I’ve been wanting to link to one of my favorite publishing blogs, Buzz, Balls & Hype, for some time now — it offers great information and links for authors and small publishers. Its creator, M.J. Rose, is a self-publishing sensation who in the late 90s parlayed some brilliant Internet marketing into literary fame and a string of book deals with mainstream publishers.
In addition to penning useful articles herself about writing and marketing in the 21st century, she’s also managed to gather an excellent stable of guest bloggers, including John Shableski of Diamond Book Distributors, writing as The Graphics Novel Guy. John is doing a great job of introducing and evangelizing the potential of the graphic novel to BB&H’s mainstream lit audience — both as an art form and also as something that is gaining greater mainstream appeal in the United States.
Age Ranges: Good For Business?
Recently, he has been writing about Age Ranges for Graphic Novels. In an article, he wrote on May 19th, he made this bold claim:
Tipping Point-Thy Name Shall Be Age-Ranges
I think I have finally nailed what the tipping point will be for the graphic novel publishing industry and it comes down to the applications of age ranges. During my recent meetings with some independent bookstore owners it dawned on me that I was hearing exactly the same questions that the public library folks were asking just a few years ago:
How do I buy this stuff?
Where do I (rack)shelve it?
Can I at least see a catalog that is set up with age ranges?
Can you tell me what is for kids and what is for adults?
All they want is a simple easy-to-follow method for selecting the books that they can trust. Just like the librarians did.
He continues, talking about why publishers might be wary about any authority, even one composed of other comics publishers, imposing age-ranges on comics — namely that when it was done before in the 50s and 60s by the Comics Code Authority, it was used as a censorship tool. (For a great account of this drama, my good friend Bill S. recommends The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hajdu — which you can now watch discussed on The Colbert Report!) Even though this Code had no legal power, most distributors refused to carry non-Code approved content, which effectively made it impossible to sell such comics.
But Mr. Shableski ultimately does not see age ranges negatively affecting sales to the those currently making the purchasing decisions
The approach really needs to be looked at from the perspective of the novice retailer, librarian and educator. They want a simple process by which they can select and buy the books. Age ranges arenâ€™t a deterrent for these people…
and argues that if Age Ranges could give good information about who might actually enjoy the book, they would greatly boost graphic novel sales:
The proper application of age ranges would need to focus on the level of comprehension associated with the subject matter of the story.
By doing this we can actually accelerate the buying process. I know that publishers would love it if every single book published were actually read by the person who buys the books for the library or store. The fact of the matter is they dont. There are so many books coming out that this is impossible. Age ranges, reviews from trade publications, and peer or customer recommendations are what really greases the wheels of the buying process. When this happens, then we will really see how fast this rocket can fly.
While I don’t think this tells the whole story of why age ranges might be useful — and does not address the very real danger of economic censorship for more challenging work (more about this later) — you certainly can’t argue with making your book easier to buy. And giving retailers and librarians a quick read regarding who your intended audience is would certainly help with that. (He has a lot more to say on this issue and it’s worth reading the whole article.)
In his most recent article, he reports from a panel at the Book Expo in Los Angeles provocatively titled “Sex and Graphic Novels”. The big question there was whether age-ratings were now necessary for graphic novels. He notes that many graphic novel publishers already do this, with TokyoPop proudly announcing that they had a “very detailed” program currently in place. (A program which Johanna Draper Carlson of Comics Worth Reading has covered and criticized before [be sure to check out the comments of those articles on Johanna’s site for more interesting debate!].)
As expected, the industry members of this panel expressed concern over how age-ranges might contribute to censorship, but Mr. Shableski again argues that such labeling makes good business sense, citing examples from the movie, music and video game industries where product sales actually increased in spite of and even because of restrictive ratings. (Teens apparently just love that forbidden fruit — go figure!). He finishes by arguing that informed parents make for happy consumers and that even restrictive age-ratings will not ultimately get in the way of (one assumes older) kids reading more mature graphic novels:
I guess it really is all about money anyway isnâ€™t it? If the ratings system is developed by a trusted source-such as a group of librarians, then there is credibility. If the ratings are applied after the book is published, then that isnâ€™t censorship is it? If the parent is allowed to make an informed purchase based on the information you have placed on the jacket then that’s a good thing. Parents don’t really care for surprises and are normally quite ok with PG and R rated stuff-as long as they know it’s in the book. It’s those parents who are waiting to play the ‘gotchya game’ you need to look out for. They need to see the ratings as well. If you do it for one audience then you have done it for all audiences.
