YA Books Ratings and Publisher Arrogance (shh, it’s about the $$)

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.

Uh huh.

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.

Yeah.

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?

EDIT

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.

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22 Responses to YA Books Ratings and Publisher Arrogance (shh, it’s about the $$)

  1. JohnI thought I’d disagree with your post when I first started read but this is incredibly well reasoned and seems very common sense. Which is why publishers more than likely won’t do it. =)

  2. Jared says:

    This is a good exposition of a real problem. I’m a teacher too and have some of the same problems as your wife. I also have problems as an adult reader. I’ll get a couple hundred pages into a book and then find some extensive pornographic scene, and it makes me angry. Either I have to throw the book away and give up on the story that was thus far engaging, or I have to skip the scene, hope I didn’t miss anything, and hope that it was the only one in the book.

    Anyway, I hear you.

    Maybe a website like you propose could be crowdsourced, with a kind of rubric so that the ratings were consistent.

  3. John Brown says:

    Stephen, we just need one big one. Just one . . .

    Jared, can you imagine? Tons of raters. Just as long at they were conscientious. Do you know how many millions of hits that site would get?

  4. JohnW says:

    Did you mean “The King’s Speech”? I don’t know of a movie called “The King’s English”.

    I’m not sure about your SVP rating system. I think calibrating it could be difficult. It seems to me just a simple listing of incidents of various types would be more useful. IMDB does this for movies. They call it “content advisory”. They list incidents of “sex & nudity”, “violence & gore”, “profanity”, “alcohol/drugs/smoking”, and “frightening/intense scenes”. For example, here is their section for Battle Royale:

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0266308/parentalguide

  5. Pewari says:

    I’m a little confused as to why you want to rely on the book industry to provide this?

    As a parent, if I’m not sure if a film is appropriate I use rotten tomatoes or imdb to get an idea of what the film is about. I’ve found ratings to be fairly unhelpful (especially when youngest was going through a phase of finding any kind of mild peril too much for him, which even ruled out many U films, whereas he really enjoyed a TV program which the BBFC rated as a 12). I also strongly encourage my kids to self-sensor and put books down (no diktats about having to finish a book in our house!) if they’re not enjoying them or are finding them too scary – a really vital life skill to have, imo. They’re never going to enjoy every book, film or game in the world and having the self-knowledge and confidence to say “I’m not enjoying this or getting anything out of this and my time is precious to me” can only be a good thing.

    However, if enough parents/teachers/librarians would find your rating system useful, then rather than waiting for the publishing industry to do anything about it, a more appropriate reaction would be to set up a review site similar to imdb/rotten tomatoes for books. A quick flip through amazon reviews already gives an idea of the content of many YA books as it is – perhaps the onus is on more readers to get around to reviewing anything they feel has sensitive topics that they’re unhappy with. Reducing complex themes into a few numbers seems to me to be providing less information, not more.

  6. Holly Black says:

    I totally get that you feel like ratings for books is necessary and I hope you understand that you’re very unlikely to convince a majority of authors of that (much like directors are not exactly fans of film rating systems).

    But putting that aside, there are some other problems with your plan. Our current film rating system was put into place by the MPAA to break free from the Hays Code, which was incredibly restrictive and censoring. While it might help parents decide what movies they allow their children to see, but that’s not why we have the rating system we do.

    We don’t have a Hays Code for books, so there’s nothing to break free from, and there is no publisher trade association like the MPAA with the power to make such a sweeping decision for publishers. To make ratings work, every individual publishing house would have to come to the same conclusion about ratings on their own — a decision that would be costly because it would require time and dedicated staff to create a system and then to educate editors, publicists, sales teams, buyers, and booksellers of what it all means and how to code according to it. Not only that, but it would be likely to result in individual publishing houses coding completely differently, even if they could agree on a universal coding system, which is pretty unlikely.

