I've been running into the topic of discerning story content a lot lately, from blog posts about it to complaint-filled reviews. I decided to sound off on the issue, in hopes people will pass the information on.
Because books don't have a rating system like movies, readers have difficulty gauging content. This is a problem for people who like 'clean' books and unknowingly get one that has explicit content. It can also be a problem for people who prefer explicit content or don't like a heavy religious theme, but I'm going to focus on the former for this post.
Let me pause to say, I'm not labeling specific content as good or bad, and I'm not promoting one genre or category over another. I'm simply educating folks so they can be better informed consumers.
Let's assume the reader wants 'clean' books with zero-to-minimal language, violence, and sex. How do they find books that suit?
The best way is to stick with Christian Fiction.
(For the record, I do not write Christian Fiction.)
There are two main groups out there, governing fiction--the ABA (American Booksellers' Association) and the CBA (Christian Booksellers' Association). My understanding is--although each publisher has his own philosophy and submission guidelines that allow for minor variations--the content of Christian Fiction is largely controlled by the CBA.
If you purchase books marketed as Christian Fiction, you can relax and be fairly sure you won't come across anything that will make you cringe, faint, or blush.
So, how do I know if a book is Christian Fiction?
A good way is to look for the name of the publisher. If the book is published by a Christian publisher or imprint (ex: Zondervan, Bethany House), you're safe. That brings us to our first tip.
- Acquaint yourself with the various Christian Fiction publishers, then check the name of the publisher before purchasing a book.
What if the book is self-published or there's no publisher listed?
In that case, you just have to take your chances.
That said, there are clues.
- If the cover image contains partially disrobed persons or a couple in the midst of a heated kiss or passionate embrace, it's probably not Christian Fiction.
- If the story is described as 'hot' or 'sexy' or some other similar term, it's probably not Christian Fiction.
- Get to know specific authors and their writing. Some authors who don't write CF, or not exclusively, still hold their content in check. (Ex: Debbie Macomber).
- If you don't want to chance buying a book and being disappointed, go to the author's website and ask them. (We love to hear from readers.)
What else can you do?
- Read the reviews. It's not foolproof, but, if there are several, usually at least one will mention content.
- Ask for recommendations from friends.
- Look at the categories/tags of the book in question. If you see 'Christian' or 'Inspirational,' you're safe.
- 'Sweet,' however, is dubious. Many people (myself included, for a time) use the word sweet, not realizing it is a term used to categorize clean romances. They might just mean the characters are sweet.
- Check the book's listing for a content warning. Be sure to read everything. Sometimes these warnings are hidden at the bottom of the truncated story description.
- Consider books aimed at younger readers. Books marketed as Children's, MG, and YA are safe... usually (YA can be iffy).
- Consider subscribing to book sites, such as The Fussy Librarian, that allow readers to customize recommendations according to content preferences.
I want to pause here and vent a bit. I've come across several one-star reviews in which the reader expressed outrage that a book was not Christian Fiction, even though the book was not marketed as such.
Many of these readers thought, just because the book showed up in a search or was recommended to them by the retailer, that it was CF. They didn't take the time to make sure before purchasing. You may not agree with me, but I feel it's wrong for them to blame the author.
Reviewers should be free to say what they did and did not like about a book--absolutely! But berating it for not being something it was never marketed as crosses the line.
- A book suggestion made by a retailer as something you might like is not a guarantee of content. Don't assume.
- If you've ever purchased mainstream (non-CBA) fiction from Amazon, they will likely market more of the same to you.
- Christian Fiction readers don't all buy only Christian Fiction. Therefore--even on Inspirational books' pages--the 'customers who bought this also bought this' book suggestions may not be CF.
- Just because a book is of a certain sub-genre (ex: western historical romance) doesn't mean it's automatically 'clean' or Christian Fiction. Though western historical romances often express traditional values, they run the gamut of inspirational-to-erotica, just like any other.
- The review section on a retailer book page is for reviews of the book in question, meaning your opinion of its readability, its enjoyability, and its content. It is not the proper venue to complain about shipping problems (contact the seller privately) or to vent disagreements you have with the retailer and/or their marketing practices (contact them privately).
The moral is: Buyer Beware.