Did your mother say you could read that book?

Did your mother say you could read that book?

As writers, I think it’s likely that many of us read books when we were kids that somebody would have considered to be inappropriate.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Fear of Flying or Lolita when you were ten. It could have been science fiction, or fantasy, or War and Peace, or even something political.

It might have just been a high school level science book when you were in grade school.

Some of us were encouraged by parents or legal guardians to do so: they might have even given us the books. In other cases, it was just because we had freedom to do so. Our parents or legal guardians didn’t know exactly what we were reading, but were open to discussing it. Some of us might even have been allowed to (bahm bahm bahm BAHM) go to the library by ourselves!

E-books change that to some extent, because the process is different. Your device is largely supplied through a specific account (with Amazon, with Barnes & Noble, with Apple), and your parents/legal guardians have fiscal responsibility for it.

Up until recently, though, kids could easily get what they wanted. The parents/legal guardians would get an e-mail and could return it, if it came from the regular account.

All along, I’ve seen people asking for “parental controls”. I’m going to use that term for simplicity’s sake, even though they are used by a lot more people than parents.  Not only did they want to limit what their children could buy, but what the kids could see in the archives (the books which have already been bought).

I saw many people not understanding that book publishing does not have a self-imposed rating system, like movies, games, and music do. There aren’t any “R-rated” or “MA” books. You can’t just set a filter for books of an appropriate age, even though recommended age/grade levels are available for some books.

The solution to this that we are starting to see is “white-listing” books (and other content) on children’s devices.

A “white list” is the opposite of a “black list”. With a black list, you say what people can’t access. With a white list, you say what they can.

This may have a significant unintended impact on authors, and especially indie authors.

If there is a black list, the child can typically still browse the Amazon bookstore on the device, and discover books. It may be that the kid then asks the responsible party if it is okay to get it, or perhaps the child has a certain allowance for books.

With a white list, the child is typically prevented from seeing the store at all on the device.

It becomes impossible to stumble across something new. The parents/legal guardians have to have taken the active step to make a book available.

It’s possible that this will favor books from tradpubs (traditional publishers) disproportionately. A parent/legal guardian may approve of a book that was reviewed in People magazine, but not one that wasn’t.

It’s not that they think the indie book is bad; it’s that they don’t know if it isn’t “inappropriate”.

When we get to the level of Young Adult (and this will surely affect some of you), that becomes even more problematic.

Remember that the child can’t easily get an e-book from someone not on the account. That means there can’t be one well-worn copy of Catcher in the Rye or Catch-22 being passed from person to person. You can’t just go into a bookstore and plop your paper route money on the counter. Of course, kids  probably don’t have a paper route. :) Have you noticed how that now tends to be adults…who drive on both sides of the road and throw the newspaper out the car window?

I think this is going to mean that getting your books on curated recommendation lists is going to be increasingly important. Parents/legal guardians may look at lists from librarians, teachers, people they know (like Google Circles), and perhaps blogs and interest groups and only pick from those lists.

How are you going to adjust to a world that goes from “What aren’t your kids allowed to read?” to “What are your kids allowed to read?”

Recent posts in the I Love My Kindle blog which may be of particular interest to WG2E readers:

Bufo Calvin is the author of the popular I Love My Kindle blog and several  titles in the Kindle store, including the #1 bestseller Love Your Kindle Fire: The ILMK Guide to Amazon’s Entertablet, and the best-selling The Mind Boggles: A Unique Book of Quotations. Bufo is proud to be a part of the WG2E family.

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  1. Lois Lavrisa says:

    Bufo- love this “Have you noticed how that now tends to be adults…who drive on both sides of the road and throw the newspaper out the car window?” our paper deliverer is an adult- always has been:) Great post

  2. Ansha Kotyk says:

    As a middle grade writer this has direct impact on my books. But I believe I’m already going in with the assumption that my book is being sold to a parent or guardian, librarian or teacher, first. So although my target readership is 10-year-olds and up, my target market is grown-ups.

    • Bufo Calvin says:

      Thanks for writing, Lois!

