Should Books Come With Content Ratings?

Lately I’ve been hearing more and more about how valuable books are that can be considered “slipstream” or simply, books that can be marketed toward multiple markets and genres. On the one hand, this makes total sense to me but, on the other, it can create a lot of confusion.

[Edit for clarity] On average, we receive a few books a week to review and/or promote. Out of these books, the majority of them have misleading marketing (cover art, blurbs, and promotional letters from the editors) that makes it difficult to understand what audience the books are being marketed toward. The following titles are examples of what I’ve been encountering.[End Edit]

Take for example a post-apocalyptic series by author Faith Hunter; my review of Seraphs covered a little bit about my expectations. After reading the back cover and the editor’s letter, I did not expect “angel sex” to be an integral part of the plot but there it was in all its glory. Frankly, I don’t care whether or not an author chooses to write about sex, drugs, or adult themes, but what I do want is the ability to choose a book based on the understanding that that’s what the book contains. In this case, I felt that the sex literally overpowered the rest of the story so much so that I was let down – even though there were other unique setting elements that could have been explored further.

On the flip side a widely-overlooked book, in my opinion, is another book I had reviewed entitled Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert. I had expected to read a paranormal romance novel replete with witches and a victorianesque house—especially after reading the back cover—but this story was not about witchcraft. In fact, it was less of a romance and more of a mystery. (There was only one romantic scene.) Partially inspired by psychic experiments and a re-invention of Alchemy, the novel was fairly “tame” when it came to romance, even though it was integral to the plot and the tension between some of the characters.

Holly Black, who writes Young Adult books like Tithe and Ironside, is an award-winning author. But what does “young adult” really mean? In the books I’ve read there are really mature themes like drugs, sexual confusion, homelessness. To other authors, like in my interview with Tad Williams, it’s best to avoid these topics altogether. Again, it doesn’t matter to me whether or not an author chooses to write about true-to-life issues but, as a reader, I do want the ability to choose what I read. Simply, I want more information about a book, a way to gauge the content of what I’m reading so I can ensure it meets my expectations without having to hunt and peck for reviews and other people’s thoughts.

Music, movies, and video games all have ratings. Why shouldn’t books?

The doomsdayers and the naysayers might tell you that rating books would lead to censorship, that sales would decrease. I completely disagree and, in fact, I would even venture that sales would increase because remember that readers typically read more than one author. If a reader knew by looking at the rating that yes, this zombie book has explicit gore–then they might just compare it to other authors’ ratings in the same genre. Well-read readers already do this by comparing/contrasting authors, why not encourage it through a rating system?

No, the idea of ratings for books isn’t perfect because really, it’s a fix to a much, broader problem. How do you classify or market a slipstream book? What bookstore shelf will you find it on? When will marketing and back cover blurbs improve to more accurately reflect a book’s contents? Will you (author and/or publisher) provide more samples of content that reflects what the book is about? Who has time to read the samples?

If I had to install a book rating system, though, I’d keep it somewhat generic. I’d want to know what genre it could be classified as and how sexual (or how violent) it is. That way, if I wanted to pick up a steamy romance, I’d be able to experiment with new authors or, if I wanted to steer clear of a highly-detailed book about government assassins and their targets, that’d be my choice.

In the end, the idea of a rating system for books is less about what the author writes and more about helping the reader make a better buying decision.

6 Responses to Should Books Come With Content Ratings?

Monica Valentinelli is an author, artist, and narrative designer who writes about magic, mystery, and mayhem. Her portfolio includes stories, games, comics, essays, and pop culture books.

In addition to her own worlds, she has worked on a number of different properties including Vampire: the Masquerade, Shadowrun, Hunter: the Vigil, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, and Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

Looking for Monica’s books and games that are still in print? Visit Monica Valentinelli on Amazon’s Author Central or a bookstore near you.

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