Do you wish books had ratings for sex, violence, and language? If so I want to chat with you.

MarshmallowMateysBack in 2011 I wrote a post titled “Since when did young adult fiction become the cure for cancer?”  It was a response to all the YASaves hysteria. The main point of my amazing post (grin) was that the people complaining about some YA content wanted not to ban books, but to simply have a way to more easily evaluate if they wanted to buy a particular book in the first place.

They want to avoid purchasing what they thought was a box of Marshmallow Mateys only to open it and find a bunch of bicycle sprockets.

Last year I decided to work on a solution. I have some ideas. But before I get ahead of myself and build something, I want to really understand if it’s a problem worth solving. I want to chat with others who do care about content to see what aspects of this are important to them and what they’re doing now to find this information.

So, if you wish books had ratings for sex, violence, and language, then I want to talk to you. It will take about 20 minutes. If you’re open to chatting, leave a comment, or click Contact above and fill in the form.

Because I live up in the middle of nowhere, we’ll have to chat via a web meeting. But never fear: I’ll host that. All you’ll have to do is show up and answer my questions 🙂


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19 Responses to Do you wish books had ratings for sex, violence, and language? If so I want to chat with you.

  1. JohnW says:

    Doesn’t the question of whether it is “a problem worth solving” depend critically on how many people would actually derive a benefit?

    You could interview dozens of people who say that they would like book ratings, but that is just a drop in the bucket to the hundreds of millions of people who read books.

    Do you have an idea of what percentage of book readers say they would like to see books with ratings?

    Also, even if some people say they would like to see books with ratings, how useful are the ratings really? Sure, parents could avoid buying books for their children based on the ratings. But will that really stop children from reading certain books? Wouldn’t a large number of children actually want to read a book more if it appears to be forbidden fruit? Couldn’t such children go to the library or the bookstore themselves to read such books? Or borrow them from friends? Or download them from the Internet?

  2. John Brown says:

    Good questions all, John. They’re all part of what customer discovery is meant to find out. I have my hypotheses; the customer discovery process helps me validate and test them.

    As far as how useful ratings are to folks, my hypothesis is that they’d be as useful as they are to folks who see movies. And a heck of a lot of people use movie ratings of one kind or another.

  3. JohnW says:

    How will interviewing a few people who self-select to say they “wish books had ratings for sex, violence, and language” help you find out what percentage of book readers want book ratings?

    It seems to me the only reasonable way to answer that question is to survey a statistically significant number of book readers, in as broad and unbiased a sample as possible.

    For answering the question of what percentage of book readers want a rating system, your sample would be useless since you have asked them to self-select for wanting a rating system.

  4. JohnW says:

    I doubt your hypothesis that book ratings would be as useful as movie ratings. The difference is that movie theaters and many movie sellers will not allow underage people to view movies not rated for them. But I find it very unlikely that libraries, and unlikely that most bookstores, would be willing or able to prevent certain people from reading books based on ratings.

    Also, if I understand you correctly, the book ratings would be more complicated than movie ratings. Restricted movies are basically R rated movies, or PG-13 parents strongly cautioned. The R-rating is simple for movie theaters to enforce — check ID and if under 17 then no go.

    But with a book rating not just based on age of reader, it would be nearly impossible for libraries or booksellers to enforce. So children would have a much easier time getting books that there parents don’t want them to get as compared to getting into a movie theater to watch an R-rated movie.

    It seems to me that book ratings could possibly have the opposite of the intended effect. If parents try to prevent their children from reading books with certain ratings, then those books will become more desirable to many children, and children will seek those books out specifically. And since such books will be easily available from the library, booksellers, friends, or the Internet, then those books rated for racy sex, extreme violence, or banned language may be read by even more children than if there were no ratings to steer the children towards the thrilling “forbidden” books.

  5. JohnW says:

    By the way, most of my doubts are in regards to using such a rating system for “young adult” books, since I am assuming that such a rating system would be used by parents in an attempt to prevent their children from reading certain books.