    In the title of the post, you suggest that the real reason that publishers won’t institute a ratings system is money. And if that’s true, then indeed that’s a problem. Publishers are money-making entities above all else and there would have to be a financially compelling reason to make devote their resources to making such a change. That reason couldn’t be anecdotal either; it would have to be backed up with hard data and it would have to suggest a large bump in book sales across the board (and not just sales of individual titles) to offset the financial burden.

    Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, it would be a very, very unpopular decision with the ALA. The American Library Association is firmly against rating systems. You can read more about the organization’s stance here: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/qa-labeling

    I am personally against rating systems for YA novels, however I think the barriers to getting them put in place are far greater than what individual authors want or don’t want.

  7. John Brown says:

    JohnW,

    Thanks for the catch. Correction made.

    Pewari,

    You’re right. An independent org migt be a much better way to go. Kids-In-Mind is exactly that.

    Holly,

    Thanks for the post. I don’t know if we can generalize that most authors would be against this. I’m an author, and I have a lot of author friends who feel the same way. I have a lot who feel as you do as well. More importantly, very few parents I talk to say, “eh, I don’t care what my kid reads.” And that’s the heart of this matter. Parents care. As they should.

    And this isn’t just for parents who want to avoid certain types of material. It’s also for parents who want to make sure their children don’t take the wrong lessons from the books they read.

    Let’s look at an example with regards to the “sensitive topic” information. Let’s say you have a parent who is concerned about the topic of sexual orientation–she wants to make sure her children do NOT grow up to hate gay people.

    So her son picks up a book that contains characters who exhibit gay hate. The overall tone of the book might be supportive of a homosexual orientation. But Johnny might read it incorrectly.

    This isn’t uncommon with kids. It isn’t uncommon with adults. Case in point: Archie Bunker in the popular 1970’s sitcom All in the Family. The producers wanted to create a show that disuaded people from, among other things, racism. The idea was that Archie would be unlikeable and racist, and people would reject those racist statements because of how they felt about Archie. But people loved Archie. Oops. It might be that voicing the issues might have done some good, regardless of how people felt about Archie. It also might have been easy for kids to watch that and model the racism displayed.

    Okay, so the parent wants to make sure Johnny doesn’t read the book and pick up the wrong message. Having this information lets the parent know she might want to make sure she looks into this book just a little more than other books that are just about adventure and swords. It might alert her that, hey, here’s a chance to talk to my kid about this. At least to make sure he’d not picking up the wrong message.

    It’s information that parents will find useful on both sides of the issue. It’s information that parents are already looking for and already using to select books.

    I think you’re right that it’s probably wrong-headed to have each publisher do this separately. Too much variation. And it’s not efficient. A separate group could handle this much better. And that would drastically cut any publisher cost associated with it.

    And you’re right that any business person worth their salt wouldn’t want to take on extra cost without seeing some benefit. But my gut feeling is that adding this type of information would funnel sales to the publishers who provided it. It would do this because the vast majority of parents care about what their kids read.

    It would funnel more sales to books that met SVP criteria that more parents were okay with. Which would then prompt both publishers and authors to provide more of the same. I think any publisher who starts doing this will realize an advantage. But you’re right–they’d need to test it.

    As for ALA, according to their statement, the ALA objects to ratings “as a means of advising parents concerning their opinions of the contents and suitability or appropriate age.”

    Ratings like the MPAA film ratings advise parents who should watch films based on age. “R” is not suitable for children. Such ratings prescribe suitability. SVP does not prescibe anything. It just reflects content levels. Parents have to decide for themselves what is suitable for their children. It’s a neutral framework.

    Furthermore, despite the organization’s official stance, it does not match up with the behavior of school librarians. Schools, as opposed to many public libraries, still use content measure to select books for their collections. And those content measures vary from community to community. SVP would only help those librarians.

  8. Gamila says:

    There are a lot of book review sites that provide content ratings. One that sound the most like what you really want out of a review system is called the literate mother. http://www.theliteratemother.org/

    Check it out. It may help.

  9. H says:

    THANK YOU for this post. I’ve thought for a long while now that books (not just YA books…EVERY book) need content labels, and can’t understand why publishers and authors are so against them (including my own very well-known publisher.)

