Should Books Have Content Ratings?

Content ratings. Should books have them or shouldn’t they? (Tweet this)

I’m not talking about one-star or five-stars. I’m talking about G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17 . . . content ratings and warnings on the back like every DVD has. Even music has the “explicit” warning. Video games and TV shows have ratings. It seems the standard for entertainment, yet in books, you pick up the most recent “NY Times Bestseller” that you’ve heard so many AMAZING things about . . . and find yourself in a steamy bedroom scene or a scene of violence with the “F” word every other sentence.


Should Books Have Content Ratings

What do others say about this?

Why is the entertainment industry okay letting teenagers read rated R (and sometimes rated X) books, but they keep them out of the rated R movies? Frankly, I want the ratings for me. I want to be warned about what I’ll encounter in Gone Girl when I picked it up in ignorance.

A while back, I wrote a review for a young adult dystopian book called Ship Breaker. The story was intriguing and fantastic, but I mentioned in my review that there was a LOT of swearing. A ton of it, actually. A commenter then accused me of having zero tolerance.

But see … a movie that is PG-13 is only allowed two usages of the “F word.” Anything more than that and it has to be rated R. So Ship Breaker, if it had been a movie, it would be rated R just for the language.

What reader opinions are out there?

After I wrote this post, my friend Katie Grace pointed out a few other blog posts that tackled this topic. Ana believes there should be ratings because books have just as much power as movies to affect us. This post by Emily agrees with her. Meanwhile, Heather says there shouldn’t be content ratings on books. She not only digs into her reasoning, but she also gives some good history on ratings and the MPAA. This post by Aimee agrees with her. (I just want to point out that all these posts are done by young teen bloggers. Aren’t they brilliant?)

Are ratings required?

Ratings are not mandated by law. They are voluntary, but a lot of theaters won’t accept movies that are unrated. Why? Probably because their viewers want to know what the rating is. I know I do. Slapping a rating on something isn’t censoring it, it’s providing the viewer, gamer, reader, listener with information that might help them choose what will fit their tastes and tolerances.

My beef

My main problem with this lack of book ratings is inconsistency in the entertainment business. Books are a form of entertainment, and one of the only ones without ratings. (Tweet this) If I want to go watch a movie, I’ll hop on IMDB and check the rating. Ta-da. Decision made. If I want to read a book, then I have to scour the internet for a blogger who might have the same preferences as me who ends up sharing the violent parts. It takes a lot of searching, a lot of reading reviews. And by that point, I’ve probably run across some spoilers I didn’t want to know and the book is half-ruined by the time I buy it.

I’d much rather be able to flip it over and see a PG-13 for violence, nudity, and language. Ta-da. Decision made without spoilers. It’s that easy.

Or is it?

Arguments against ratings.

Why Aren't Books Rated for Content – Some people claim that books have the liberty to be more realistic in the writing, which may come out as raw and real to the reader. I agree. I hear the F word out in the everyday, but that doesn’t mean I want to find it in a book I’m reading. While some readers pick up a book to see another take on what’s “realistic” other readers might pick it up to escape that realism. They might want to enter a world that’s a little brighter, cleaner, and filled with more shalom than what they encounter in every day’s reality. A rating would give the reader the option to choose.

 – Some people say that by rating a book we’re flirting with book banning. I don’t see it that way. It’s information, it’s not making it a rule that readers under 13 can’t pick up a book. We could simply get rid of the PG-13 part and just say, Contains some mature violence and language. I’m not suggesting that we start limiting what people are allowed to pick up and read. I’m suggesting the industry stay consistent with categorizing books into different maturity levels. 

 – Some are afraid that if books are rated, then that means bookstores and libraries would start to pick and choose what to carry based on rating. But bookstores aren’t ignorant to the content of books. Bookstores and libraries are a bit different because of the freedom of the press. Yes, it’s a business and bookstore owners are going to try to carry the books that sell the best.

Well guess what? They do that already. They are already picking and choosing because they have to. There’s not enough shelf space for everyone.

The author’s goal

Authors want to reach their intended readers. For me, that’s young adults and adults who like clean, but sometimes gritty Christian dystopian. I frequently tell parents, “I recommend my book for ages 15-and-up.” This helps readers know if the book might be for them. A parent isn’t going to give it to their 7-year-old (I hope.)

Ratings aren’t required, not on movies, not on books, but why wouldn’t an author want to help their readers find them?