      I still think of paper routes as being for kids, even though I intellectually know that’s not correct. One difference: how many adults would be comfortable with their kids riding their bikes or walking at 5:00 AM by themselves through the neighborhood? I’m sure some are in some places, and that’s fine, but I think that perception has changed. When I was, oh, eight, it was fine for me to walk a mile and “shop” by myself. That’s not often the case now.

      • Bufo Calvin says:

        Sorry, this literally jumped in front of me and posted on the wrong comment! I have no idea what happened there…and with technology, that doesn’t happen often to me. :)

        As to Ansha:

        Yes, your target is first the parent, but at some point, appeal to the child is part of it. Ask your cover designer. :) In this case, your only market is the adult, to a large extent. As a former brick-and-mortar bookstore manager, I can assure you that kids more than ten sometimes made their own purchases.

        It also affects discoverability in places like public and school libraries.

        I’m sure you know your market well, but this does create a shift in the process.

  3. I too assume that most parents will be buying books for the kids, so they will have access to all books. Blocking kids from seeing inappropriate material (Such as Fifty Shades) is a good idea. I see many sites now ask if the content is adult or general. I’m glad they do. How books avoided the ‘rating system’ is odd. I guess they used ‘adult’ and ‘children’ as their labels and everyone went from there.

    If a book is questionable, parents can easily google for reviews or the author’s website. This is why I’m creating a site specifically for my pen name for my children’s books. Parents can go there, see what I write and know it’s good for kids.

    • Bufo Calvin says:

      Thanks for writing, Diane!

      A blackl ist allows blocking of Fifty Shades. A white list requires permitting, say, Judy Blume…or The Hardy Boys, for that matter. That’s different.

      When the site asks if something is adult or general, do they give you specific guidelines? Do they read the book and determine if it meets those guidelines? If not, they are asking it for marketing purposes, not to protect kids. If E.L. James chose to label Fifty Shades as general in that case, what would prevent it? I’m not suggesting the author would do that, by the way, just using it as an example.

      If there are guidelines, that’s where it gets tricky. Certainly, forty years ago, any mention of LGBT issues (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender) would likely have immediately moved a book into that “adult” category. If there are universal guidelines now, who determined them and how they can be revised and exceptions made? Those are key factors.

      As to the lack of a rating system, that is certainly an interesting process.

      Hollywood had the “Hays code” starting in 1930. It had specific guidelines for movies. “Ridicule of the clergy” was specifically on the “don’t” list. “Sympathy for criminals” was on the “be careful” llst…presumably making Les Miserables a dodgy bet. :)

      By the late 1960s, the government was suggesting that prosecution for contributing to the delinquency of minors was in the works for movie theatres (I’m being very imprecise in the definitions here). That came in part as a result of the breakup of the “studio system”, where movie studios also owned the movie theatres. With that distribution monopoly broken (and this is not dissimilar from the way e-books broke the tradpubs distribution near monopoly), independent movies began to get into theatres in a serious way and to push the envelope.

      In response, the movie industry created their own new rating system, to avoid government regulation (and prosecution).

      Music and videogames have adopted similar systems, and one exists for TV shows (and TVs must have a chip that allows blocking of certain ratings).

      However, rating books has three reasons it has always been a harder sell. Books are seen as more important socially…a government rating system smacks of government censorship. Another is, well, they just don’t affect as many people or make as much money as movies in the 1970s or TV today. Third, it’s thought that visual images have a bigger impact on young people than words. I don’t buy that last one at all, but that’s the general conception.

  4. D.D. Scott says:

    To me, this means that Reader-Focused Blogs like our very own The RG2E will be even more important, where we’re building a community of hungry readers ready and willing to spread the buzz about our books and actually spreading it!!! :-)

    People will come to rely on “sources” they know and trust to help them decide what books their kids can read, so we, as authors, will want to either become those sources are partner with those who are.

    ***Note: I do think we’re already seeing that even without this white list issue. There’s just sooo much to choose from, peeps are finding someone to pick for them and convince them to “download this one.”

    Also, there’s a part of me, though, that understands from seeing first hand over and over again, that parents today – because they’re working outside of the home and for longer hours – often have no clue what they’re kids are up to and kids will find a way around whatever “rules” are there. For example, they’ll just go to a friend’s house where they can do what they want to do. (Yep, that’s what I did and how and why I was able to read all of the Danielle Steel books out by the time I was 13! LOL! My friend’s mom had all of them!!!)

