There are no R-rated books: should publishing adopt a rating system?
I was reading Water for Elephants yesterday.
I’ve been enjoying it…I borrowed it for free from the Kindle Owners Lending Library (as a paid Prime member).
A very popular book like that doesn’t automatically mean I’m going to think it’s great. Oh, I like pretty much every book I read, but I obviously like some books better than others.
This was well-written…a rounded main character, evocative situations. I’m partial to animal stories, and this one is partially set in a circus and focuses on that.
I sent it to my Significant Other’s Kindle as well (we’re on the same account, so we can both read the book for free).
However, I was quite surprised to run into sexually explicit material.
It was in more than one scene, and if it had been in the Robert Pattinson/Reese Witherspoon movie version (which I haven’t seen), it certainly wouldn’t have been rated PG-13.
That got me thinking about the idea of ratings for books.
Now, I should be clear: I’m not a prude. I’ve read and watched things knowing there would be sexual content. My Significant Other and I both like Dexter, for example, and that has sexual content (in addition to the violence). I enjoyed the first season of True Blood on HBO (based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris).
The issue here is that…well, I can certainly see someone getting Water for Elephants and not expecting those scenes. I can see a parent/legal guardian getting it, and a ten-year old on the account reading it faster and encountering those scenes unprepared.
Now, I’m not picking on Sara Gruen’s novel (which I still think is well-written) specifically. I’ve had the same issue with other books (Battle Of The Network Zombies comes to mind).
The question is this: why is the movie rated and the book not?
I see this issue come up on the Kindle forums repeatedly. It’s not that people are asking about the existence of a rating system, but that they want to block “inappropriate” books for children on the account…even from the children knowing the titles are in the archives.
How do you have software determine the appropriateness of something without a rating system?
Explicit books (both sexually and violently) have been in mainstream bookstores and libraries for decades. Is this particularly different with e-books?
Here is what has changed.
I’m a former brick-and-mortar bookstore manager. It was a mainstream sort of store…we didn’t have an erotica section. There were definitely books with sexual content (The Color Purple, Catcher in the Rye).
The difference is that a ten-year old kid was rarely shopping in the store and buying things without an adult there as well.
With a Kindle, books can be downloaded easily, without a parent/legal guardian there at the time.
Books which have already been purchased on the account can be downloaded by a child with no notification to the account holder.
That’s why it’s different…access is much easier.
Even in a public library, where I think children are more likely to handle the entire transaction, there is still an adult involved (the librarian).
Adults can be held liable for giving, say, pornography to children.
That’s the legal lever.
It’s not used very much with books.
There has always been an enforcement difference between pictures and words.
Show children x-rated movies? They can get you.
Leave sexually explicit books around the house? More difficult.
It’s important to note that in the USA, the movie rating system (the most famous one…we also have them for TV, music, and videogames) isn’t imposed by the government.
It’s done by the movie industry itself…to avoid that sort of government involvement.
That’s not true everywhere…while I believe the UK uses a non-governmental organization (funded by the movie studios), I think Australia’s rating agency is part of the government (or at least funded by it).
LIterature being more available is a good thing in my mind, and nothing does that better than e-books. I’ll generally want to err on the side of more openness than more control.
Will publishers find that pressure put on them?
Is e-book distribution the thing that makes books into a true mass medium?
Right now, anybody can go to Project Gutenberg and download the Kama Sutra.
No human interaction, no registration, no embarrassment.
Will somebody want to stop that?
If they do, will it force a rating agency?
Would the publishers be able to agree on something? Would they pay to fund a rating agency?
I do think something like this may happen.
I think it’s even more likely that there will be software (maybe in the form of apps) that analyzes the content of books and rates it for you.
People already use “net nanny” software which does that for you with websites.
There is probably a sizable amount of money to be had making a well-written, well-supported book filtering app.
The Amazon Appstore already has a couple of those, but not for books:
ESRB Rating Search App (videogames)
Movie Reviews – Kids in Mind (movies)
Oh wait…there is one that mentions books:
That’s done by
I’ve heard of them…but never connected them with books. It’s more in conjunction with videogames.
They have a sliding age scale of appropriateness. I checked for Water for Elephants…they have reviewed the movie, but not the book.
I downloaded the app…it’s actually a short gift guide for 2011…not a filtering app.
What do you think? Will there be some move towards book filtering software? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Would you use book filtering software? Whether you would use it or not, do you think it would be commercially successful? Is the appearance of “censoring” books simply too much of a political risk for it to be done by the government? Is the idea of book filtering offensive to you, and if so, how does it compare to a movie rating system?
Feel free to let me know by commenting on this post…
Update: I decided to add a poll:
Even though it’s a complicated subject, I kept the choices simple this time.
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.