ultimately be because of word of mouth. One person reads it, tells another person who may or may not be going through the same kind of event, etc. The ultimate in targeted marketing. Yes, some readers shy away from the subject, but the longer it’s out there, the more chance it will have to get into the right hands. That being said, I think the ideas suggested above for contacting interested groups were really good. Nothing wrong with giving it a little help finding those folks.

    Remember too, the universe works in mysterious ways–your book will get to the right people–things like that always seem to work out. Keep the faith.

    Okay, I’ve totally exhausted my woo woo factor for today 🙂

  11. Word of mouth seems to be what works for me. That said, where are my barrels of toxic waste….

    Your book will find its readers. Great post.

  12. Judging from my experience reading your book, “Drawing Breath”, my guess is that you only need a few people for whom the book really resonates to find stalwart champions of the work who will, over time, give you the kind of viral marketing force that dwarfs any ad campaign. In other words, you don’t need huge numbers of readers, just the right readers. I suspect that this is the kind of work that takes a bit longer to work its viral word of mouth magic, but will hit a “tipping point” and then it will be balls to the walls sales. That is my suspicion as well as my hope for you.

  13. See, this is why I like horror: nothing’s off limits.

    Smartass comments aside, cancer as a topic can be a bona fide horror story, so as a mainstream topic it might be like picking up a contemporary lit novel and discovering a serial killer is offing all the characters in gruesome ways. For many, too great a cognitive dissonance. Not that I think that way, personally, but I find many readers do. What can you do, though? Write what you have to right, listen to that internal imperative and build your body of work to the best of your abilities. And if it’s any consolation, no one buys my stuff but I’m actually quite okay with that, right now. Maybe I’m going all Zen. Scary.

  14. Hi Laurie: I haven’t read your book, but based on what you’ve said here it sounds like it might be useful to those afflicted with cancer or if they have a cancer experience in their lives with friend and/or family. Based on my experience, I actually wrote a non-fiction relating to cancer from a widow’s POV and my husband. I targeted grief related sites, forums, centers, groups. Locally and across the US. World News Report actually did an interview with me. There are people out there who want to know. It was my experience overall they are very receptive to such information and want to know about good books relating to the subject. Also, it’s my experience unless you’re a “name” and I hate to even say this, major publishers might love the story but generally shy away from it. I was actually told this by 2 publishers. If you want some ideas for grief related/cancer related sites, let me know and I can direct you a few good places.

  15. I’d echo the comments suggesting approaching cancer charities. I found an unlikely ally with the Alzheimer Society when Planet Alzheimer came out. I expected that a light read with humour in it would be all wrong for their library shelves but readers going through the hell loved it because they’d had enough of heavy text-book advice. They wanted light relief that understood. I think your book (not read it yet, next on list but I love your style) might feed the same sort of need. As a novel it could get through as a support and aid to understanding the complex mix of family emotions in a way that straight doctorly advice never could.

  16. Laurie,
    I read this post yesterday, but decided to mull over my comment.

    As you know I read “Drawing Breath, reviewed if on Amazon and gave it five-stars. It is a beautifully written book with realistic characters. Your description of Daniel is exactly how I remember someone who suffers from this disease. I read it only because I think you are a fine writer and I heard through word-of-mouth that it would be worth it. Congratulations to you on a fine novel, and an excellent reputation amongst your peers.

    I am not, however, your audience. I have great difficulty reading any novel that deals with illness. This is due to my mother’s illness and death twenty years ago. She was in ICU for six weeks. Recently, I watched as my mother-in-law lost her battle with COPD. Both experiences were torture, not only for them, but for the family as well.

    Of course, there is an audience for your writing. Your novels are quality. I have a couple of good friends who are in the health care/cancer field who might be interested in “Don’t Tell Anyone.” Let’s talk and I’ll see if I can help.

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