    So, for my non-tech self then, you’re saying that parents can mark their Kindle with this “white list” feature and then certain people won’t have access to those books? Or they’ll white list the entire Amazon store? Sorry, I’m such a dunce on this stuff…

    • Bufo Calvin says:

      Thanks for writing, D.D.!

      First, let me analogize this to the non-tech world. :)

      People don’t tend to let their kids just go through a bookstore and buy whatever they want. An adult would often check the purchases beforehand. If the ten-year old buys the books with no supervision (even for erotica), there are no “parental controls”.

      A black list is the way that a lot of stores used to handle it. There would be a separate little area, sometimes literally curtained off, where there were “adult” books. Kids were not allowed in there. Even store personnel would keep them out, not just parents. The books in that section were blacklisted. The kid, though, could roam through the rest of the store.

      With a white list, the kid can’t go to the store at all. The parent/legal guardian has to buy the books in the store and bring them home for the child.

      The white list blocks the child’s device from going to Amazon at all…and typically, from going anywhere on the internet. That’s not always true, but that’s a common configuration.

      So, a child can’t come running up with a Choose Your Own Adventure or Sweet Valley High book in their hands and say, “Can I have this?” The kid doesn’t even get to browse the aisles.

      That’s why it changes discovery.

      Yes, a kid could be at a friend’s house and start reading Danielle Steel on their friend’s Kindle or iPad…but they can’t tuck it under a shirt and bring it home (like a kid might have done with a comic book if comic books weren’t allowed).

      There has always been parental influence and there has been ways around it…this just takes it to a more restrictive process.

  5. Julie Day says:

    This is interesting. My Angel ebooks are for teens/YA and am seriously thinking about digitally publishing books for a younger range if I can’t find an agent/publisher for them. Have to work out where I can reach those readers.

    • Bufo Calvin says:

      Thanks for writing, Julie!

      As Ansha points out, you do have to reach the people who actually pay for most of the books. However, one of the best ways to influence those people is to reach the people who will read them. :) That’s going to be the increasingly tricky part.

  6. Angela Brown says:

    Black lists and white list, parental controls, too. These are some things I hadn’t considered.

  7. This happened in reverse to me – way too many years ago – I was in high school and I read Valley of the Dolls (remember that one) – mom found it, started reading it while she was in the bathtub and came out – shocked – with the book swollen four times it’s size – she’d dropped it in the tub!

    She said to my dad – “Ernie, do you know what your daughter is reading?” My dad, didn’t even bother to look up and said, “I’m sure it’s not as bad as the Mickey Spillane novels that are under her bed.”


  8. Alison Pensy says:

    This is an interesting post, Thanks. I was unaware of this going on but I assumed it was only a matter of time before it did. With a child holding a physical book, the parents would have a good idea of the content. But with a device that has totally changed the game. The child could literally be reading anything. So putting in some kind of control had to happen eventually.

    It will be interesting to see what kind of affect it has on sales.

    • Bufo Calvin says:

      Thanks for writing, Alison!

      That’s another good point. Just as many adults have commented on how they like the increased privacy of reading on an EBR (E-Book Reader), it does something similar for kids. However, a child on an adult’s account (which is how it is required to work at Amazon) couldn’t easily get the book in the first place without the adult being notified about it…and with the white listing, they can’t get it easily by themselves.

  9. I just yesterday had a friend write to ask me if a book that interested her was suitable for her 12 year old niece. She asked why ebooks aren’t better labeled for age appropriateness. (She was more worried about the kid being bored than shocked) But you make a great point here. I think we need an industry-wide standard that indies can participate in too. Many YA books would have an “R” rating if they were films. Having the equivalent of R or PG ratings on books would be handy for parents and relatives buying books for kids and help authors target the right audience.

    • Bufo Calvin says:

      Thanks for writing, Anne!

      I think it would be quite difficult to get the publishing industry to agree to a standardized, self-imposed rating system. Rating systems can increase sales, certainly, but there is that issue of books being more protected, in a sense, than movies. I think what we’ll see is the rise of third-party raters, which already exist.