    However, if we are talking about people making decisions for their own reading, then it seems to me that the rating system makes more sense. I know some adults do not want to read books that use certain words they do not like, or which describe sex or sexuality in a straightforward or explicit manner. Such people could make their own reading decisions based on book ratings.

    In such a case, I can see your survey providing useful information. For people deciding whether they want to read a book, what information would they like that is not currently provided by cover blurbs or amazon reviews? That would be the area that book ratings might be helpful for some people.

  6. John Brown says:


    Interviews are only one part of a larger customer discovery or development process. I’ll be doing other things to assess market size. In this part of the process I’m looking to talk to early adopters, folks who have a large problem they want to fix.

    As for parents and ratings, you’re making an assumption about the goal of this that’s incorrect. I’m not seeking to provide a solution to a rating enforcement need. This isn’t a policing solution. It’s a customer information solution. What customers do with it is beyond the scope.

    And it would be for all books, but YA book readers and purchasers are probably a key market segment. Also, it’s incorrect to assume that YA is read only by youths. A very large portion of YA is read by adults–30% or 60%. I can’t remember the number, but it was large. Many adults read YA because it used to be a “safe” genre. And because it moves more quickly.

  7. PeteD says:

    A rating system may be useful, but I’ve found that by going to websites like Amazon and reading the customer reviews I can get a pretty good feel for a book’s content. Could this be a problem that is already solving itself?

    I’m one of those adults that like to read YA because it is ‘safe’. My children are a little too young right now to read heavily (mt oldest is 9), but I’m already encouraging them to find out what others have said about a book before reading it.

  8. James says:

    I’m not entirely sure where you’re going with this, but I’ve got a few questions/thoughts on the matter.

    1) This is the digital age. Five minutes with Amazon, Good Reads, Wikipedia, or Google is about all you need to find out every plot detail of most novels, let alone if it contains graphic content.

    2) Most people pick up books upon referral, usually given by people who have similar tastes in fiction. We’ve all had people who have different tastes refer us to books that weren’t to our individual liking. With these people common sense tells you after one such experience to not read books they tell you about.

    3) Presentation is more important in written fiction than in any other medium. You can present the exact same action sequence, featuring the exact same dialog and actions three different times, and depending on presentation they can all have completely different tones. One presentation you might find offensive, another you’re completely okay with. A rating system, V for violence, does little to distinguish between the two.

    With all that being said, I think a rating system would be redundant. We’ve been trained for decades to check movie or even video game ratings, and if it wasn’t for that those rating systems would be just as redundant.

    On a side note, I somehow doubt that most of the adults who read YA do so because it’s safe. I would be if there was a poll, most of these readers would list pace as the primary reason for reading YA, maybe even the lack of political fluff as the second reason.

  9. John Brown says:


    It might be. This is, in part, why I’m conducting interviews. I want to see how people for whom this is an issue are currently resolving the issue. So far, some have mentioned reading the reviews on Amazon but a surprising number are simply reading into the books and getting annoyed.


    My response to your points.

    1) You’re making an assumption about what people do. That’s your hypothesis. The question is: is it valid? Specifically, is it valid for lots of folks who are looking to vet books for sex, violence, and language? I’m making assumptions as well. And the validation for those assumptions are going to be found by talking to folks. If I talk to lots of folks who have this issue but solve it in two seconds with internet searches, then there’s no need to proceed and develop the solution. If not, then it suggests I make a wider search.

    2) Sometimes. You’re making another assumption that would need to be validated. I just talked to a fellow whose friend usually recommends great stuff. He recommended a book. The fellow I talked to found nothing objectionable in the first chapters and so put the audio in the car with the kids. 1/3rd the way into the book, a character started to drop the f-bomb all over the place. In this case, the fellow I talked to was annoyed because he had just wasted time and money on a book he was going to return. But he wasn’t going to immediately discount everything his friend would recommend in the future either. And what if he does stop listening to that friend’s recommendations? That still doesn’t prevent him from having the same experience in the future.

    Getting out and talking to people is helping me see if my assumptions are correct.