This way, the librarian, the store owner and the parent all come out winners. Eventually, the kid is gonna read the book.
There is a lot of sense to what he says. Certainly one good reason for age-ratings is to make sure that parents can make informed purchases. And informed consumers and informed retailers are likely to make for a healthier market for graphic novels.
The Real Impetus Behind Age Ratings
But for comics in America, I see the stakes as being a bit higher than this and, likewise, the risks for censorship greater as well. This is what I wrote as a comment (after thanking him for the useful articles, of course ):
I had some thoughts about the age-ratings issue, esp. your take that “I guess it really is all about money anyway isnâ€™t it?”
As someone looking to publish graphic novels, for me the age-ratings are primarily about protection, in particular legal protection, for myself, but especially for the retailer. The laws in most states have much more stringent requirements for visual art with sexual content that minors are allowed to see than they do for textual material. If there’s a picture or drawing, even if it is more suggestive than explicit, the chances of it being illegal to sell to a minor with significant criminal penalties is a serious concern.
In addition, as I’m sure you know, there’s a real double-standard for what’s acceptable to show visually in a comic vs. say a film because many communities in the U.S. are convinced that all comics are for kids. The heroic Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has defended many retailers from aggressive DAs who prosecuted them “for the sake of the children”, in at least one case despite the fact the comics were bought in an “adults only” section!
(Here’s the link to that in case my embedded link doesn’t work:
So there is extra reason to be cautious when it comes to adult content in graphic novels.
As for censorship, the issue for me would have less to do with when the rating is applied than *who* applies it. As Kirby Dick’s excellent documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” so clearly illustrated, even a self-regulating industry can be destructive when its decision-making is both arbitrary and lacks transparency. This is why as a publisher I would much rather determine the age-ranges of my own books — despite the fact that there are no clear rules. Certainly this would be a place where I would look for guidance from a distributor like Diamond, but I’d hate to have some age-ranges imposed from on high, unless I could be assured the process was both fair and completely transparent.
It’s a complicated issue for all artists, but for those who create sequential art in the U.S. that is not “all ages”, it’s one that merits serious and careful thought and absolutely cannot be ignored.
It is the very real risk of legal consequences for the publisher and the retailer that is the reason why I feel age-ratings for any type of provocative sequential art are necessary. Personally, I think such age-ratings will be, by their very nature, subjective and thus to some degree arbitrary. Personally, I think it is silly to believe that an 18 year old can suddenly handle material a 17 year old cannot (or 16/15, etc.). Personally, I think it is incredibly unfair and delusional that our society perceives mature storytelling in comics as more dangerous than mature storytelling in film or prose novels. Personally, I think that violent and mean-spirited content is far more threatening to the minds of young people than images of happy, consensual sex (yet it is the sexual material that exposes publishers and retailers to the greatest legal liability and thus offers all the more reason to err on the side of caution with a very restrictive age rating!) Personally, I think it sucks that age-ratings need to be there for any reason other than to help consumers make educated, informed decisions.
But in the United States, in the current climate, there are other reasons and they cannot be ignored. So there we are.
Who Should Watch The Publishers of “Watchmen”?
That said, though, I still feel that these ratings should remain in the hands of the individual publishers. Yes, that could make things less clear for the retailer — what if one publisher uses very different standards for a 16+ book than another? — but as I argued in my comment, even a central authority will fail to offer consistent standards, because when it comes to determining “age-appropriate” levels of sex and violence in art, how can they? Ten smart people can come up with ten different and equally valid standards and each will have different takes on how those standards should apply to an individual work. No wonder the MPAA offers no transparency! Would you want to argue to a filmmaker why ten seconds of full frontal nudity makes her film unacceptable to those under 18, but six seconds would be fine? My belief is that if such decisions remain in the publisher’s individual hands, the chances of the artist’s wishes being respected or at least heard out is that much greater.
But here’s why ultimately I’m going to lose on this one: if you look at the legal cases taken on by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, it’s not really the publisher who’s at the greatest risk, it’s the retailer. If every publisher had their own rating system, then it could be argued that it was still up to the retailer to make sure a books’s content was as “safe” for the intended audience as the publisher claimed it was. But if the retailer has a central rating authority to point to, then she has some protection in court and thus less of a need to sweat every title coming across her desk.