  10. Miriam Joy says:

    I’ve never really been censored – like, I’ve always been allowed to read what I wanted. But there were times when my family said, “Not yet. Wait until you’re older.” (And, mostly, I did.)

    I’ve had my own Amazon account since I was about fourteen, but couldn’t buy anything on it until I got my own debit card when I was fifteen, although I had my own bank account from eleven. My parents never interfered with my library trips, they never stopped me physically buying books, and they have no idea what’s on my Kindle. Since I got it and paid them back the £150 of debt I was in thanks to it, it’s been entirely my responsibility. I was 15 at the time, so I guess they figured I was old enough to know what’s inappropriate.

    Ratings on books are a good idea, but the way you speak of parents choosing their children’s books is alien to me, since that never happened in my life. Perhaps it’s a cultural difference, or perhaps my parents are particularly liberal? (I don’t think they are. They’re quite strict on a lot of things, including ratings on films. I wasn’t allowed to watch 15s until I was 15, even though most of my friends did.) My parents might not approve of the books I read and they’ll voice that occasionally, but they’ll never try and stop it. Also, for them to control what I read would require them to pay for what I read, and they don’t. I do.

    The problem with ratings over here is that for films, they’re ’12′ or ’15′ – you have to be a certain AGE to watch things. And I don’t think it’s always about age, it’s about your mental maturity. For example, I read Lord of the Rings when I was eight. Most kids don’t do that. Most kids would be bored. I wasn’t. I read Tithe when I was twelve. Many of my friends would have been shocked and disgusted. I wasn’t. Yet there are books that my friends read and dismiss that I find deeply affecting and traumatising, simply because they affect a particular thing I struggle with, or whatever. When you’re ready to read something is so much a personal thing and I don’t know as anyone else can possibly judge that. They can give recommendations, but there will still be some kids who wouldn’t be traumatised and some who would.

    In the end, a lot of the books I’ve found creepiest have been children’s books, that if I’d read them at the age they’re aimed at I wouldn’t have been freaked out, but because I was older and thought more about them, I had nightmares. That’s not something you can accommodate for in ratings – in the end it’s as much about ‘how you read’ the books than their genuine content.

    I’m personally against censoring books for any reason. Bad stuff happens in the world. Kids are going to learn that soon. If they’ve never read anything in which a character has dealt with a load of crap happening, then how are they ever going to know how to cope when it happens to them? Books teach us about life. Hiding the darker side of life isn’t going to work in the long run.

    Yes, maybe there are a few things that should wait until you’re a little older. But you should say to the children, “Okay, wait.” Don’t just make it so that that book doesn’t exist to them. Explain why they can’t read it now, and tell them if they still want to in a year or two, they can.

    I’m sorry, this comment was about as long as the post itself. I … have strong feelings on the issue :D

    • Bufo Calvin says:

      Thanks for writing, Miriam!

      Last things first…I love that you wrote as much as you did! No need to apologize, and I love the passion.

      When you say a “cultural difference”, I’m curious as to which cultures you mean. It sounds like you are suggesting that the UK and the USA might be different on it, and they certainly have been in the past…although my guess is that it is a lot more micro than that. For example, when the 1931 Karloff version of Frankenstein was released in England, it got an “H certificate”, meaning horrific. However, some places also tied that into age (16, I think).

      The rating system in the USA has also evolved over time, and some have been tied to age (PG-13, for one).

      I believe that at 14, your legal guardians were technically responsible for your Amazon account, although I’m not positive about the situation on that outside the USA.

      Regardless, thank you for the wonderful and thoughtful comment!

  11. While I can certainly understand the desire to limit what children can peruse and purchase on the parental credit card, the white-list seems harsh and limiting. I would think the best control would be cardholder approval; kid fills the shopping cart with ALL THE BOOKS and parental units follow up with line-item approval. I don’t think the white-list will hurt sales too much as parents with children who actually read will resist the urge for such Draconian measures. Seriously, that censorship is so extreme that only the extremely controlling among us will use it.

