Clean Reader

I find the reaction to the Clean Reader app rather amusing.


The app was created by the Idaho parents Jared and Kirsten Maughan who were concerned that their daughter had read a book with words that made her uncomfortable.

The app is available on Apple and Android, and it works on a scale from “Clean”, which replaces swear words such as “f***” to “Squeaky Clean” which will replace words including “damn”.  It does not remove any words from a digital file, rather it puts an opaque highlight over the word.  The app can be turned off so that the reader can consume the book exactly as it was written.  On this basis, the creators claim that their app does no violate copyright because it doesn’t make changes to the file which contains the book.

Some authors have gone ballistic.

Joanne Harris, award-winning author of Chocolate and The Gospel of Loki fond the concept of Clean reader “infinitely more offensive than the words it blanks out”.   She added: ” We’ve been down this road before.  We should know where it leads by now.  It starts out by blanking out a few words.  It goes on to . . . stick fig leaves on statues.  It progresses to denouncing gay or Jewish artists as “degenerate”.  It ends up with burning libraries and erasing whole civilizations from history.”

Laurie Penny, a journalist and author said, “There’s now an app for taking swear words out of books.  I find this f***ing horrifying!”

Linda Acaster, a novelist from Yorkshire, stated: “The first act of censorship is to censor books.  The second is to ban them.   The third is to burn them.”

I’m pretty relaxed about this, and I don’t see this silly app as the “sharp end of the wedge” of a new drive for censorship.  I think Western society is liberal and mature enough not to get all upset about the use of the f-word.  After all, it’s used on day-time soap operas, and, if one listens carefully, is part of the vocabulary of the average twelve-year-old.

As an author, I don’t use swear words in descriptive text, because I think that there are alternative adjectives and adverbs that better express the picture I’m trying to convey.  But I certainly have put the f-word into the mouth of a character when his use of the word tells the reader something about him (or her).  (Real people do use profanity).

Would I worry that one of my grandchildren wanted to read one of my novels (The Iranian Scorpion, for example)?  It would depend on the age of the child.  I would say OK to a thirteen-year old who wanted to read it, after I explained what it was about.   (I would be more concerned about the violence than I would be about the drugs, sex and profanity, about which I think most teenagers have at least an abstract understanding.  Video games notwithstanding, I think that real adult violence can be hard to understand.)

Books vs Politics

With an important election coming up in the UK in about six weeks, I decided that I ought to volunteer to help the political party which I favour.  At the last general election, I distributed leaflets door-to-door, and occasionally I would get a chance to talk to a voter.  This time, I responded to a general email soliciting help, and I found myself assigned to a constituency fifteen miles from home.  This made no sense to me (perhaps the party desperately needed help in the distant constituency), so I offered my services to the local party operation.  “What kind of work you want to do?” I was asked.  Did I want to canvas voters, or distribute literature or help out in the office?  “Where do you most need the help?” I asked.  “In the office.”

Since then, I’ve dedicated one afternoon a week to working in the local party office.  (I don’t mention which party, because this is not a political solicitation.)  My job is to input data: voting intentions, views on certain important questions, email addresses and phone numbers into a database which included all but the most recently registered voters.  This data is then used in advertisements, mail shots, emails, etc.  For me, the biggest challenge is reading the email addresses which volunteers scribble down on the doorstep.  I can usually get the gist of their other scribbled comments.

The office is quite a busy place.  On any given day, there are about four paid staff and another four volunteers beavering away.  Frequent visitors are the candidates, themselves, who come in to fill up their voter input memory, to talk strategy with the staff, or to review an outgoing missive.  Candidates are always very kindly and polite to the volunteers, but our opinions are not solicited: we are input generators.

One of the candidates, Dan, in particular (the office covers several constituencies), faces a particularly up-hill battle.  He faces an incumbent who is a mover and shaker in his party, and he won the last election with a substantial majority.  I don’t particularly like the incumbent.  I went to see him about an issue on which I felt strongly and on which Parliament would be voting.  I was in his presence for ten minutes, nine minutes of which was him talking around the topic.  I’m quite sure my one minute made no impression on him, and he voted against my view.

