I’m a bit irked.
I wish I could talk to a publisher about this. I should talk to a Barnes & Noble corporate book buyer. But since I don’t have one handy, I’ll discuss it with you folks. Maybe I’m up in the night? You tell me.
Here’s the deal. My wife is 7th and 8th grade language arts teacher. My wife is also a mom who loves books and wants her girls to read until their eyes bong out of their heads.
So we go to find books for her students and for our girls and, jeez, wouldn’t you know it, but this YA book features masturbation and that one features lots of fine words like F*** and S*** and this one is about giving the guys a blow job (tee, hee, hee).
Yeah, I know about YA saves. This isn’t about banning this or that content.
It’s about the fact that I’m a parent. And, geez, I have a certain way I want to raise my kids. My wife is a teacher who needs to provide books to her students that aren’t going to piss some parent off. Why? Because she’s providing a service to that parent. Because she wants to keep her job. And because it’s her job to help parents improve their kid’s reading ability not tell them how to raise a family.
So why in the Sam Hill can’t publishers rate their books?
There are millions of their customers who would find this useful.
Well, here’s one answer I was given by a writer friend I respect.
Everyone in the industry is really pushing back against the idea of a rating system. Let me see if I can explain why.
A friend of mine, ZZ [name removed], is the nicest person in the world. Volunteered for years at a prison to help people learn to express themselves by writing. Her older brother was a closeted homosexual for years, contracted AIDS, died too young. She wrote a book recently called [title removed], about a family in the restaurant business (as hers was) who have a “late” baby and the problems it causes for the older teens, one of whom is coming out as gay. It’s a soft, quite, sad, moving book. And it would be part of the “rating” system and banned from a bunch of schools. ZZ also wrote a book a few years ago about teenage pregnancy. Also beautifully written, kind, compassionate. But it would get tagged by schools as “inappropriate.” ZZ feels strongly that there are kids out there who need books, kids in your wife’s school system who need to be told they are not alone.
I don’t see any way to have a system that distinguishes between books that I see as anchors to kids who need help and those books which I see as genuinely offensive and encouraging bad teen behavior by glorifying it. The only system I know is me recommending the best books I see. And I’d much rather see librarians and school teachers go through books on a case by case basis, deciding whether they personally think it fits the values in their community than to have someone else not attached to the community do the same thing.
If this is accurate, it shows the industry’s stunning lack of creativity AND arrogance. Because if publishers really were listening to parents, they could come up with a solution.
No, really. They could.
Why, there’s already one out there. They don’t even have to expend even one creative molecule to find it.
Look at the Kids-in-Mind rating system: http://www.kidsinmind.com/. It rates movies 1-10 on sex, violence, and profanity (SVP).
There’s no age stipulation in their ratings.
Unlike other rating systems, there’s no “children under 13 not admitted.” No “appropriate for teens.” No recommended range for this or that group or this book is good and that one’s bad.
It just rates the content and gives it a number. You, as the user, determine what level you’re comfortable with and then find the movies that fit.
I’m a 4-10-4 on sex, violence, and profanity. You might be a 5-2-9. That’s not good or bad. It’s just what it is. More importantly, the rating allows me as a consumer to EASILY FIND AND PURCHASE THE PRODUCT I WANT.
I know some folks have never heard of it, but consumer choice is a really cool thing.
And if I hear about a movie that’s amazingly good, but I see it doesn’t match my normal levels, then I can make an informed choice to watch or not watch. The King’s Speech, for example, is a bit above my normal profanity setting. But this didn’t prevent me from watching the film (it was a fabulous movie, btw). SVP just gave me a couple of pieces of simple data I find useful as I make my choices. Data I’m already looking for.
If publishers were to use a similar rating system, every librarian could peg the levels they wanted in their school and be done with it. As well as consider special cases. Teachers could peg the level for their classroom. Parents could search and find and buy. And they could guide their kids in their purchases as well.
Make it easy for them to go case-by-case. And don’t imagine librarians and teachers and parents are going to read every YA book published to find those that fit with their values. They don’t, can’t, do that now. They won’t in some utopian future. If you give them SVP ratings, it will help them spend their time, case-by-case, on books that they’re likely to buy. Which probably means they’ll buy more.
Write about homosexuality, rape, whatever. But make it easy on the consumer to see if it’s the kind of product they want to buy.
Some might say, but themes of homosexuality and rape and child abuse etc. etc. are important and would be automatically excluded!