    Meanwhile, those banned and battered paperbacks are still around. Armed with a parent-approved e-reader, middle-schoolers may start stuffing Flowers in the Attic into their backpacks again. Sorry, that’s not the best example but I chuckle when I remember how that book circulated the playground when I was a kid.

    My own experience: I was a devoted Judy Blume fan as a ‘tween. When I came across a new novel by Blume on my mother’s bookshelf when I was twelve years old, I immediately took it down and claimed it as mine. When Mom saw me reading WIFEY she told me that WIFEY was an adult book full of boring grow-up stuff that I wouldn’t like and she put it back on the shelf. To her credit, she didn’t take the book away from me when she saw it in my hands the next day. I read it cover to cover.

    And Mom was right. BOOOOOOOORRRRIIIIING. Even the titillating scenes were full of middle-aged angst. I then understood that often ‘adult’ meant less about taboo and more about experiential reference. I could get what it meant to have a brother like Fudge or the fears of Margaret or the longings of Davey but I could care less about the trials and tribulations of marriage and infidelity. I was pleased, however, to learn the word prophylactic.

    I feared that all grown-up books would be just as boring until I selected ‘Clan of the Cave Bear’ from Mom’s shelf the next week.

    My parents pretty much let me read whatever I wanted. If there was something too far into the no-go zone, I could easily be distracted with another offering. They steered me towards classic fantasy and science fiction so it was hard to go wrong for the most part. When the librarian in my middle-school pulled a book reserved for the older grades from my weekly selection (btw: my world came apart at the seams when she did this) my mother took me to school the next day and demanded, “Which one did this to you?”

    I got to read ALL THE BOOKS in the library after that ☺

    • Bufo Calvin says:

      Thanks for writing, Violet!

      I, too, could read whatever I wanted…but I didn’t want to read “adult material” in the sense of racy stuff when I was young. I did want to read adult level non-fiction, and I did that, but Henry Miller would hardly have been on my most wanted to read list at ten. ;)

      Our kid was an advanced reader…and a Goosebumps book was terrifying when read too young. However, I don’t think any of us would have prevented the reading of it, or regretted it now (including my now adult kid).

  12. SK Holmesley says:

    I can’t remember ever having books censored by my parents. We went to the library, got whatever we wanted, and read as much or as little of any given book as we wanted. My mom thought my brother and I were odd for reading mostly sci-fi, and although she didn’t read fantasy for herself, never questioned us reading it and even read some fantasy adventure stories to us when we were younger. I never censored what my son read, although there were several occasions when he was reading a book that he set it aside because he thought the characters were too old–not the subject matter, but he wasn’t interested in reading about cavorting ancients (i.e., anyone over 15-16). That changed later of course, but it was amusing the few times it happened to have him correcting me about an author I thought he might like. I really feel like it has a lot to do with sharing a love of reading. I never felt like I couldn’t discuss a book I was reading or had read with my parents and my son, judging by the summaries he shared with me, didn’t feel constrained either. On the other hand, there are books that I deliberately wouldn’t give to a younger reader, particularly where the characters behave so grotesquely as to be disturbing (and oddly enough those are generally non-fiction, rather than fiction). I notice that my son censors my granddaughter’s reading, TV, or game playing in the same way (she’s 5). He knows what she’s exceptionally sensitive about (kittens being severely injured, children seriously abused, etc.) to the point of nightmares and tends to steer her away from those books, shows, or games, but otherwise is fairly laissez-faire in what he lets her have access to. If she wants to read something or watch a show he’s “censoring”, however, he always tells her why he thinks it’s not for her yet, so that she doesn’t get the idea that a certain book shouldn’t ever be read, just knows that it isn’t for her right now. Because we haven’t read all the more recent children’s authors ourselves, we do like to know the maturity level of a book or show before we give it to her; but that’s mostly so that we don’t stumble into reading her the wrong thing or let her watch an extremely tense show just before she goes to bed. So I do like maturity levels on books, but mostly trust the author to know who their target audience is. If we give her a book once and based on her reaction, the author misjudged his/her target age group or maybe isn’t currently right for her, then we just won’t get anything by that author again and will leave it for her to discover the author for herself later on when the item might be more appropriate to her level.