There are no R-rated books: should publishing adopt a rating system?

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:

Kids Gifts

That’s done by

Common Sense Media

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 theย I Love My Kindle blog.


17 Responses to “There are no R-rated books: should publishing adopt a rating system?”

  1. becca Says:

    The problem with a book rating system is that it’s a wide net. Most romances these days have 1-2 explicit sex scenes in them, and a rating system would rate those as X, just as it rates erotica as X and hard-core porn as X. There’s a vast difference between Nora Roberts and Behind the Green Door.

  2. Sherry Roberts (@SherryRoberts7) Says:

    Do you have paperbacks and hardcover books on the shelves in your home? Do they include sexually explicit scenes, curse words, violence? Your children can get into them as easily as an e-Book on a reading device. The difference between books and movies or videogames has always been level of participation: you have to work to get at the information at a book. You have to read, absorb, and maybe think about what you’ve read. If the information is too difficult, painful, or uncomfortable to absorb, you put the book down.

    Do we need a filtering or rating system for books, especially e-Books? NO. We need parents to take the time to talk with their children about what they are reading. If you lock a book away behind the walls of a rating system, it doesn’t inspire any discussion or questions; it doesn’t entertain or fill the need to read and learn.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Sherry!

      I’m assuming your questions are rhetorical or intended for my audience at large, but I do want to address them.

      Yes, I have something like ten thousand paperbooks on shelves in my home. Some of them contain the elements you suggest…as well as other questionable elements. For example, some of the books published decades ago may use terms that portray groups of people in ways that are considered improper today.

      I would question your assertion, though, that those books are as easy for a child in my home to access as a book in my Kindle archives.

      P-books can be placed on higher shelves…and have shelves designated. I could say to a child, “These shelves are fine for you…borrow a book whenever you like.” There are no “shelves” like that in the archives right now.

      People can also hide paperbooks they buy…the famous “sock drawer” strategy. If you order an e-book on your Kindle account, it’s available to everyone on your Kindle account…unless you delete it from the archives (meaning you would have to buy it again if you wanted to read it again later.

      That’s what I would suggest is the difference between e-books and p-books in this situation.

      In terms of the interactivity with the material…certainly, the process is different. I would argue that a book might have more of an impact on a person, precisely because of the greater intellectual involvement in the process. Books can clearly have a big impact on how people perceive the world.

      However, I suspect I may be a more…egalitarian data consumer than some people. ๐Ÿ™‚ I like and value 19th Century literature…and 1960s television. I like Dostoevsky…and Dobie Gillis. My beliefs about the world have been influenced by books and by other media.

      Watching a movie or a TV show need not be a passive experience. I would argue that the Patrick McGoohan series The Prisoner is as thought-provoking as many books I’ve read.

      It’s also an interesting idea that it’s easier to disengage from a book than from a movie. I think many children who have accidentally encountered something unpleasant for them on TV simply look away or change the channel. When I’m reading a book, I would find it much more difficult to skip a section or put the book down…precisely because of the greater intellectual involvement you cite.

      While a rating system could be used to “lock” a book away, that would be a parental/guardian choice. It doesn’t necessitate lesser involvement in what is being read. Let’s say that there is a system which identifies explicit sexual material in books. Yes, a parent might choose to blanketly block all those from…say, a seven-year old. However, another parent might discuss with a child why those books are unavailable.

      I was always involved with what my child was reading. I read the whole Animorphs series because my kid was reading them. ๐Ÿ™‚ That way, we could talk about them more. Now that my child is an adult, that still happens. My kid will suggest a book for me to read…and when we are together, we may still read out loud in the car.

      A rating system wouldn’t have changed that for us. In fact, it might have added another element for discussion.

      Let me be clear: I am not advocating for a rating system. Oh, I like all sorts of information, and that would be another one. I’ve deliberately read the opinions of people with whom I’m likely to disagree…I find that interesting. ๐Ÿ™‚ However, I can also see how this could be abused…if a library chose not to carry books except those with certain ratings, for example. I can imagine it being used in a lazy manner by guardians.

      On the other hand, I can imagine a way this would mean more books would get to kids. A…more hands-off guardian might currently allow no books for a child, out of (misplaced) fear. If there was a rating system, they might (hypothetically) allow the child to read any book at a certain level. I always like to think about all the possibilities, and look for how something that might seem negative may be a positive.

      I really appreciate your thoughtful and impassioned comment! I look forward to hearing more from you.

  3. Common Sense Says:

    Some indication of the type of content would be helpful, even for adults. For example, the All Romance Books site has a rating system for the degree of sexual content. I’ve also seen some authors add a statement to the product description detailing the degree of sexual content, violence, or profanity.

    I’m not a prude, but I have a limit in the explicitness of what I’m reading so it would be nice not to have an unpleasant surprise. It also helps in recommending books for my young adult daughter, especially when she was younger.