    3) A rating as you suggest doesn’t make much distinction. But I haven’t suggested any solution yet. I’m still in problem validation mode.

    As for redundancy, this is yet another hypothesis. Rating systems might be redundant for a lot of people. They might not be for a lot of people. My question at this point is whether there are enough people with this issue to warrant further investigation.

    As for your side note, I didn’t say “most” 🙂 I said “many.” But that too is an assumption that needs to be validated.

    When doing product development, the first thing we need to do is validate as many of the key assumptions as possible. That’s what I’m currently in the midst of. And the best way to do that is to form my hypotheses and then talk to people who have this issue, not speculate about what they might or might not do 🙂

    Does it make better sense now?

  10. Shane says:

    I really don’t hate the idea of some sort of content label for books; especially if it was something along the lines of “Contains Mild Profanity, Violence, and Sexual Content.” As the parent of a two and a half year old, I pretty much put blind faith into the idea that her pop-up books won’t broach any topics I don’t think she is ready for. Once her books start having chapters, I’d rather not have to read them to know what’s in them.

    I don’t have the delusion that I can completely prevent her from seeing content I think is too adult, but this would be a convenience for what will no doubt be an uphill battle.

  11. James says:


    My points weren’t criticisms but just general thoughts I had while reading your post and a few of the questions you will hear from potential customers. Also, after thinking about it for a few minutes, I’d have to retract my guess of pacing being the number one reason for adults reading YA and put nostalgia in its place followed by pacing.

  12. John Brown says:


    I didn’t take them as criticisms 🙂 But they did come across as statements of fact. What I was trying to clarify is that I think they’re actually assumptions, hypotheses. When developing a new product, the key thing is to ID key assumptions and then validate them.

    As for why so many adults read YA, I think your first assumption about pacing is probably more accurate. My wife and I read a lot of YA, and we don’t do it for nostalgic reasons. But that’s my assumption. I could be wrong. When trying to develop a product, I think it’s important to label such things as assumptions until we have data that validates them.

  13. David Lein says:

    I work in a school library (grade 7-12) and while we have a separate section for senior fiction and in a few cases some books are labeled 11-12 only. While I like to think myself as well read, there is only so much time in a day to research content on books we are ordering for the library. I think something simple as content warning regarding violence, sex and language would be useful as despite what people think not all reviews single out these items. It could be something as simple as a sticker on the book, or more information on the publisher’s website.

    As for enforcement, it is easy here as we can limit what the students are allowed to read without written consent from their parents.

    Depending when the round table chat is going to take place, I may or may not be available as I will be on vacation soon (all 14 days of it).



  14. John Brown says:

    Thanks, David. I’ve sent you an email. These are all one-on-one chats.

  15. Rachel says:

    Jennifer B. told me about your quest and asked if I’d be willing to contact you and help out with your survey. I am an avid “filter” user for both books and movies (and everything else)and would be willing to chat if it would helpful. I’m an avid reader and am mother to many readers (one of whom is a voracious reader). There are numerous blogs and sites already devoted to this issue (which I applaud) but the more the merrier. =)

  16. Carissa says:

    I think a rating system for books would be very useful! When I browse through a selection of movies to rent I can glance at the back cover and instantly have an idea of whether it has content I’d be uncomfortable with, but when browsing through a bookstore or library I have to look up every book and read several reviews (which isn’t even possible to do on my phone–yes it’s the digital age but not everyone has a smartphone), or else read the back cover and decipher whether it hints at any mature content by using words like “raunchy.” For a long time I’ve been wishing there was something simple stamped on books so it could save me the time, especially since I’ve been in the situation more than once in which I’d already gotten the book home and put hours into it just to come across a very explicit scene I didn’t want to read.

