Is Amazon testing a content advisory system for books?

Is Amazon testing a content advisory system for books?

I’ve written before about how people sometimes want a rating system for books like there are for movies, TV, and videogames.

They want to know if a book is “X-rated” before they buy it.

Well, as I’ve explained, all three of the content types above which do have it are industry created. I think some people believe the government puts those ratings on movies, and that’s just not the case.

The movie studios may have been motivated to do it in part by fear of prosecution (for corrupting a minor and/or distributing pornography).

The TV ratings were…um, “suggested” by the government in 1996, but are implemented by the industry.

In both cases, the audiences are tiered…the ratings don’t tell you specifically about what is in the works, but about who should watch it.

It would be much more complicated to get that sort of thing to happen with books.

It’s not just that there is a lot more reluctance to regulate the written word, although that is part of it. There are also issues of how the industry is organized.


Many people do want some kind of guidance about the content of works.

They don’t want to be told what they can and can’t read, for the most part, but there are people who would like to make their reading choices informed in part by language, sexual content, violent content, and more.

That desire has created independent review boards, and even a new buzzed about app, Clean Reader:

Huffington Post post by Claire Fallon

Clean Reader (not available from the Amazon Appstore at this point) sells you books…and then has a filtering system that will cover-up different levels of profanity for you. It doesn’t actually remove the words, just prevents you from seeing them (although you can reveal them if you choose, I believe). You can see a demo Google Play:

and it is listed at, so you could get it for your Kindle Fire if you choose (although with all 3rd party apps, you take responsibility for what it might do to your device…only reasonable, since it won’t have been vetted by Amazon’s team).

Well, Amazon is apparently experimenting with something new…which I think could be effective.

I wrote yesterday about a book I recently read

Spinster’s Gambit (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

where my appreciation of the book was reduced a bit by a “love scene”.

I doubt, by the way, that Clean Reader would have done much with that…I don’t remember any likely trigger words.

However, when I wrote the review of the book on Amazon, I saw something new that I thought was worth mentioning in another post.

You may not see it when you review a book…Amazon is big into “A/B testing”, meaning not everybody sees the same thing at the same time, so they can evaluate the impact.

When I wrote the review (and, full disclosure, the author is a friend of our now adult kid, although I don’t know the author personally and am not otherwise connected to the book except as a reader…I bought our copy from Amazon, just as you would), I was given some dropdown lists from which to make choices.

Alexis Radcliff’s Lexirad

blog post

has screenshots of at least some of the choices (I didn’t capture them at the time). Those match what I saw.

Two of the have to do with content.

You could say, for example, if there was violence, with “no violence”, “some violence”, or “graphic violence”.

Obviously, those choice are subjective. What defines graphic violence, for example? Does cartoon-style violence count? Does it have to do with the amount of description? For example, what if a work simply said someone was “stabbed” and the person dies of the wound, versus a passage that explains in minute detail someone who has an ear cut off? Are either of those “some violence”, “graphic violence”, or neither?

It was also interesting that I could choose the “mood” of the book. The mood choices hardly seemed all inclusive, and I wouldn’t say they were there for a content advisory in the way that sex and violence are…unless some people would return a book because it was “light-hearted” or “nostalgic”. 😉

I looked to see if there was any evidence of my choices or other people’s choices on the product page…I don’t see anything.

This can be used in a few different ways.

One would be to have it visible on the product page. Amazon would not be “censoring” the books, or putting an “age appropriate” label on them…it would be sharing crowd sourced assessments. They could either show the most popular choice, or always show all of them.

However, there is another way they could use it where it would not be visible on the product page.

They could use this to give you more targeted recommendations.

If you always ranked a book with graphic violence as 1 star (or as 5 star) that would be guidance to perhaps improve Amazon’s recommendations for you.

The third thing I see is that it could be used to aid discovery, in a way similar to search for a book by element

which I’ve also written about before.

That could also tie into something like Amazon’s Echo (mine is “not yet shipped” still, although my estimated delivery date runs from this Wednesday through April 9th). You could ask the Echo to recommend a light-hearted book, or simply to just recommend a book (if it already knew your preferences, based on your reviews).

To be fair, I want to point out that Radcliffe saw (and wrote first about) these same ideas. This is a case of us thinking alike, although I would say we approach this from different backgrounds.

I think Amazon asking these sorts of questions is an important way for them to improve their “context awareness”. We will increasingly want that…we want our devices to understand us, and not show us things which we feel are irrelevant to our personal preferences.

There is a risk in that, of course. I hope that I never feel like I know what I wouldn’t want to read…before I even read it! While some may want to search by “no violence”, if they did so, they might miss out on Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, and…wait, what books don’t have any violence? 😉

I do think that knowing ahead of time if a book has a graphic sex scene would be helpful for me, though. I use text-to-speech quite a bit, and more than once, my phone has included part of a book in a text I was dictating to my Significant Other. That might be confusing… 😉

What do you think? Have you seen those questions when reviewing a book on Amazon? Did you see different options? Would you filter searches based on the “mood” of the book? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

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* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.


6 Responses to “Is Amazon testing a content advisory system for books?”

  1. Harold Delk Says:

    Great idea to protect the sensitive souls. I want a warning system to warn me so I can avoid christian and radical right-wing content as well.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Harold!

      And I’m sure you can imagine that there would be people who wanted a warning for the opposite…perhaps a label for “atheist” or “left wing”. 🙂 Currently, books can be tagged by readers (and other users of Amazon) in a lot of ways…the difference here, I would say, is that Amazon may use these questions in a more “official” capacity.

  2. Lou Anne Leonard Says:

    Another ‘feature’ of the new customer review page design that seems to be in beta test, is that it has removed the ability to vote on Comments to customer reviews. There are times when I want to signal that a Comment is unhelpful (in ways that don’t warrant being reported as full-blown inappropriate/abusive) so I’m not a fan of this change. It may lead to an increase in Comment wars (eg, since the quieter way to express disfavor has been removed).

    You can view this new customer review page design element in a Kindlebook entitled Total Chi Fitness by William Lee.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lou!

      I just checked: I still have the ability to vote on reviews on that specific book.

      Rather than intention, I’m guessing that might have been a glitch…or you weren’t logged into your account. It could be that people in different browsers are seeing it differently, and again, that might be unintentional.

      If you get a chance, check the same book in a different browser (make sure your name is showing at the top of the page), and see if you see it.

      If it was done intentionally and it became more widespread, I suppose it might raise the rhetoric…unless Amazon was also going to clamp down on that, which I would think would be possible. Not a place for ad hominems, in my opinion, and I believe that would violate their Terms of Service.

      Personally, I never vote anything down…although, and this is based on Amazon’s instructions, I will use the “Report Abuse” button if someone dangerously posts their own information in a post. That happens: credit card numbers, phone numbers…I believe I’ve even seen a Social Security number. Reporting abuse gets the fastest response, they tell me, and they can remove the post quickly.

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