    Since there is currently no rating system, and after having been surprised by the perverted sexual violence in a couple of books, I now read all of the low-rated comments before making a purchase.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Common!

      The idea of the “degree” can work very well. I used to rent movies to show, and one of my sources did that (although I don’t remember which one, unfortunately). It had degrees for several categories…language, sexual content, violence. They were pretty objective, as I recall, and spelled out (“a few of these specific words”, for example).

      So, a movie would have a little bar graph kind of thing next to it that showed those levels.

      They weren’t classified as appropriate or not appropriate for any given group…it was just information.

      That makes sense to me as an option, although again, I’m sure it could be corrupted.

      Your comment about reading the low-rated reviews since there isn’t a system might be an argument for some authors in favor of such a system. The consumer reviews are…non-standardized. I’ve seen one-star reviews based on price, on availability, and so on. Someone might consider a given lifestyle (and there are many possibilities) to be “perverse” and claim so in 1-star reviews. An industry rating system would presumably be more objective.

  4. katxena Says:

    I would really hate a rating system for books, if it was implemented the way the movie rating system is. To pick one example — in movies, you can have characters say the F-word once (once for each movie, across all characters) and still get a PG-13 rating. Say it twice, and you get an R rating. As a result, a lot of movies will film multiple versions of scenes, with and without the F-word, so that the editors can pick the place with the most impact for it to appear later. That’s a whole lot of effort over one little word, effort that could be spent more creatively elsewhere.

    What would be nice would be an “opt-in” system, where book authors or publishers could fill out a little form, describing the content — for example, they might check no violence, no sex, some kissing, sexual physical contact without intercourse, intercourse, mild language (which I always take to mean no F-bomb), strong language, bullying, sexual violence, and so on — and parents could manage what their kids see in a more fine-grained way.

    But even that wouldn’t solve the problem — I just finished reading Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski. There’s no sex in it (although there’s one bit of nudity and a whole lot of talking about sex). I’d be far more concerned about a kid reading that novel than I would about him/her reading Water for Elephants, and I’m not sure how you would ever come up with flags that would distinguish the two.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, katxena!

      Authors could, of course, disclose that information now, if they wanted.

      Samhain does what I think are hilarious content warnings for books. They are valuable, certainly, but they are also written in a witty way.

      People would naturally want those comments to be consistent, and if they were going to interact with software, that would be more important. That’s why an industry group would be a way to go…to get the “little form” agreed upon.

      The current movie rating system certainly causes some creative gymnastics, and people can always game the system (putting in more of something questionable than they really want, so they can bargain it down), but I don’t personally think it is valueless. I expect an R-rated movie to be different than a G-rated movie…although there are days I might opt for either one.

      Movie ratings also evolve, even within the categories. I remember being blown away that Jaws was PG. There was some nudity, violence…and could forever warp people from going in the ocean. Years ago, it would have been restricted as “H” (Horrific) in England…hey, that happened to the Boris Karloff Frankenstein movie in 1931, as I recall.

  5. becca Says:

    Another problem is that what’s objectionable for one is no big deal for another person. I don’t mind explicit sex, as long as it doesn’t take over the book, but scenes of explicit violence strike me as more pornographic – I think it was a Lee Child book that went on for pages and pages of loving detail about the type of gun, the type of ammo, the trajectory, and the effects it had on a person’s head. I’d object to my children reading that kind of thing more than I would object to them reading about nice, loving sex.

    Similarly there are romance authors where I could practically diagram the sex scene, who did what to whom when… but then there are other romance authors who paint the emotional arc of lovemaking, but you have no idea of the specifics…. under a rating system such as the movies use, both would be given the same rating.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, becca!

      Yes, that’s always the problem. America tends to be more open about violence, Europe more open about sexual content…but there will always be an individual component.

      I’ve always found the idea of the effect being the problem odd. I read a quotation once (which I haven’t verified):

      “A sodomite got very excited looking at a zoology text. Does this make it pornography?”
      –Stanislaw J. Lec
      writing in Unkempt Thoughts
      translated by Jacek Galaska

      However, a content listing that marked both of those as having sexual content would not be useless…if it marked another as not having any sexual content (that didn’t).

      I’m most uncomfortable with people just being unrelentingly mean…even if it only manifests verbally. I want there to be some characters I like. ๐Ÿ™‚ I watched one episode of American Horror Story…which some might suppose was up my alley. I thought Miracles was a great (underappreciated and gone too soon) series, and there were some very unnerving things there. I also really like Glee. However, I didn’t find that any of these characters had anything I liked about them, and they were all mean to each other. I was done: haven’t watched another ep.

  6. Jennifer Brinn Says:

    Absolutely not.

    Rating systems are pretty much useless, really, because they’re subjective. You need some authority to determine the ratings. You’d need to try and figure out how to specify what equals what rating. You’d have to have a system to enforce it, too.