No, they won’t.
You can write a story about those themes that scores low on SVP. You can write about those themes and score high. Themes are outside the SVP scale.
Some parents, librarians, and teachers may want to avoid some themes. Others would seek them out.
So, good golly, here’s an idea only a rocket scientist could come up with. OR someone who took the issue a tiny bit seriously and wanted to serve their customer. How about a little box under the SVP rating that contained “sensitive” themes.
They don’t have to do what Scholastic does with its school catalogs and label them “mature” themes, which might suggest “mature audiences only.” They’re not “mature” themes. They’re not “bad” themes. They’re not “good” themes. They’re just sensitive themes.
SVP and Sensitive Themes: four little pieces of data consumers would find oh so incredibly helpful.
But no. The industry can’t be bothered with that. And, consequently, reveals its arrogance and total lack of respect for a HUGE portion of their customers.
I guess they think librarians are mindless idiots. Never in a million years, if a librarian is tuned into the needs of her community and thinks a book on homosexuality would be important, would she search on that sensitive theme and her SVP ratings. And parents would never do that for sure (do you know how many gun-clinging troglodyte parents there are out there!?)
I guess the industry thinks because it sits in an office in NY City that it knows everything about raising kids. It knows so much it must dictate to parents how to do it right.
Or maybe what this really shows is that the publishers have got a book they want to sell. They want to make a buck. And, dang it, this might hurt sales. Because then people wouldn’t buy things they didn’t want.
They really don’t seem to care about what many of their customers want. Because if they did, and they realio trulio cared about these sensitive topics and saving the world, then they’d publish books high on the SVP because they’re just sooooo goooood, but they’d also publish books on those topics that are equally as goooood with SVP ratings that the majority of parents and school districts would be comfortable with.
And they’d let the customer choose what they wanted to purchase.
Customer choice. Customer service.
Wow, what revolutionary concepts.
They even might find that if you delight the customer, they’ll come back for more.
I know, I know. I’m living in fantasy land; delighted customers coming back for more . . . as if.
Question is: will the publishers listen?
We’ll see. I truly hope I’m wrong about their arrogance and disregard towards huge swaths of their customer base. In the meantime, you might want to think about talking to the manager of your favorite book store about this. Strangely enough, books stores have a lot of pull with publishers.
You also might want to look at Kids-in-Mind. It seems to make a lot in advertising. Looks like there’s money to be made in a review site like that for YA books. I know a lot of people who have said they wished they could just read books for a living. Anyone feeling entrepreneurial? Anyone?
Two more points.
First, what’s sensitive for one person may not be for another. But that’s the beauty of this. This only identifies subjects that would be sensitive for reasonable sections of the market. For someone with your reading tastes, you’d say, eh, homosexuality, big deal. That’s not a sensitive subject. For others, they’d say, hum, have to think about it.
It’s just giving data. A respect and recognition of different tastes. Not a prescription of what someone’s taste should be. Or what people should or shouldn’t feel is sensitive subject matter.
For this reason, I don’t think publishers would want to use the word “controversial” because that implies controversy. Just sensitive (or some other similar label). Or even “Potentially Sensitive Themes.” This is just giving data about content areas SOME parents might want to know about.
Second, the SVP is not going to be 100% perfect. But something is much better than nothing. And having some clear standard for rating, whatever it is, pegs things so you can figure out where you are. As long as the raters are fairly consistent, then you can tell if something is close to the type of product you’re interested in. There will be goofs. No doubt about it. Huge goofs would be probably very infrequent because a ten-point scale allows you to make gradual distinctions. But I’ll take some goofs now and again over nothing at all.
Furthermore, because it’s NOT age-based like the MPAA and prescriptive in the target audience, it’s not telling parents what to do. There is no “good for your kids” and “bad for your kids” rating. Just the level you’re comfortable with.
Finally, some people object to ratings because “how can you boil a book down to a few numbers?” I don’t think this boils a book down. It’s only a couple of pieces of data about a book. Data parents are already looking for. The cover, recommendations, word-of-mouth, flap, description, buzz–these are all pieces of data as well.
In fact, you and I exclude many books based on genre labels alone. And yet we don’t worry about a genre labels much. They’re useful pieces of information. Are they always perfect? No. But they’re by-and-large very useful. I don’t see that this is much different. Just another piece of data to help consumers find what they want.