Shannon Stacey

Ratings for romances: yay or nay?

Following a link on Twitter this morning, I read a blog post in favor of a rating system for romances. This has come up before, when erotic romance was hitting the shelves and a major agent called for a rating system. The response was overwhelmingly negative, but I’m not surprised it’s come up again. Not only has erotic romance been embraced by NY, but it often seems as though the heat level has been jacked up across the board.

I’m not opposed to rating systems on principle. As the mother of fourteen and eight-year-old boys, I use the video game ratings several times a week at the rental store. No M for mature games. Period. T for teen games are evaluated on a case by case basis. The PotC game is teen due to the proliferation of rum. That’s okay. Other games, mild bad language. Okay. Yet another, teen due to sexual themes. Not so much, thanks. The same goes for movie ratings.

Not so very long ago, it wasn’t difficult to spot the very sexually explicit romances. They were generally print releases from epublishers and imprints from NY publishers, such as Brava, Aphrodisia and Berkley Heat, almost all trade paperback. Now, it’s a crapshoot. There have been several mass market paperbacks in the last year I’ve read, from publishers I don’t associate with erotic romance, that raised my eyebrows. The line between erotic romance and the merely smokin’ hot is a blurry one.

So why am I opposed to a rating system for romances?

First off, who’s going to bestow these ratings? Who decides what elevates a love scene from two flames to three? Does using anything besides “her portal of love” raise it a flame? How about if the heroine talks dirty rather than thinking of England? Who decides? An RWA committee?


Yeah, that was a joke. But who decides if two guys and a girl automatically make a five flame? Could it be any more subjective?

What about shelving? If they start sticking the non-trademarked equivalent of NC-17 on books, is that going to affect how the bookstores shelve them? Or if they even buy them? Being removed from the romance section is the kiss of death.

Now, imagine the romance section of your favorite brick and mortar bookstore. Ours is Borders. A group of women, heads kinked over to the right, scanning spines. What are they looking for? Authors. Maybe a title or something about that sliver of cover catches their attention and they’ll read the back cover copy. Sometimes, when doing market research, I’m scanning publishers, but I don’t choose my leisure reading by publisher.

Imagine if there was a little sticker on the spine with a rating. Do we want those readers scanning for the ratings? Do we want to tell a reader, before she’s even noted the author or the title, that it’s probably not the book for her? When you put books in boxes, you put the readers in those boxes, too.

I’m going to use Lauren Dane’s Undercover as an example. Futuristic/erotic romance/menage/BDSM. If I pretend I don’t already know and trust this author, I can honestly say I wouldn’t have picked it up if there was a sticker on the spine with five flames or a bonfire or a big red XXX or whatever they’d use, and that would have been a major loss to me as a reader. UNDERCOVER is smokin’ hot and it’s got the naughty words and the really naughty lovin’, but it is first and foremost a damn good book. I would have missed out if some arbitrary committee had put their stamp on it.

The imprint, the cover, sometimes the title, the back cover copy—there are enough clues already to give a general sense of whether or not the book is going to be that sexually explicit.

What about content other than sex? No Surrender isn’t sexually explicit, but the vocabulary these characters have? Not words you use in front of your mother unless you want to shit soap bubbles for a week. Should they have a rating?

Romance as a genre is so vast and diverse it defies labeling, and there’s simply no practical way to implement that kind of system even if it was a good idea.

What do you think? Would you like a rating on romances or no?

13 comments to “Ratings for romances: yay or nay?”

  1. Shiloh Walker
      · August 28th, 2009 at 11:57 am · Link

    Personally, I don’t like the idea. Some would use it as a form of censorship and books are too subjective. If a parents wants an idea if it’s appropriate for her/his child, check out some reviews or go to the store and take a look at the book. Skim a few pages.

    This is how I decide which books I will/won’t buy for my kids, which is becoming more of an issue as the 5th grader is now capable of reading at a high school level.

    But applying ratings to books, unless it done by an unbiased party with clear, defined parameters? I don’t see how it could work very well.

  2. azteclady
      · August 28th, 2009 at 12:09 pm · Link

    I like having some labels–like the warnings that Samhain has–but definitely not ratings.

  3. Jaci Burton
      · August 28th, 2009 at 12:32 pm · Link

    I agree with Shiloh. Too much like censorship. And then who decides how to rate the books? One person’s PG-13 is another person’s XXX. And then something I might find vile and objectionable someone else may think is just fine. It’s all way too subjective.

    I don’t mind indicating the content of what’s in books so the reader is informed whether there’s extreme violence or menage or bdsm or whatever floats your boat (or doesn’t), sort of along the lines of what Azteclady is saying as far as how Samhain labels their books.

    But ratings? No.

      · August 28th, 2009 at 12:42 pm · Link

    You all make very good points. I think the rating system should be left up to the publisher (eg. Samhain)I personally like the ratings that read “WARNING this book contains M/F/M and hot monkey love” !! I think those are a hoot!! :lmao:

  5. Charlene
      · August 28th, 2009 at 2:02 pm · Link

    I’m against it. Mostly because romances are geared to grown readers, not kids, and I don’t need to be protected from my reading material, thanks very much. Also this gives legitimacy to the romance as porn accusation, and while I’ve seen stuff in romance that did raise my gag reflex, that’s a rare, rare exception. And honestly I can usually tell if something is to my taste by a. the cover b. the title c. the blurb and d. reading a page or two from anywhere inside the book.