“But what if my book is clean except for that one explosion of F-words?” It will find your readers. I don’t watch rated R movies, but I watched The King’s Speech and I still recommend it to people with the brief disclaimer that there’s one string of profanity. It’s now widely known and watched among families.

I want ratings, but they don’t exist. Now what?

Well, I plan to go through my Goodreads book reviews and add some ratings per my observations. But since I’m a practical person who knows that I can’t change the entire industry with a single blog post, I can point you to websites like Common Sense Media, Rated Reads, and Parental Book Reviews.


What do you think? Should books have ratings? (Tweet this) Why or why not?




About Nadine Brandes

Nadine Brandes is an adventurer, fusing authentic faith with bold imagination. She never received her Hogwarts letter, but rest assured she’s no Muggle (and would have been in Ravenclaw House, thank you very much.) This Harry Potter super-nerd has been known to eat an entire package of Oreos (family size) by herself, and watches Fiddler on the Roof at least once a year. She writes about brave living, finding purpose, and other worlds soaked in imagination. Her dystopian trilogy (The Out of Time Series) challenged her to pursue shalom, which is now her favorite word (followed closely by bumbershoot.) When Nadine’s not taste-testing a new chai or editing fantasy novels, she and her knight-in-shining armor (nickname: “hubby”) are out pursuing adventures.
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  1. I agree 100% that books should have a rating system. Even podcast have ratings now. When I pick up a Stephen King novel, I know that I’m going to read a book that has the potential to have some strong language. I have a pre-conceived idea and expect it. So it doesn’t bother me as much because I know the authors habits.

    However, I’m a fan of Stephen King and for me, I can overlook the language because I’m engaged in the story. But there are some books I go into, with no pre-conceived idea, and I’m blasted with language or the F-Word. Now I’m not saying that Stephen King should be able to get away with it and others can’t- But what I am saying is “I know ahead of time he will use that language.” Knowing helps prepare the mind. I knew when I watched the Passion that it was going to be a little graphic. It had an R rating and I was prepared.

    My sister-in-law is an avid Romance reader. She loves Hallmark. But more and more she comes across novels that are marketed at mainstream Romance, but are really Erotica in nature. Everything from the synopsis, to cover art, makes it sound like a great Hallmark Channel style Romance story. But what it’s really Erotic masked as Romance. This is deceptive yes- But it happens. Which is why I think Inspirational Romance continues to be a big sale.

    To me it all come down to preparing your mind and you can’t when you don’t know.

    • I didn’t know podcasts had ratings, too! That’s good to know.

      Also, I agree with your statement that it’s just nice to know ahead of time what you might encounter in a novel.

  2. I agree. Books should have ratings and content warnings. With all of the swearing and other innappropriate things in books nowadays, I am hesitant to pick up anything but a Christian book because I don’t want to go into a book not knowing if there is bad language.

  3. This is a really interesting topic!

    One thing to consider is that what’s graphic to one reader (with a very visual imagination, who will fill in information) may NOT be graphic to another reader (who doesn’t tend to visualize as much and only imagines what they directly read). With a movie, it’s the same level of graphic to everyone because you can SEE it. So violence may be difficult to measure, as may sexuality. Is it sexually graphic to say, “He pulled her into the bedroom and they began to undress. [end of scene]” Well…that may entirely depend on the reader’s imagination! Should we rate books according to the number of times a sexual act is mentioned or alluded to, or only on what’s described vividly on the page? Etc. Some parents, especially, may have issues with even things mentioned! But then very clean books may get higher ratings just because a character says once, “We slept together.” It’s very tricky.

    Personally I lean toward the concept of rating books, though. Maybe on Amazon and Goodreads, people could leave a “suggested rating” with each review – then you’d get the general consensus up foront and also be able to see the breakdown of what percentages think it’s a PG and what percentages think PG-13, just like with the star rating system. It wouldn’t be a hard and fast RATING from any official source, but it would give a general idea of how people perceive the book’s maturity level.

    • You make a very good point, Bethany. I think that’s why I’m realizing my preference would probably change to having a list of “mature content” on the back instead of just slapping a rating on.

