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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Should Romance Come With a Warning?

Recently I was looking at reviews for The Heart of a Duke, the collaborative novel I wrote with Christi Caldwell, Aileen Fish, Robin Delany, and Olivia Kelly when I got sidetracked reading random reviews for other authors' books. One comment that stood out to me was the idea of rating books like we do movies. It made me stop and ask myself a few questions.

As a reader, would I find a rating system helpful in choosing books? Would it provide the right information I would need to make a decision about a book? If a system was put into place, who would be responsible for rating the books? Would it delay books hitting the shelves, or virtual shelves? How would the ratings be defined? Could this lead to censorship and regulation of what is available to readers?

With language like 'contains nothing that would offend parents whose young children view the motion picture' and 'a sterner warning to parents', the movie rating system seems more like a guide for parents rather than adults choosing a movie for themselves.

Doesn't the publishing industry already address that issue? There are children's books, Young Adult, and Adult categories as a general guide.

Here are the basic ratings for movies:
G (General audiences) - Nothing adult themed, no cursing, no sex, no violence, no nudity.

PG (Parental Guidance Suggested) - There may be some breif nudity, profanity, and violence. No drug use.

PG13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some Material May be Inappropriate for Children Under Age 13) - More than brief nudity, but not sexually oriented. Depictions of violence, but not realistic, extreme, or persistent. Single use of sexually-derived expletive. May depict drug use.

R (Restricted. Children Under 17 Require Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian) - Adult themes. Adult activity. Hard language. Intense or persistent violence. Sexually-oriented nudity. Drug abuse.

NC17 (No One 17 and Under Admitted) - Appropriate only for adult audience. Can be based on violence, sex, abberational behavior, drug abuse, or any other element that most parents consider too strong.

I'm not sure a rating system like the one above would be helpful to me as a reader. It seems too general. I don't think a rating would tell me what I really want to know before picking up a book. For example, I don't like violence against women, children, or other vulnerable people, but a fistfight or shootout between a good guy and a bad guy is okay. It's not the level of gore for me either, so much as the level of cruelty inflicted on the helpless. (In fact, it doesn't even have to be physical violence to bother me. It could be mental or emotional abuse.) So a PG13 or R rating wouldn't necessarily help me identify those particular books I might want to avoid, and it could keep me from reading a book I would enjoy.

What about smooching and stuff?

Readers view sexual content in books differently. Some don't want any sexual activity--not even a suggestion. Some are okay with sexual activity, but they only want it to be between married couples. Some are just fine with explicit sex scenes, but they aren't into alternative lifestyles. Some readers are cool with whatever.

Spicey 

Judging a book by its cover is okay! 

Heat levels are often apparent by the cover and seem more helpful than a rating, in my opinion. Blind-folds, handcuffs, and three people on the cover are good signs you might be in for a wilder read. A book with a couple partially undressed in bed is very likely to have steamy love scenes. A Regency with everyone fully dressed in traditional clothing (or an innocent-looking object on the cover) is probably a sweet read with nothing more than a kiss and a romantic declaration at the end.


Sweet

Certain publishing Imprints and Lines can also tell you what to expect, such as Ellora's Cave. EC has anywhere from Cotillion Traditional Regency Romance to very hot. If a publisher doesn't have different lines that gives an idea of what to expect, there are always search categories on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, etc.

Ask the experts.

There are many book blogs to read, and reader reviews online. Even better, visit your local Indie bookstore. They provide great personalized service and can often make recommendations based on what you like or tell you what to avoid if you know something isn't your cup of tea. And there is always your friendly librarian to go to with questions.

Anyway, my view is obviously slanted toward not finding a rating system for books helpful, but that's just my opinion. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Rating system for books? Yes, No, It depends. (If you leave a comment and include your email, I'll draw a name to receive reader's choice of one of my books. Be sure to tell me if you want spicy or sweet. Open internationally. If you would like to view my backlist to see what book you would like to win, here is my website.) 

29 comments:

  1. The book seller in me wants that rating system. As the only romance reader in the store it tends to fall on me to help readers who want various romances. For the most part I’m very good at what I do as I read a wide varity of romances that go from blazing to sweet. The trouble comes in when someone views an author like Robyn Carr as being too steamy (when I would define most of her books as sweet), I then have to scramble to find authors with a lot less steam to them ie Debbie Macomber ish. The other issue is dealing with teens who want to read the latest buzz books a la 50 Shades and knowing and that they shouldn’t read them and yet it is perfectly legal to sell these books to them. Romance over the last five or six year has gained in steam levels, there are several go to sweet authors but in some cases it is hard to tell with new authors. I tend to lean towards reviews when I stumble across questions regarding their steam style. I personally read just about anything, but so many are just set in their ways.

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    1. I commend your work as a bookseller! I worked VERY briefly in a bookstore and it was amazing how subjective and varied people's views were on different books (and mine was a Christian bookseller so add in religious fervor and you can probably guess why my employment was brief!).