    What’s wrong with giving people more information about what they read? I don’t know of anyone who’d get rid of nutritional labels from their food–and aren’t books how you feed your soul? Like you, I decided that publishers & authors are afraid that once people realize the content of the book, like the calories on a restaurant menu, people won’t want to eat the food. Pretty squirrelly.

    Thanks for taking on this topic, you articulate it well. I don’t see publishers agreeing to it anytime soon (they’re too insecure, sadly), but I wonder if there’ll be a movement among the indie writers to put content labels on their own books. A lot of the writers don’t seem to mind rating their online & fan fiction.

  10. John Brown says:

    Gamila,

    Ooh, that site looks good. Thanks!

    H,

    I agree. Simple data labels.

  11. Maureen says:

    It would also avoid authors getting a lot of blowback for their publishers’ marketing decisions. For example, I’m still mad at the author of Bridge to Terabithia, because I was given the impression I was going to be reading a children’s fantasy novel, not a children’s issues book about death. I will never be able to read any of Paterson’s work, because my childhood rage at being cheated is still so deep. A simple contents label would have avoided that.

  12. John Brown says:

    Maureen,

    A lot of people think this is just for adults. But you’re right–it would be useful to kids. I know all my daughters, who are massive readers, select and filter on these things. It’s not mom and dad policing thing. It’s initiated by my girls themselves. And they feel just as you did when they’re let down.

  13. J M Brown says:

    I certainly agree that much of the sex and other themes in many YA novels have become gratuitous. I also absolutely agree that parents should know what their kids are reading. Let’s honestly recognize that many (most?) parents won’t bother. They will say they do, but when it comes down to it they won’t have time, even if they have the intention.

    Sometimes the more adult themes seen in YA are well done and ‘fitting’, but that is MY opinion, and I never expect anyone to share it.

    A rating system would be helpful. It would give parents the quick answer they need. They shouldn’t be going for the quick answer, but they will. That is reality.

    The kids-in-mind system looks ideal. The ratings there have great potential, but it always comes down to WHO is doing the ratings. Who decides if a ‘make-out’ session deserves a ‘4’ or a ‘6’? What rating to we give the word ‘crap’, and who decides that? And while it is more complicated (and admittedly, potentially more useful) than a simple G, PG, R, X system, that won’t prevent it from being treated as one.

    I almost never agree with the publishing industry, but this one time I do. A ratings system for books will function just like a ratings system for movies. Libraries and schools and bookstores (if there are any left) will be pressured (eventually compelled) not to carry books rated “R” or the equivalent. Take a look at the Texas School Book controversy, where a single group of half-a-dozen reviewers in that state have vastly undue influence on the content of all textbooks, nationwide. Adult themes will creep into the “PG” (or equivalent) category like has happened with movies, reducing the value of the rating system itself. Finally, while I personally believe there is too much sex and profanity in most current YA, occasionally it fits just right, and those books will be much harder to find.

    Some say that censorship is a word that only applies when imposed by the government. I disagree.

  14. E.S. Ivy says:

    I was pointed here by the Passive Voice blog and I’m glad I clicked over and read the whole thing. So nice to see a rational *discussion* about this. The difficulty for teachers and parents of multiple fast-readers is one of volume. Having a rating on a book would simply let me know if I need to go check out the content and have a discussion with my child.

    And as a kid I would have *loved* this. I did not like sad or scary books and was terrified of getting caught up in a book that would keep me up at night.

  15. John Brown says:

    JM,

    The thing I like about this is that it doesn’t suggest what’s appropriate for an audience as the R, PG, PG-13 system does. It only marks levels. You decide. As for school libraries, they already have strict standards. They vary from place to place, but school librarians already do this. This would help in those decisions, which would vary from community to community.