      Let’s you and I start leaving “suggested ratings” on our reviews, eh? 😉

  4. I’d like to see book ratings, or maybe not ratings but content warnings. (Warning: Contains f words and sex) I know one of Bryan Davis’s recent books had a scene he considered graphic, so in the front, he had an author’s note telling parents what page it was on so they could read it before giving it to their children.
    I think a warning would help authors get more positive reviews. I recently gave a book two stars because of dozens of f-bombs and lesbian romance. If I’d seen a warning about the book before reading, I could have skipped it and saved it from a negative rating. (I keep a goodreads and shelfari list for myself, and I rate everything I read.) I’m also afraid to take a risk on an unknown secular author, so I’ll avoid buying a book if it looks like it could be nasty. I’ve also heard stories of people being burned by certain books and then avoiding anything they thought might be bad.
    In the movie industry, ratings are getting messed up because they’ve started to mean target audience, or at least that’s what it feels like. Back in the old days, adult movies were sometimes rated G. (Planet of the Apes has swearing and violence yet got a G rating. Now it would get PG-13.) Now, the only G movies are ones directed at kids younger than eight, while PG is the book equivalent to middle grade, and PG-13 seems to mean YA. Since books already have a listed target audience, I think they’d be safer from falling into the rating issue movies fell into. Currently, Matched, which was quite clean, is in the same age group as Ship Breaker. (I don’t recall f words in Ship Breaker, but it, and the sequel, are some of the darkest books I’ve read.) Books like this being grouped together tends to make things confusing for readers.
    Also, I think maybe the publishers could do the ratings/warnings. It may not be as consistent as the MPA, but it would probably be a better marketing choice. (If it was warnings, not ratings, it would have less bias. “Contains ten f-words” wouldn’t have much bias to it.)
    Censorship is possible, but is it really right to try to sneak past adults to let their kids see things they don’t want their kids to see? Even worse, some adults only let their children read books from trusted authors, so their kids miss out on a lot of books since parents have no way to know if the secular books are clean enough for their kids.

    • That was brilliant on Bryan Davis’s part. Makes me wish I’d done that with my books. Hm…maybe with future books. 🙂

      And as for your other comment about the two-star review, I do that, too. When I’m expecting something clean and a tight story then get blasted with something I don’t enjoy reading, my review turns subjective because I felt “tricked” and thus garners a lower rating.

      Some people are afraid that a content rating would be too subjective, but we review books solely on subjectivity anyway. Is there really that big of a difference?

      • You could always have a “content advisory” page on your website. If I ever get published, I might do that. At the very least, it would let fans know what’s in the next book before they buy it.

  5. To me, the trouble is that movie ratings are semi-useless. For one – the ratings encompass too much: example, PG-13 violence might be too much for me but PG-13 language might get a pass. And for another, it’s crazy what movie-makers can sneak under a rating. I have very little faith in Hollywood’s ratings. So while I find ratings useful for a vague guideline, I always read pluggedin’s reviews first and then decide.

    Plus I have major issues with how regulated and controlling we allow our country to be on certain things. We’re busy handing our rights and responsibilities over and being too lazy to do things ourselves. It strays dangerously close to censorship and adding books to the pile isn’t helping. Frankly, if it’s Christian fiction, I expect a level of cleanness that I would not expect in secular fiction. So if I choose to read secular fiction, I can either expect “the sky’s the limit” in contents or forewarn myself of what to expect by reading the reviews. And that’s also why I believe we have a responsibility to leave honest reviews on the books we read – even if what we have to say is negative. (Hence why I don’t believe in “never leave a negative review”) We should say “the writing was good but I, personally, found the language excessive”. People like the commenter who think you have zero tolerance should ignore that aspect of the review. But the people who avoid language in literature will thank you ten times over for you mentioning that in your review.

    • Yeah, the ratings are being stretched further and further.

      And I’m right there with you — I totally leave negative reviews (and I hope readers will leave a negative review on my book if they feel it earned one!) I much prefer honesty and transparency.

  6. I think that author disclosure, like the one mentioned in the comments by Bryan Davis, makes the most sense to me. I know that leaves it up to the discretion of the author, but I think that could help build readers’ trust. I know that there are a few YA books that I would have liked to known were littered with f-bombs, and a few romance books that I would have liked to known were heated instead of sweet. As a reader, I look for key words on the blurb and on the first page of the book to help me decide if I think it’s going to be an R-rated book or not, and I rate them in my head. I consider my Christian fantasy novels to be PG-13 for action violence because my MC is a swords-woman.

