Apple Now (Randomly?) Labeling Some Romance eBooks as Explicit Content

by Nate Hoffelder

After a decade of running The Digital Reader, Nate is a veteran web publisher with experience in design, maintenance, recovery, and troubleshooting. What little he doesn't know, he can learn.

November 6, 2021

If you have published a romance novel, you might want to check your listings in Apple Books. Apple has started applying its “explicit” label to some romance ebooks.

The change was first noticed by author Regina Kammer yesterday in the RWA forums.  I doublechecked, and can confirm that her listing on Apple Books shows a number of titles sporting an E symbol. According to Apple’s iTunes help pages, that symbol is used to mark explicit content.

Or at least, it’s used to mark the content Apple thinks is explicit content. Kammer noted that there was no correlation between a book’s content and the “explicit” rating.

The mark of the E is utterly random. My most mainstream (definitely *NOT* erotic) books have been tagged as E while some other authors’ works (who readily admit are erotic) have not been tagged.

Apple doesn’t actually define the term explicit content, nor do they explain to users what the symbol means (I learned the meaning from an author who called Apple and asked.)

It’s also not clear what Apple is planning to do with this. The original purpose for this label was to give users of the iTunes app the option of hiding explicit content, but if Apple Books has that option, I have not been able to find it.

I have asked Apple to clarify this issue. They had not responded by the time I published this post.

The problem with this (besides the ridiculousness of applying an “explicit” label to sexual but not violent content, and besides the fact that the label is being applied with a low degree of accuracy) is that even if Apple never adds an explicit content filter, we still run the risk that a bug will somehow activate the filter without human intervention. Software is iffy at its best, and when you pile up more code in one system you increase the chance that it will break in unexpected ways.

On a related note, this story reminded me of a company Apple bought many years ago. The company was BookLamp, and it was bought in 2014. As you may recall, BookLamp used to do the kind of content analysis which would go into deciding which books got an explicit label.

The reason I mention BookLamp is that Apple has a history of acquiring expertise and then building systems which completely ignore the work of the experts. Apple Music and Apple News are two good examples of this.

Launched after Apple acquired Beats, Apple Music initially had the habit of deleting unique versions of a song (studio release, live concert recording, re-release, etc) from a user’s collection, leaving just one copy. And when Apple News launched (after Apple acquired Texture) it was described as having been built by someone who had never read the news or used a news app.

My point, folks, is that based on Apple’s history, one could reasonably expect Apple to screw up the use of the explicit label in Apple Books. If that happens it will cost authors money.

Thanks, Regina!

Hi, I'm Nate.

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  1. Regina Kammer

    Thanks for getting the word out, Nate!

    • Lynne Connolly

      Hey, Regina, that is hilarious and annoying at the same time! We wrote that anthology years ago, and it’s been up on Apple all that time! And they’ve only just now noticed it’s there? And still not erotic! Gotta love those algorithms! And some of the weird people who work in those departments!

  2. NR Sailor

    My guess is that getting labeled for explicit content will increase sales for the book.

  3. Regina Kammer

    And… as of today (December 14, 2021) the E is gone! It was still there on Dec. 10th when I last checked while writing a message to RWA.



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