    I agree with many that we shouldn’t be trying to ban books, and I would hypothesize that a rating system may actually help steer people away from that as a solution. With the current system of books being either available or banned, and access of information being either extensive research or reading through all of it yourself, anything people find objectionable they feel must be banned so others will know it has that content before they read it unknowingly. Moving to a system that gives a clear idea of what kind of content is in books right away could give at least a framework to organize the chaos and offer a saner alternative to banning. School library staff would save countless hours of research to make sure they carried literature that was appropriate. My eighth grade science teacher probably wouldn’t have gotten away with including in his curriculum for several years his own novel, which contained an alien rape scene–perhaps school administrators with the apathy not to read through the book may have at least referred to its rating.

    Although it wouldn’t be made for the purpose of censorship through laws, a rating system could mean a guideline for parents as well—as another comment said, it’s sure to be an uphill battle for parents guiding their children toward wholesome media. Yes, some kids would jump at the opportunity to seek directly after “forbidden fruit,” but don’t you think those kids find ways of doing that already? Is that reason enough to limit information on texts that are available to the public in order to hope kids don’t come across something inappropriate on their own? As well as benefiting adults in their reading selection, that prior information about a book could mean the difference for a lot of the kids who are honestly just looking for a good story. Personal responsibility needs to be adopted at some point, and making the decision not to choose a movie (or book) because it has a certain rating can be much easier than getting halfway through it and disciplining oneself not to continue.

    I had no idea I had this much to say about the idea, and I’m sure I would be even less eloquent about my argument in person (that’s probly why I wrote all that down), but I would be open to an interview. =)

  17. Lora says:

    I was sent over to your site by Rachel on Goodreads. I have considered the idea of book ratings before, but find it pretty problematic. All the same, I would be interested in an online chat or phone call about this, if it helps you in your research.
    I usually do a lot of research into books my kids will have a chance to read, and then I use that research to decide if I am going to read it to approve it for them. This represents a lot of steps and effort for each and every book, which gets tiring after awhile. Half the books I read a year are for my kids, and I read about fifty books a year. I sometimes would like a simpler method of screening for content. For me this does not represent censorship in that I don’t debate the existence of certain books, only whether or not I want to give a large amount of my time and energy to reading them. And may I say, this is one of those reasons why I look forward to my kids growing up and making their own choices. 🙂
    Here are a few of my initial ideas:
    Fewer surprises when finding good lit for my kids, and for myself. I have done extensive research on a certain book and risked not reading it, only for my daughter to encounter multiple adult scenes in what was supposed to be YA historical fiction.
    even the movie ratings that have been with us for so long can not be trusted. Their standards have shifted over the years. They are not specific enough- but then how can they be?
    The same scene done differently in a classic novel as opposed to a modern novel could end up looking the same as per rating, but feel very differently to the reader.
    How would a rating system offset the expansion of the definition of YA to include everyone from early 20s to the preteen?
    Would it be able to be controlled to prevent the slide along the continuum of standards? In other words, looking at movie ratings, what was an R movie in the 60s is now a PG-13, or even a ‘hard’ PG.
    Would a rating system be able to keep up with the many books that come out each year? There are more books than movies, by far, aren’t there?
    Some of the things my very particular daughter wishes to avoid would be very difficult for a rating system to capture. The result for me would be reading everything anyway. To be honest, it comes down to this: I wish there would be a thorough and trustworthy system, but nothing will ever replace my own work. I just can’t see how a rating system could replace the running lists and perceptions I have in my head. In some cases, it could help a little. But would it really simplify things for me, or just set me up?

    I would be curious to see how a rating system affects school and public libraries. There’s a political pit for you to be stepping into!

    Finally, I am glad to see a discussion on this. If books for children weren’t being changed so quickly, we might not even need to discuss the issue.

  18. Collin says:

    I would love to see some kind of rating on books, as this can be very hard to find out without skimming the book or reading reviews which frequently give away important plot points.

    An easy implementation could be something along the lines of low, medium & high for the categories of language, violence, & sexual content. It might look something like this for an age 11 book:


    Or for an adult sci-fi book that I may want to avoid:


    They wouldn’t have to be colored green or red to indicate “bad” or “good”, as this varies by individual, but could still give someone an idea before they get 1/4 of the way into a book and have to put it down in disappointment.