  7. Interesting topic, Nadine. Let it never be said that you’re afraid to tackle tough issues!

    I’m of two minds. I can see both sides of the issue. I have picked up a book because it was recommended by someone whose opinion I deeply respect. The first page of the prologue was so filled with F-bombs that I closed the book and never looked back. I now take that person’s recommendations with a grain of salt, knowing his ideas of a good book do not match mine.

    I’ve also been surprised by a novel by a respected author that doesn’t fit what I’ve come to expect from that author. In that case, the character was so unlikable, I just couldn’t connect.

    My point is that ratings probably will never do as much for readers as the recommendations of other people whom the reader respects. Yes, even those can steer a reader wrong, but by and large, they are more informative than a rating system put together by a “faceless committee”.

    I respect your book reviews because you’re honest about where you stand, what you believe, and what you consider acceptable. If you say a book is graphic or violent or has excessive language, I probably won’t read it.

    If you say a book is clean and uplifting, I’m more likely to give it a try.

    Authors do have a responsibility to be honest with potential readers. Especially new authors. If they write erotica, they need to call it erotica. Deceit by any name is rarely ever good.

    But readers also have a responsibility. If they find a book to be offensive, they need to alert other readers. I’m not talking about mean reviews or shotgun approach reviews. I’m talking reasoned and specific reviews. “This book contains excess language or graphic violence” for example.

    Also listen to the buzz, especially with bestsellers.

    The absolute best solution so far as I’m concerned would be for someone (or a group of people) to start a blog or website whose sole purpose is to provide this kind of information for readers. Yes, it would be a big undertaking and would require “beta” readers from all genres and categories in order to be truly helpful. But it seems like the best solution to the problem if readers and authors aren’t going to take personal responsibility.

    • Yes, personal recommendations carry more weight than a simple content rating, which causes me to believe we should start including such things in our book reviews. After all, what’s better than getting a content rating from an author or reader whose opinion you respect and agree with?

  8. Rebekah Gyger

    I don’t think there should be ratings (because those are easily subjective), but disclaimers would be appreciated. There are a lot of books I would like to read, but will not try because I have no idea if there are sex scenes in them. Other times I pick up a book that I end up regretting because I didn’t know what was in it.

    And I have seen reviewers try to mention content that they thought others might like to know about, and then get blasted by people in the comments about censoring and being intolerant. But, just like with movies, it is every person’s right to make their own decisions about what they want to read.

    But disclaimers are not always what I would like to think they should be. A lot of adult romance authors probably believe that their book being a romance novel is enough of a disclaimer that there will be sex in it, when the truth is that there are a lot of “clean” books published under romance. And I know from experience that one persons sweet and clean is not always my sweet and clean. Also, saying violence does not tell me what kind of violence, as I read graphic Holocaust novels but not graphic relational abuse novels.

    All we can do is try to be more honest as authors and as reviewers.

  9. I agree with you there, Nadine, wholeheartedly. My mom reads through every book before I do, unless it comes from a trusted author, because, for one thing, she doesn’t want me seeing that stuff, and for another I don’t want to see that stuff.
    And I have no way of knowing beforehand what content is in it. Maybe if there were maturity notes on the back of books, my mom wouldn’t have so much prereading to do… Although, that’s where all her reading material comes from. 😛

    • My mom did the same thing when I was your age and, though I appreciated it, sometimes it was torture waiting for her to finish the book so I could read it! LOL. What a good mom you have.

  10. I think it would be great if books had ratings like you suggest, it is things like that that I look for when reading book reviews. I think it would be good to be informed of content in books before reading them. It might have made me skip a few which I stopped half way through or almost wish I had not read.

  11. jessicascoullar

    Kind of related. I have been told that libraries and schools won’t take my book as it tackles themes like suicide (book 2) and teen pregnancy and attempted abortion (book 3) but I believe these are issues that kids need to be aware of and need in effect an example to follow when tempted to these sins. I make it very clear in both cases that it is the wrong thing to do. But schools won’t touch it as they fear even the mention of suicide may lead kids to attempt it.
    I suffered suicidal thoughts from the age of fifteen and one of the reasons for putting this in my book is how alone I felt at that time. If I had read a book where the hero was tempted to suicide then I might have felt a bit more normal and less like a freak. Youth suicide is one of the highest causes of death in school aged children but no one dares speak about it with them.
    I would be concerned that a rating scale would not just address swearing and sex but put books with difficult themes out of reach of those who they are intended to reach.
    Would be interested to hear how other authors have gone with getting books into schools and public libraries.