      I do think if you are a savvy reader or familiar with the romance genre it's fairly easy to see which books are "steamy" and which are "clean" or "Sweet." Then like you said, some people's version of sweet varies widely. For readers who walk in and need a lot of hand-holding, I don't know that a rating system would help either. You have people walk out of movies all the time because of XYZ when movie trailers and reviews are widely available. Ratings exist and yet people are still shocked by swearing/sex/violence in a rated R movie.

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    2. I know it must be tough being the only romance reader in the store, but you're so good at selling books. I know your customers get personalized service. I think you hit upon a problem with how subjective things can be. One person's sweet can be another's steamy.

      If there was a rating system, how would you set it up? Would it be similar to the movie rating system?

      I wonder even if there was a way to keep teens from buying certain books if they wouldn't find another way to read them. With all the pirating going on, I imagine they could get hold of a copy easily. :(

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    3. I'm not sure how I'd set it up, but I do know that I have a system I use that seems to work. It helps that I"m independent and tend to know the vast majority of our regular customers. I know that I'm not going to sell someone who reads Fern Michaels a Jennifer Probst book......but I might consider suggesting a Brenda Novak. Then there are those authors whose books are not all that steamy and yet the steam is still there, like Jill Shalvis. That's when selling gets tough. Historical Romance is actually the toughest to figure out, while I know someone like Mary Balogh is going to be mild in steam, someone like Lisa Kleypas might not be. I've also found that with historical romance it is not necessarily the author it could be based via the book itself. I know most authors write in terms of what the plot calls for, and one storyline could call for increased steam, and another might call for next to none.

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  2. Even if there's a rating system for books out there I don't know if that would really solve the problem. It might help. However, I wouldn't probably look at the warning. Actually some books to come with warnings about sexual content. I think readers should be diligent on the things they like and don't like to avoid things like this. I think it would help if readers got to know what lines the publisher produces are OMG turn a fan books or that was a sweet read.

    I also believe the information is out there. I know that there are a lot of book bloggers that will put sensuality content rating. I personally put that in the tag lines. I have also use the words sweet, innocent, and clean in a review. However, it's been awhile since I have read one of those books. Anyway, I'm going off topic. Will it help a warning label help probably not.

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    1. I think including the sensuality level in reviews can be helpful. Then again, I just shake my head sometimes. One Amazon review might say a book is too sexually explicit and the next will say there's not enough sex. LOL

      But becoming familiar with reviewers and their tastes can be helpful in choosing a book. Sometimes I'll look up books I liked or didn't like to find reviewers who share a similar view, then I look at other reviews they have written to see what books I might enjoy too.

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  3. I only read inspirational fiction and classics until about two years ago, so my views on this might differ than someone else. I recently read a blog where they picked their favorite regency authors and they said Mary Balogh wrote sweet romances, but having read most of her books, I don't know if I would term them as "sweet". So I guess my point is, what is sweet for someone, might not be sweet for another person. I know some blogs and websites have heat ratings that come with descriptions so you know if there is just kissing, sex between a married couple or a whole lot more. I am not sure if a national/worldwide rating system would work because like you said, Samantha, even the movie ratings are very basic and you may be fine with one R movie versus another depending on why it was rated that way.
    I know just recently I was discussing a book online with someone, we both read the same book and both really liked it but our reasons for liking the book were completely different. She called the book steamy and naughty and I called that same book very emotionally engaging and I hardly think about the bedroom scenes when I talk about it. So again it is an individual thing.
    It's all so very interesting and I could probably go on and on about it, but I won't.

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    1. That's a great example of how people's vocabularies might not match either. When I think of Mary Balogh, I don't think sweet because sweet means no sexual content in my mind. However, her stories can be emotional, so maybe they are sweet in that sense, but the word means something different in romance circles.

      I agree, it's such an interesting conversation. I'm enjoying reading the well thought out responses from everyone. :)

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  4. Great post with a lot of good thoughts. I see this a lot in YA, and there's definitely a difference in what parents object to and what teens do. Just look at any year's collection of banned books (sigh). I don't think ratings will help in YA, though I wholly support any parents decision to review a book prior to having their kids read it. I think busy parents want someone to do that work for them, but again, someone else's idea of "mature" or "clean" is not always going to mesh. A strict Mormon family is probably going to view "clean" books differently than someone of a more relaxed, or no faith.

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    1. I can just imagine how complicated it must be to navigate the YA genre. I give lots of credit to those authors who write it. It was similar for one of my friends who used to write Inspirational romance. There were things that absolutely had to be in the stories and things that couldn't be. I think overall, the historical romance group is fairly forgiving, although there are some very strict traditionalists that have objections to certain practices, etc. in books. When they are vocal about it, that helps others who think like them to know if a book is traditional or more modern.

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  5. I try to remember to put a heat rating on all my books. (Certainly I have a spot reserved on my cover templates.) When I wrote my first book, I was bowled over when Ellora's Cave called it "mild" because I was embarrassed by how hot I'd written. Then I read some of the other stuff EC handles, and had to agree.

