A very savvy authority in the book publishing biz once told me that there were two subjects I should never, ever write about if I want my books to hit the bestseller lists. “They’ll kill your sales,” she said. “If either of these two words even appears on your flap copy, readers will close the book and run away, shuddering. So don’t write about them. Don’t even hint that they have anything to do with your plots. Avoid them at all costs.”
What were the two topics she warned me against? Cancer and HIV.
To which I would add a third one: Alzheimer’s Disease.
I find a certain amount of irony that I can write about gruesome murders and serial killers, twisted sex fiends and decomposing bodies — and readers will happily dive into those stories. But no one (including me) wants to read a novel about Alzheimer’s, cancer, or HIV. And the Publishing Authority told me why: Because those topics are too close to our own lives. They’re not fantasy — they’re reality. Everyone probably knows someone close to them who’s suffered from one or all of those three conditions. So the topics depress us on a very personal level. When we choose a novel to entertain us, we want to escape real life. We want fantasy; we don’t want to be smacked in the face with the crises we must deal with in our own families.
As an observer of the publishing biz, I see the wisdom of her advice played out in book sales. I can think of a number of well-written thrillers that died prompt deaths in the marketplace because they dealt with one of those Dreaded Three topics. Whenever an aspiring author tells me he’s got a great thriller premise having to do with cancer deaths, or conspiracies to hide the “real” genesis of HIV, I tell him to choose another topic. Some writers will accuse me of being close-minded. Or they’ll point to some literary novel that dealt very successfully with those topics.
But those are literary novels, and lord knows, literary novels seem almost designed to depress us.
There are other topics that can cause readers to shy away from buying the book. Pedophilia, for instance. Or dead kids. Or any diseases of aging. My medical thriller, Life Support, was about a secret treatment touted as the “fountain of youth” for old people — a treatment that ends up having horrific side-effects. And I distinctly remember the reaction of my film agent when he tried to sell the movie rights. “There are too many old people in this story,” he said. “That makes it a hard sell in Hollywood.” (And he turned out to be right.) Hollywood wants young and nubile, and the last thing they want is a story set in the world of the aging and infirm.
I suspect there are people reading this blog post who are getting pretty angry at me right about now. They’ll accuse me of being ageist or narrow-minded or too willing to adhere to fluffy Hollywood standards. I’m just telling you what I hear from people in the biz, people who look at book sales and hard numbers. And even an exquisitely crafted thriller about cancer has a hard road ahead of it.