    Also, at the risk of repeating myself from a few years ago when this surfaced, you don’t see groups crying out to rate men’s novels on the grounds that some of them are too offensive and might overset their delicate sensibilities.

  6. Bev Stephans
      · August 28th, 2009 at 3:09 pm · Link

    Anything that smacks of censorship should be avoided at all cost. Charlene makes a good point about men’s novels. Jaci makes a good point about how the ratings can vary from person to person.

    When my 2 boys were growing up, I allowed them to read anything in the house. I never imposed censorship on their reading material. A few times, my eldest son would ask me about a book and I would tell him he might want to read it when he was older, but if he went ahead and read it, that was ok.

    I can see rating the romance genre getting totally out of hand. Please, no ratings!

  7. KF Zuzulo
      · August 28th, 2009 at 4:14 pm · Link

    All good points. And rating the heat level of romances is a hot & sticky topic. I never mention censorship in my original post over at the Daily Dose. To liken my call for a heat rating to censorship is like saying that the heat description on a jar of salsa is censorship. Such info just provides a gauge so that I can make a more informed decision about the purchase. I’m going to read the cover copy and a couple of blurbs about the book before I buy anyway. However, I’ve been burned lately (no pun intended) because many reviewers make no mention of how hot the sex is in many books or if implements are used or multiple people participating, etc.
    My suggestion is not intended either to be anything like the MPAA ratings which actually regulate who can see a movie. Consider it more like rating the alcohol content of beer, wine, and liquor. I want to know how drunk I’m going to get if I have a martini as opposed to a glass of wine. To do that for sex level in books is definitely difficult. Impractical; maybe. But, again, I point to All Romance and their system. It’s helpful.

  8. Shannon
      · August 28th, 2009 at 4:53 pm · Link

    I don’t personally see it as a step in censorship’s direction, but it IS something that could be used that way. If a bookseller decides not to stock four or more flames, those books get squashed.

    I admit there are times I wish all books used Samhain’s warning labels, as mentioned above, but I’m not sure how that would be implemented. On a publisher level, I guess, but one pub’s hot is another’s extreme.

    Hopefully All Romance will tell us how they assign the heat rating. I’m interested to know how that works.

  9. Missy Ann
      · August 29th, 2009 at 6:12 pm · Link

    I promise you a rating system will be used to rate m/m & f/f stories (and I mean any book that dares to portray homosexuals as anything less than pure evil) as adult and have them hidden behind the counter in the stores that will even be willing to stock them.

    I read absolutely everything I could get my hands on by the time I was 12. And yes there was plenty that many people would consider outrageous for a child. But I didn’t turn into a gay nymphomaniac serial ax murdering tax dodging welfare cheat.

    You want to know what your kid is reading? Read it first. And if you can’t tell your kid no and make it stick you shouldn’t be a parent in the first place. (says the mom of a 12 year old who is pulling her hair out over tween attitude)

  10. Maris
      · August 29th, 2009 at 11:01 pm · Link

    I’d like some type of labeling, because I tend to like steamier books. So if a book has a two sentence love scene, I want to know, because unless the writer is highly recommended, I might skip it.
    Also, I’m not a huge fan of f/m/f for example, so if it has that type of scenario, I’d like to know.

  11. Edie
      · August 29th, 2009 at 11:35 pm · Link

    I think some form of labelling is needed, sometimes a blurb is just not clear enough and one needs slightly more information. not one with set rules maybe as that is where pigeon holes come in, but I really like Samhains warning labels.

  12. Edie
      · August 30th, 2009 at 6:57 am · Link

    Please ignore the earlier post lol, I think I was asleep when I was reading through your post, and my reply was more leaning towards content classification rather than a heat rating.
    Though reading mainly e-pub for the last year or so, I have gotten relatively used to heat ratings and warnings.

  13. Shannon
      · August 30th, 2009 at 10:41 am · Link

    Here’s the comment I just posted on Dear Author. (Jane mentioned this post on her blog, so I’m kind of straddling two conversations.)

    (Comment from Jane) @Shannon Stacey: I think the editor has to be responsible for rating each one of his or her books. They are in the best position to know the content and “heat” level. It’s not that I endorse ratings per se, it’s just that I see them as inevitable and would like those that are intimately acquainted with the book assign the rating instead of some algorithm based on use of certain words.

    I agree the editor would be the best person to rate each book, though I worry about that having consistency across publishers. I’m sure readers would catch on pretty quickly, though, to how publishers judged their own books. A content label, such as Samhain uses, would probably be the easiest system to implement for readers, but I’m not sure that would work for booksellers. (I seem to recall an early Aphrodisia title having a small warning as to the explicitness of the sex at the bottom of the back cover, but don’t quote me on that. I remember the warning, but I can’t swear it was an Aphrodisia.)

    I’d like to deny ratings are inevitable, but I remember being a little surprised recently to see a mass market by a well-known erotic romance writer (whose sex scenes raise eyebrows) on the shelf at Walmart. I thought, at the time, that there was no way in hell anybody at the home office had ever read that author. Then I wondered how many women not accustomed to finding erotic romances at Walmart wrote nastygrams to the company. With the kinkier/more explicit stuff being published in mainstream mass market romance now, I can definitely see retailers wanting some kind of a rating from the publisher.

    Sadly, there’s a good chance that will lead to retailers such as Walmart not buying certain ratings at all and Borders/etc shelving them separately.

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