    Since we're just talking sexual situations here, I think the rating system (and yes, there should be one, because I HATE to pick up an erotic novel accidentally and consider it [sorry, erotic authors] a waste of my hard-earned money. While others of course want to target only such) should be standardized around that: sweet, making out, a few glossed-over sex scenes, (here we switch to over-18 levels) a few explicit sex scenes, a lot of explicit sex scenes, a little explicit non-vanilla stuff going on, a lot of explicit non-vanilla stuff going on. I was just requesting a review over on InD'tale, and noticed that they have a fairly well-defined "flame" rating that seems like a good start to sorting books.

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    1. We did kind of slide into sexual situations here, didn't we? lol You know, I just finished reading the Rita entries sent for me to judge and I had 3 erotic romance books on my panel. Honestly, the heat level was so varied that I didn't think lumping them all under the category erotic was accurate. Even authors don't seem to be able to agree on what is erotic.

      Once I picked up a book with disturbing violence in it I didn't expect. I remember being irritated because the summary and cover led me to believe it was going to be a light read, but it was far from light, and I wasn't in the mindset to read a serious book like that.

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  6. Really interesting post! I write two different heat levels under different names. I always try to warn people who like "Suzanne's" books that "Susannah's" books are darker, have language and some sexual content (R, but not NC17). I tend to go by either the publisher or the author or the genre to establish expectations.

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    1. I think it's important for authors to stay true to their brand. Readers begin to expect a certain type of story and when it's different, it's disconcerting. I like that you use two different names for work that has a different tone and heat level.

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  7. Samantha I really like the idea of a rating system. I think it's a great idea and we as readers who like it ought to keep the idea out there so that maybe publishers will get the hint. Great blog posts, and I miss you ladies! And there are some great ideas here. I love reading the comments.

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    1. We miss you too, Suzie! I'm so glad you stopped by to visit us today. I was just thinking how it would probably be helpful for my publisher to have different lines for their adult romance. It can be anywhere from Jane Austen type books to hot, hot, hot. Of course, I still think I can tell the difference from the covers. Bare-chested man = sexy times. :)

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  8. Like you said I don't know if a general rating system would work. People's definitions vary so much, it would be tough to find a happy median.
    I do though like when I see heat ratings and recommended age ratings on books. As a parent I am always wondering if a YA is ok for my 10 yr old or more for my 14 yr old. Luckily I have a lot of great blogger friends that I can count on for info.

    fsteph55(at)yahoo(dot)com

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    1. Steph,
      Friend recommendations can be another great source of information. I'm more concerned with what my kids might read than myself. As an adult, I'm mature enough to process what I read without being scarred emotionally, but I don't want my kids exposed to situations before they are capable of dealing with it.

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  9. I will have to say quite frankly, No, that kind of rating for romance books will definitely not work. Because in romance there are so many things that can happen to drive the story and couple forward to their HEA, and giving it restrictions do to the guidelines of the rating system will just make the romance blahhh!!! And I like my heroes and heroines to have troubles and some tortured souls which thereby may have some of the inappropriate situations a part if their lives.

    So rating them like a movie will definitely not work.

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    1. Ki,
      I love a woman who knows her mind! :D

      I do think there is a risk of all the stories beginning to sound the same when there are guidelines and restrictions imposed. I think that's one of the reasons indie publishing has been well-received by a lot of readers. Before, publishers were the ones deciding what readers wanted to read and what was made available. Now there is a lot more choice.

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  10. I do generally go by the cover, as you suggest. Unfortunately, not all books have covers that imply the type of sexual content. I wouldn't mind seeing some sort of heat rating, as I've seen on some of the blogs, as long as it isn't used to restrict what a person is allowed to buy.
    jmcgaugh (at) semo (dot) edu

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    1. I wonder if it would be helpful at all for authors to say what the heat level is for their books on their websites. My full-length novels have sensual love scenes and my novellas have no sex scenes. The problem is some readers say the sex scenes in my novels are too explicit for them and others say they aren't hot enough, so I'm not even sure how to rate my heat level. :)

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  11. I think it would be helpful as long as censorship doesn't get involved. I'd hate it if I were suddenly not able to buy certain books due to a rating system. It's hard enough now being an international reader.
    As a reader of romance books I'm not really fussed as long as it's well written.

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    1. I would hate to see someone else making decisions about what I'm allowed to buy or write, too. Thanks for popping by and sharing the perspective of an international reader. :)

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  12. Don't really need a rating system; would like to see clearer blurbs and descriptions/warnings

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    1. bn100candg at hotmail dot com

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  13. Until now I haven't done any book review with ratings. It is so subjective. Each of us come from such different backgrounds. What seems repulsive to one may seem normal and acceptable to another. I'm not sure that readers really need to know in advance through a review how it is rated. I'm thinking that each author writes a certain genre with the amount of sex, drug abuse, or extreme behavior. The reader will gravitate to what pleases them. Typically, I enjoy YA or NA better than something that shows me the gore of humanity. If I pick an author and read the book and DON'T enjoy because of something I don't enjoy reading about, I won't pick up the author again. I believe that warnings may suffice from the reviewer.

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    1. I think you make some good points, Eileen. I know I won't read an author again if they write something I don't enjoy. It's not a reflection on the author's abilities, but it's just not my cup of tea. :)

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