Because the legal stakes are so much higher for comics than for, say, the music industry (sell an adult comic to a kid and you can actually go to jail), it is in the retailers interest to have some central authority claiming responsibility and since it’s the retailers who are paying the bills, keeping them happy will matter a lot more than keeping artists happy. (And to some degree, with Diamond’s separate and not really equal “Previews Adult” publication, a system like this is already in place for the Direct Market.)
Think I’m crazy to believe that this will happen? Take a look at the history of the ESRB, the central rating authority for video games. They started out with individual publishers rating their own titles, but it wasn’t long before a centralized authority was called for. And with the precedents for universal ratings firmly established in the movie and video game industries, I doubt we’ll need much of a kick in pants from Congress to go there.
The Very Real Risk of Economic Censorship
And speaking of the ESRB, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that we’ve moved beyond Comics Code style economic censorship stemming from the use of universal age ratings. Titles rated “Adults Only” by the ESRB will not be carried by major retailers (such as Blockbuster, Best Buy and Wal-Mart) and all three of the major video game manufacturers (Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft) explicitly prohibit the release and sale of AO-rated games for their consoles. Game companies work very hard to avoid this rating and, yes, that often means changing content to become more palatable to the ESRB. (And while the links in this paragraph are all talking about the Ã¼ber-violent game Manhunt 2, reading more closely, you’ll see one of the reasons this case got all that press is that it is highly unusual for a game to get an “Adults Only” rating based on violence — almost always the criteria is sexuality.)
A similar situation exists today within the world of film — films that studios allow to be released with an NC-17 rating effectively commit financial suicide. Thus, studios will also jump through serious hoops to avoid that rating — cutting and recutting their film repeatedly to somehow, someway manage to tone it down enough so that the MPAA will give it a commercially-viable “R”. And the fact that the MPAA refuses to detail exactly how much needs to be cut merely gives the illusion that they are not effectively censoring very specific content and themes — the truth is, they are.
Therefore, ratings applied “after a work is complete” do not necessarily assure fairness or freedom for artistic expression.
So, to sum up, currently age-ratings in both video games and films does in fact contribute to censorship, in particular by making visual art showing human sexuality financially untenable for its creators. This has the effect of dumbing down artistic expression in those media to that which is “child-safe” — at least in the mainstream. Particularly disturbing is the very real possibility that gay relationships are especially penalized.
Now, it may be argued “Human sexual interactions can all be implied in visual art — sometimes even with strong erotic effect — why show sex at all?”, but this misses the point — grown-ups should be able to appreciate art meant for other grown-ups. Any restrictions on artistic expression — no matter how creatively they can be worked around — diminish public discourse and cripple the best and most effective way we have to understand our fellow human beings, especially those who are different. One of art’s special gifts to the world is its ability to grant such understanding — we should be looking to enhance that power, not curtail it.
If it’s gotta be done, let’s do it right
The point I’d like to put forward is that we have an opportunity to make some better choices when it comes to our rating system. Most retailers and librarians are strongly committed to offering high-quality art and as such are strongly against censorship. When and if the time comes for some central, self-regulating authority to determine age-ratings for comics, let’s not make the same mistakes as the film and video game industries. Let’s come up with as clear and fair standards as we can, let’s keep the process 100% transparent and let’s all agree that not all comics need to be for kids by not excluding adult-only material from mainstream retail venues.
Let me break that last point down because it’s crucially important: if you’re a retailer and you believe that graphic novels can and should be for adults as well as children, then you must, must, must be willing to stock high-quality “Adults Only”-rated titles. If you’re a distributor who similarly believes in the potential for sequential art to elevate the world’s artistic discourse, then you must, must, must permit the same books to be easily marketed to mainstream retailers and not simply lump them into a catalog meant primarily for retailers of pornography. (I’m not making a value judgment re: pornography here — merely pointing out that there currently isn’t a good way for mature, clearly sexual but not pornographic graphic novels to effectively reach the retailers and consumers in the Direct Market who would most appreciate them.)
Of course, I hope that I’m being foolishly alarmist by suggesting that a central authority for age-ratings is likely. In some ways, it does feel like I’m crying out that the sky is falling. But after reviewing the history of other industries, it doesn’t seem so unlikely to me, especially when you consider the prevalent belief that “comics are for kids.” Maybe it won’t happen tomorrow, but we better be ready for it when it does.
Those of us in the industry should all be thinking very hard about the best way to implement Age-Ratings wisely. And for the sake of all of us grown-ups, we must find a way to use them that won’t lower the artistic discourse of sequential art to that of the level of children!
We’ve already been down that road — let’s do it better this time.
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