So, I’ve been thinking that new, up-and-coming authors are a lot like Dan: struggling to gain recognition in the face of an incumbent opponent (famous author), whom most of the voters (book buyers), know and recognise.  Maybe sometimes the party (publisher) will put enough money behind the candidate (new author) that New Author actually wins.  Or maybe Incumbent (Famous Author) makes enough mistakes and Candidate (New Author) has such a compelling pitch (The Book) that New Author wins.  Or maybe New Author and Candidate just get lucky and win a Seat in Parliament (Book Prize).

I’ll let you know what happens!

Review: Do No Harm

My wife recommended this book to me.  It was written by a neurosurgeon, Henry Marsh, to whom she was referred with back pain.  We both met him in his outpatient clinic, and he impressed us – partly because he said that no surgery would be required.  When Mr Marsh’s book was published and was shortlisted for a 2014 Costa Award, my wife naturally wanted to read it.


Henry Marsh

The book is subtitled “Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery”, and I found it to be a very engaging read.  The subject matter: brain surgery is quite mysterious, but Mr Marsh explains procedures so that the main points are quite understandable without being technically obscure.  His writing flows pleasantly, and sincerely; one never feels that he is the least bit condescending.  In fact, he lays bare the mistakes he has made in surgery, and reveals the anguish he has felt.  Successful, life-saving procedures are dealt with matter-of-factly.  With twenty-five chapters, each dealing with a different condition, one feels well-exposed to brain surgery.  Mr Marsh tells the reader of his development from nursing aide to med school, through the doctors’ hierarchy to consultant, and includes vignettes of the teaching of junior doctors.  The book is not from a doctor’s perspective only; he reveals the thinking and the feelings of patients, too.  The hospital setting is covered: nurses are caring but over-worked; managers are bureaucratic, unsympathetic and stubborn.  Stories from his voluntary practice in Ukraine are included, as well, and these provide a strong contrast to the state of the art and the clinical and management culture in the UK.

One can’t help but feel, as one reads the book: Why in the world would anyone want to be a neurosurgeon, given the complex opportunities for failure?  Mr Marsh doesn’t answer this question directly, but I think his view would be that the euphoria that one can feel from saving a life or advancing the technology more than offsets the anguish one feels from a mistake that leaves a patient paralysed.  Given, therefore, that a neurosurgeon has control over the life and death of his (or her) patients, Isn’t it tempting for a neurosurgeon to feel like a god?  Again, Mr Marsh does not answer directly.  He seems to say that any pretence at being a god is destroyed in the humility of the learning process.

Do No Harm was one of five books shortlisted in the biography category of a Costa Book Award in 2014.  The winning book was H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald about  her struggle to train a goshawk.  On the face of it, one would think that Marsh’s book would have a leg up: after all, a book about the ramifications of life-saving surgery sounds more important than the difficulty of training a very wild animal.  Perhaps a clue can be found in what the Costa judges said about H is for Hawk: “A unique and beautiful book with a searing emotional honesty, and descriptive language that is unparalleled in modern literature.”  I haven’t read H is for Hawk, but what I think the judges are saying is that Helen Macdonald’s writing is what won the prize for her.  Still, I would recommend putting Do No Harm at the top of your reading list.

Who Defines Quality These Days?

The following article by Jillian Bergsma, a writer and contributing editor for Independent Publisher, appears in the current issue of the Independent Publisher Newsletter.  I think it’s worth repeating in its entirety.


Jillian Bergsma

“A few months ago I received an interesting question from an Independent Publisher reader: “Who defines [book] quality these days?” In today’s publishing landscape, we’ve seen a dramatic shift in who owns the power to say a book is good, bad, or just okay. For a long time, a writer had to be vetted by so many people: a literary agent, the editor or publisher, the copyeditor, the proofreader, the reviewer, the bookseller or librarian, and then—finally—the reader.