  16. Daron Fraley says:

    John,

    This is what you are looking for. The site used to be called Squeaky Clean Reads. But they have almost all the things you mentioned, including searches (the link I am enclosing goes to the search page).

    http://www.compassbookratings.com/reviews/index.php/review/psearch/rating

  17. Michael Gordon says:

    I’ll give my two cents. I think something is needed, but a scaled rating system I believe is not good. A quantifying system is better, in my opinion.

    IMDB, like JohnW said works, but I am thinking more factual with less detail (if that makes sense, but hopefully it will as I explain it).

    These are books for crying out loud. It’s so easy to list with a word search of the manuscript: Profanity: 121 uses of G*D; 97 F-words . . .
    Or to note during editing:
    Sexual/Nudity: 11 with 7 explicit (containing nudity and sex acts) S/N Breakdown: 4 references; 2 scenes with nudity, but no sex; 2 self-pleasuring; 2 oral sex acts; 3 full sex acts . . .
    Sexual Violence: Rape . . .
    Violence: Body Count…. and so on.

    I would have a pretty good idea, about if I wanted to read that book or not, by using my own judgment and not having to rely on others opinions I don’t know and who have no idea what my values are. IMDB does a decent job at letting you know what content is present, but bias is rampant and it can also kill the story/movie with spoilers. When just the data is presented spoilers are not given and story’s integrity would remain, but you can get the general feel and tone.

    Holly mentioned the Hays Code. This is my other reason I am against any system that is a scaled rating. Rating systems become flawed and a power unto themselves eventually. IMO, any rating scale (notice scale, NOT list) is subject to more bias and prejudice–they always have been by nature of their creation.

    Now to be honest, I believe a rating system would work . . . initially . . . but then it would start to fail once society polarizes it with money and special interests. Too many have an agenda. There is nothing wrong with opinion and free speech. Yet, with a fact count system the argument becomes more about making someone’s opinion look ludicrous when they try to deny facts–the evidence is counted in the book, not opinionated on. As Joe Friday in Dragnet used to say when interviewing witnesses who kept interpreting things, “All we want are the facts, ma’am.”

  18. John Brown says:

    Daron,

    Looks good. Alas, like so many others it has such a small selection. I searched for a number of popular titles just to see what they had, like Hunger Games etc., and there was nothing. But it’s certainly a resource to use. Thanks for the link!

    Michael,

    I like the quantifying system idea. Just expose the data. However, I don’t see why you can’t use both. Kids-in-Mind does exactly that. If you can quantify, you can create a scale based on that. Or am I missing something?

  19. H says:

    Sorry, I thought I’d poke my head in again, to remind people that this is nothing like the Hays code. The Hays code forced the screenwriters/studios to change content to fit their guidelines. SVP labels don’t make anyone change anything. I’ve had stuff I’ve worked on rated by MPAA & ESRB and I’ve never felt censored in the least. The SVP is even freer than that, not ratings, just pointing out what’s inside.

    Whether people agree with content labels or not, they have to admit that this is a problem. There is NOTHING out there I can recommend for my mom, a voracious reader, because there are so many books she’s tried and has put down in disgust b/c of sex scenes…not even a “Christian” label on a book has been a good enough heads up. She quit visiting the adult section of the library years ago. I even know people who quit reading fiction or won’t try anything new anymore. There needs to be a solution.

  20. John Brown says:

    Thanks, H.

    Hays sounded like a PRESCRIPTIVE program. MPAA etc. is DESCRIPTIVE, yet prescriptive in suggested audience. SVP takes away the suggested audience and is simply descriptive.

  21. Shad says:

    This is an incredibly well-reasoned post. Thank you!

    I remember the last time this all blew up online (YA Saves) I got so frustrated with all the pinheads yelling at each other that I just gave up on the whole subject. You may have found a rational common ground that everyone can live with.

    Authors can scream and yell about being “censored” and “stereotyped” if you’re trying to judge their book’s intentions and worth, but they can’t really dispute the fact that there’s an F-word in their book. If you focus on merely exposing a book’s content without judging it, using empirical data, it gives the reader/parental screener the info they need without censoring anything.