    • Huh. I haven’t really heard of that problem, at least here in the US. That’s surprising to me since so many of the YA books deal with adult issues like that.

      I would think that maybe ratings or disclaimers would help books get into the hands of people they’re supposed to reach because those looking for a book dealing with suicide struggles would then know that yours addresses that.

      A lot of food for thought, Jess.

      As for me, I haven’t tackled the public school or libraries yet with my books. My books get into libraries when readers request them.

  12. I think at least content warnings would be very useful. It would have helped me with a couple books I’ve picked up. But after those experiences, I’m trying to add content warnings to the reviews I write in case other people might be looking for that. Great article!

  13. Pingback: Should Books Have Content Ratings? | Darrick Dean

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  15. I love that you went here! This is something I’ve considered off and on for a while. Actually, when I first jumped into the online world six years ago, I had a concept for a website like this, that would itemize book content the way PluggedIn did for movies. I wrote pages of ideas and structures, including a rating system, but it fell through due to lack of interest and my partners not having any time.

    One problem I had a difficult time getting around when I was drafting the website content was trying to establish the boundaries of the ratings. Like Bethany Jennings mentioned, the boundaries of readership are incredibly fluid and often very arbitrary. People rely on their own worldview and the rules of their family (if they are reading for their child). For example, some people only tolerate certain kinds of violence (historical realism is fine, but the exact same violence in anything non-historical is suddenly terrible). Because it’s so open to interpretation, it’s difficult to nail down what should even be mentioned in violence.

    This is also where the reader-response form of criticism signals a kind of death knell for objective rating systems. Movies are visual. Books hint at things and especially if they are trying to get a broader audience, leave things purposely vague (aka, Veronica Roth’s romantic scenes between Four and Triss in “Insurgent” and “Allegiant.” First time I had to talk to other readers about whether or not the characters actually HAD sex or if she was just so abstract that…whatever). Because the English language is so wonderfully adaptable, it’s impossible to nail down some things and authors like that flexibility. Readers? Maybe not so much, depending on their worldview.

    In the end? Read more reviews and a wider variety of reviews. And realize that sometimes if you want to venture into a new book, there’s a risk, just like walking out of your door. 😉 If you don’t want to take the risk, then don’t. But don’t blame the author for not writing what you want, or the other reviewers for not safeguarding you. That’s not their job.

    • Yup, reading reviews is what helps me buy my books. I learned my lesson jumping into a few NY Times bestsellers for the sake of reading a modern bestseller. 😛

  16. I say absolutely and definitely! I hate spending money on a book and then finding out it’s full of garbage. And as you said, why should there be no problem with teens and younger reading books that, as movies, would be X rated?
    I absolutely agree!

    • Yes!

      Did you know that with Barnes and Noble, if you read a book and hate it (and take care of it) you can return it? I did that once and they happily allowed me to return it and then the cashier asked me about the books I liked, made me a recommendation, and helped me find something better to read! It was so cool…

  17. I agree! I totally wish there were ratings on books, which is why I started a book rating website for parents. 🙂

  18. After reading this article and then through the comments, my opinion is that ratings would be too hard to nail down because of subjectiveness, but I think content warnings would be so, so helpful. It’s true “violence” is pretty general, and I think that’s the one that really depends for me, so I’d prefer to know at least the context of violence (war, abuse, etc.), but other than that it really doesn’t have to be that difficult. Just a few simple mentions. I know I’ve definitely started reading some books that many people raved about only to be disgusted with them or at least greatly displeased. (Looking at you, TFiOS…) I just feel like most people think they shouldn’t/don’t have a “right” to mention things like that in their review or to let it affect their star rating, but in reality, there are people who would really like to know and often have a hard time finding information beforehand!

  19. I totally agree! Many times I see middle graders reading YA because their reading level fits YA but sometimes the content of YA is not appropriate for a middle grader. A few weeks ago, I was at a book festival and I heard parents asking, not only myself, but other authors what the “rating” or “What age is this book for?” We now have ratings on video games that are played by all ages, and along with movies… so why not books, too? I think it would make it so much easier for readers to find books and decide if it is for them or their children and this would encourage sales of books rather than discouraging sales.

  20. Here is another rating service:
    They rate books by giving a rating to each of these seven categories: crude humor/language, profanity, drug and alcohol use, kissing, nudity, sex and intimacy, and violence and horror. The book then gets an overall rating that is the highest rating of the seven categories, but it shows you exactly what the book was rated in each category.

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