My Thoughts About The “Clean Reader” Censorship Controversy.

2015 Artwork Clean Reader opinion article sketch version 3

A couple of months ago, I was reading random opinion articles on the internet when I stumbled across two articles by Lionel Shriver and Joanne Harris about a downloadable program for some E-book readers called “Clean Reader”.

This was a program developed by some rather conservative people in America, which replaces “profane” words in e-books with more “wholesome” equivalents.

To quote part of Joanne Harris’ article, some of these replacements are absolutely laughable: ” ‘Oh my God!’ becomes ‘oh my goodness!’ ‘Jesus Christ’ becomes ‘geez’ and so on. ‘Bitch’ becomes ‘witch’,” she wrote, adding that body parts also face the axe on Clean Reader. “‘Vagina’, ‘anus’, ‘buttocks’ and ‘clitoris’ all become ‘bottom’,”.

Although this program thankfully didn’t last very long before, ironically, it got censored itself. It raises a lot of interesting questions:

Having randomly seen the free e-books section of Amazon the day before and being pleasantly surprised by the plethora of imaginatively-titled *ahem* risque novels on there, my first thought was how hilarious most of these books would probably look if they were run through this “Clean Reader” program (hence the small cartoon at the beginning of this article).

But, after I’d had a good laugh about all of this, I started to think about it more seriously.

First of all, I realised that I had no real opposition to people choosing to use this program. If people are so uptight and puritanical that they want to ruin their own book collections, then who am I to judge? It’s only when people try to ruin things for other people that I start objecting to censorship.

Then I remembered when I was a teenager and how books provided a much-needed refuge from censorship for me. In Britain, we have mandatory film censorship, where the age ratings on films are actually enforced by law.

What this meant was, for example, at the age of fifteen – I couldn’t legally buy a copy of David Cronenburg’s “Crash” but I could thankfully still buy a copy of the (much more explicit) J.G. Ballard novel that the film was based on.

Because of this lack of censorship – books were cool, books were rebellious and books fired my imagination in ways that films couldn’t have done. It’s no coincidence that I read a lot more books when I was a teenager than I now do as an adult. If books had been censored in any way when I was a teenager, I’d have probably lost all interest in reading.

After a while, it also made me think about my own written works and how – now that I post stuff on the internet – I often self-censor way more than I should.

I guess that I probably self-censor excessively due to absurd worries about external censorship, but it has also meant that many great blog articles have either been ruined or – much more commonly- never even written because of my own writerly cowardice. I’d write more about this, but I already ended up self-censoring three paragraphs I’d previously written about it. Sorry about this.

Finally, one of the interesting things about the controversy surrounding this short-lived “Clean Reader” program was the fact that many authors were outraged at the idea of their books being altered.

I could agree with this sentiment if their publishers imposed censorship on literally every copy of their books – but to get outraged at the electronic equivalent of someone (in the privacy of their own home) crossing out words with a marker pen in a paper book that they’ve legally bought just seems a bit too controlling and anti-consumer for me.

Don’t get me wrong, people who censor their own libraries are idiots- but, once your book has been sold, it’s out of your control. If you start telling people what they can and can’t do in private with things that they have bought, then you’re (ironically) no better than the censors that you’re criticising.

I could understand this concern if people were re-selling the censored e-books but, if someone is altering their copy for their private use alone, then it should be no-one’s business but their own.

And, for the record, I know that I release most of my art under a “no derivatives” Creative Commons licence. But, to be honest, I’m not going to care if you alter or edit it in private and don’t post it online. I mean, how am I even going to know?

In conclusion, I’m glad that this “Clean Reader” program had bitten the dust. Censorship of literature (and censorship of profanity) is a ridiculous thing and it shouldn’t be encouraged. But, at the same time, if e-books are to become a good enough substitute for paper books then readers need to have the same freedom to damage their e-books as they do to damage their paper books.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

One Old Trick From The 1990s For Improving Your E-book Preview

2014 Artwork literary shareware article sketch

So, you’ve written an e-book or made a comic and you want to self-publish it online. Congratulations 🙂 Naturally, this will include putting a preview of your story or comic on the site you’re publishing it on.