    Music and movies involve very different systems for content ratings, and even then, there’s lots of debate. (See the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated for a look at that system. Warning: very explicit content). IIRC, the music industry does their ratings voluntarily and the movie industry is controlled by a small governing board for the the ratings–and both systems have a wide range of results.

    For parents worried about what their kids are exposed to? Well, those folks need to get involved in helping their child make choices responsibly.

    (And this doesn’t even go into the weird divide in what’s appropriate via violence vs via sex in movies.) (Also, there’s a big difference in what is seen on screen vs in a book. Seriously, everyone can be nude in a book and no one will care anywhere near as much as if it were on film!)

  7. Lady Galaxy Says:

    >>I think itโ€™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.

    I’m not sure there will ever be software that can analyze for content ratings. It can’t even adequately “grammar check” or “spell check” a document. It was perfectly happy not to notify me when I’d typed “toilet” when I had intended to type “toiled” because I spelled toilet correctly. And I cringe at all the incorrect changes that Word suggests when I’m unfortunately enough to be using a version with “grammar check” turned on. I’m a retired teacher, and I’ve experienced the software that is supposed to protect children from the web. It prevented searches for breast cancer or weapons even if those weapons were related to historical research, but when I innocently did a search for “vision quest” because we were reading a story about Native American vision quests, the search engine spit forth a volley of explicit porn titles because unbeknownst to me, there was a porn distributer that was using that name. I’m sure if I had clicked on any of those titles, I would been prevented from going there, but it didn’t prevent me from seeing the titles. Fortunately the kids were not in the room when I did that search, and it taught me to never, ever put anything into a search engine in front of children until you have checked it out first!!!

  8. Beth Says:

    Many libraries now have self check out systems so the librarians usually never see the books kids check out.

    My tween daughter is on my account. We’ve talked about the books in the archive possibly not being appropriate and that she shouldn’t download them without checking with me. I push books to her as I find them and she usually has 30+ books in her to be read pile.

    I also have found that indie authors are usually very happy to discuss the content of their book with parents to help them determine if it is appropriate for their child.

  9. Gwen Says:

    The thought of someone judging books to determine a “rating” for something like this scares the pants off of me. (Freudian slip, would that last sentence then be R rated?)

    What shocks me is how all of these people are finding what they call questionable books. Seriously, I had no idea that Amazon had so many erotica selections until parents started to complain. I guess that I always know what I am looking for, more or less, so I don’t put really generic search terms in. I enter Justin Cronin and get The Passage. Others enter “teacher” and get a whole lotta crazy.

    Anywho, that is neither here nor there. I don’t want anyone else grading/judging/rating my books or my family’s access to them. I am not an idiot, can usually tell pretty quickly if a book isn’t for me, and have faith in all of the little people in my life.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Gwen!

      I’m with you about not needing ratings…but I don’t think I’d mind if they were there. The ratings on movies, TV, and so on haven’t negatively impacted me, as far as I know…

  10. Kay in NC Says:

    I’m not sure where I stand on this question – generally the ratings scales on TV and movies help me do an early “weed out” of things to let my kids watch. However, my final decision on what’s appropriate to watch is MINE, and not 100% that of the ratings police. I have let my kids (9 and 12) watch PG-13 movies (depending on why) – and I’ve let the older one watch R, depending on the content (police action, some horror).

    Rather than a ratings system, I’d be just as happy with a password option for Archived Items – sort of as a Top Shelf option ;-)) While my kids don’t download books without permission, I’d still rather not have them able to stumble over Top Shelf options by accident.

    For me personally, maybe this story will help to explain why I wouldn’t object strenuously to a ratings system, and might even use it on occasion….. Over Christmas, I settled down in the living room by the light of the Christmas tree, and decided to read a light Christmas romance to pass a few quiet moments. The story started out amusing and rapidly turned into a fairly explicit sexual encounter – not exactly what I had in mind or what looking for at the moment. A heads up (via a ratings system) would have allowed me to make a different and more appropriate choice for my mood.

    Just a few thoughts……. ;-))

    Kay in NC

  11. Steven King (@stevejk) Says:

    There will never be a rating system on books because as soon as someone proposes one, they will be accused of being a Nazi book-burner, as well as cries of censorship.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Steven!

      Definitely, the political issue would be part of it. It’s interesting to me that books are generally treated differently in that way. I don’t think people generally see the ratings on movies, TV, music, and videogames as being censorship, or akin to data destruction. It’s fascinating to me that in the 1950s, there actually were cases of public comic book burning…there’s a great book on that called

      The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed Amer

      It’s about the cultural condemnation of comics at that time, which led to the Comics Code Authority.

      I do suspect it wouldn’t be done by the I mentioned in the post, there already is some rating of books. If it does become widespread, I’m thinking it would be done by a separate group, like a non-profit: probably not even a trade group.

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