It’s normal for films and TV to display warnings and ratings, and even in the publishing industry we sort material into age-appropriate categories based on content and language. Now the discussion is underway about advancing this one step further to include specific content warnings—also called trigger warnings—as we contemplate accessibility and how we can incorporate mental health practices into our work. But what is a content warning exactly, and how does it apply to book publishing? When is it appropriate, and when is it redundant? Is it only the finished, printed book that needs to be properly tagged, or is it important for authors querying out to agents and publishers as well?
Whether you’re a graduate student in a publishing program, an editorial assistant at a Big Five press, or an intern at a boutique literary agency, we are all expected to accommodate hours of unpaid labor, even to the detriment of our mental health. The proverbial hamster wheel that is publishing truly never stops spinning, and it’s often the most marginalized publishing professionals who reach their breaking point first.
It’s easy to let work and education overwhelm you, especially in this time of isolation we find ourselves in. There are so many things to do in the press, in classes, and in our own lives that we can lose the time we need to, well, take time. It can feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day, or minutes in the hours we get, to just take time for ourselves—but there are when you add boundaries.
While books can be a wonderful way for readers to escape reality for a few hundred pages, books can also help foster learning and provide readers with safe ways to cope with issues they might be facing.
Words have power, and the way fictional stories about mental health are told can have just as crucial of an impact on readers as facts presented in news outlets. Editors have the responsibility to put forth stories that promote a respectful and authentic perspective on mental health, and below are four practices they can implement to achieve this goal.
Do we, the storytellers, have a responsibility to warn our audience about subject matter that could cause that kind of distress? That’s right. I’m talking about trigger warnings.