Giving people a preview of what you’ve made is pretty much standard practice when you’re publishing online.

As well as supposedly mirroring the experience of flicking through real books in a real bookshop, previews also makes the whole experience of buying an e-book a lot more trustworthy by letting your prospective readers know what to expect if they invest in your latest book.

But, one of the problems with many e-book sites is that they only allow you to make a certain percentage of your e-book avialable as a preview (the good sites will often let you decide how much) starting from the beginning and going forwards.

This sounds good in principle and it’s a good reminder about the importance of writing a strong beginning to your story or comic but, for want of a better word, it seems somewhat limited.

After all, when a film studio wants to promote their latest film, they usually compile a trailer showing off some of the best moments of the entire film. They don’t just show the first five minutes of the film.

Trailers are great for advertising movies. But, well, e-books aren’t movies.

Call me old-fashioned, but I still subconsciously tend to see e-books as being software more than anything else. And, as such, I think that using old-school software promotion tactics could possibly work quite well for e-books.

No, I’m not talking about giving out free time-limited and feature-limited versions of your books, I’m talking about giving out good old fashioned shareware.

In case you were unlucky enough not to be a computer gamer in the 1990s, “shareware” refers to a way of promoting computer games which was pioneered by Apogee Software and which quickly spread around the gaming industry for a while in the 90s.

Basically, quite a few games back then would be divided up into three or four “episodes” and the first episode (the “shareware version” of the game) would be given away for free – with explicit permission for people to share it freely on floppy disks and on the internet.

Not only did this give people a large preview of the game, it also meant that the audience would effectively advertise it for free if they liked it by giving the shareware to their friends or posting it online.

Plus, since the shareware was only part of a game and it often contained instructions for ordering the full version, if people liked it then there was an incentive for them to buy the full game.

Unlike the short promotional “demo versions” of games that were popular in the late 90s and early-mid 00s (which only included 1-3 levels of a game), an old-fashioned shareware version of a game gave the audience a moderately-sized (and often partially self-contained) portion of the game to make them feel really involved in it before asking if they wanted to buy the rest.

So, how can this cool sales technique from the 90s be used for e-books?

Well, for starters, you will need to create a second (DRM-free) “shareware” e-book as well as your main book which you will give away for free and encourage people to share with each other online. This “shareware” e-book will, of course, include links to where people can buy the full version if they want to.

Before you do this, make sure to check that your e-book site both allows you to release things for free and to release multiple things containing the same content. If your e-book site doesn’t allow you to do the second of these two things, then don’t worry – there’s something else you can do in order to stay within the rules (but, more on that later).

After this, you need to choose a fairly sizeable part of your book – basically anything up to about a third or so of it. You don’t have to start at the absolute beginning of your story, but your extract should begin fairly close to the beginning – so that you don’t end up confusing your readers. If the extract ends on a cliffhanger of some kind, then this is even better – but it isn’t essential. This will be the “shareware” version of your e-book.

Likewise, if your story contains several distinctly different plot threads, then think about compiling one of these plot threads into a single e-book (if this is possible) and releasing this as shareware.

If you’re writing a short story collection, then making shareware is really easy. Just compile three or four of your short stories into a separate e-book and release it as shareware. Ideally, you should include one of your best stories (preferably first) and a couple of average stories. Remember, you need to keep some good stuff set aside for your paying customers.

But, as I mentioned earlier, some e-book sites might not allow you to publish two books containing the same content.

So, what do you do if you are in this situation?

Simple, you write something new. It could be a short prequel or a side-story of some kind that introduces one of the main characters. It doesn’t have to be as long as an extract-based shareware e-book (and it could just be a short story), but it should be good enough to make people interested in the world of your story and your characters.

Writing a completely new “shareware” story also has the advantage that it’s something extra for people who have already read your full e-book.

Yes, this extra short story might not earn you any more money but it will make your existing fans even more loyal and, therefore, more likely to buy your next book.

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Sorry that this article was slightly long, but I hope it was useful 🙂