“But now many self-published authors cut out most or all of those middlemen, going straight to the consumer. . . . So without the horde of literary mavens between an author and a reader, who does define the quality of a book?

“The question has several answers. Let’s start with those aforementioned mavens who are often left out of the equation. Thousands of writers still submit to agents and publishing houses each year. There’s a certain prestige associated with traditional publishing, and for good reason. You get a team of people to get your book into the best shape possible; you don’t have to pay the out-of-pocket costs to get the book on the market; and you have professionals selling your work.

“However, for a lot of aspiring authors, rejections from agents and publishers become the norm. Some folks say it takes scores of queries before you’re likely to find the right match (see Chuck Sambuchino’s article “Don’t Give Up Until You’ve Queried 80 Agents or More”). As harsh as the rejections can sometimes seem, they aren’t usually unfounded. Some rejections are on a taste basis—an agent or publisher just doesn’t connect with the material or think it would be right for their list. To each their own. But sometimes a rejection letter will come back that can give valuable feedback to a writer. Perhaps the level of writing wasn’t strong enough, the characters not fully developed, the plot too similar to a blockbuster book already in the market. In these ways, agents and publishers still serve a vital role in determining the quality of books in the marketplace. They know their stuff, so if you’re lucky enough to get more than a form response back, take the advice they give and put it to use.

“Booksellers and librarians are another group that can fall by the wayside if you’re self-publishing, which may be even more devastating than the loss of agents and publishers. The folks working in your local indie bookshop or at the town library are incredible resources and often have incredible taste. These days especially they must be extremely selective when choosing books for their shelves—books are expensive, shelf space is ever shrinking, and readers may be more likely to download a $0.99 ebook than to spring for the $26.99 hardcover.

“Booksellers and librarians have long been the real touch point for readers—before you could look up the ratings on Amazon, you needed your librarian to give you recommendations on which mystery novel to read next. So if you do have the opportunity to connect with your local library or bookstore, do it. Their responses to a book can be invaluable, even if that response isn’t the one you are looking for.

“The next category of gatekeepers includes bloggers and reviewers—opinions from other readers who aren’t directly in the line of producing or selling books. With the rise in social media, these folks are becoming bigger players in the game. Many of us follow a handful of favorite blogs penned by fellow readers who will tell us if a book is wonderful or a waste of time. For most people, the logo on the spine of the book doesn’t matter nearly as much as the opinion of someone we trust. And of course there are certain established reviewing outlets (think New York Times, etc.) that can turn us on or off a book in a matter of a few sentences. More than ever, these third-party reviews are gaining power in determining the quality of a book.

“And finally: THE READER. I have to say that the reader is the most influential person in determining the quality of a book. And perhaps that is how reading was always meant to be. What does it really matter if your best friend or your boss or a publisher you’ll never meet loves or hates a book? What matters is that you do. In the publishing cycle, the reader is the customer, and how does that age-old adage go? The customer is always right.

“Okay,” you say. “Sure, the reader is the most important. But what power do they really have beyond buying and selling books? How can they influence what gets published in the first place?”

“Having worked in publishing for several years, I can tell you that the reader is more powerful than they know. Editors routinely check Goodreads, Amazon, and blogs to look at what people are responding to in terms of writing style, characters, covers, and genres. Some publishers, like Amazon, are even introducing programs such as Kindle Scout, where readers decide which books are worthy of publication.

“So yes, at the end of the day, the reader holds the best hand. The publishing business wouldn’t be very successful if we didn’t understand how important our end-users really are, but today more than ever we are able to benefit from the thoughts and opinions of readers. Of course, the people I’ve discussed up until now—the agent, the publisher, the bookseller, the librarian, the reviewer, the blogger—are all readers too. And they want you, another reader, to enjoy or despise a book just like they do. At the end of the day, we’re all after the same thing here: a great read. “

Coaches & Editors

I just returned home from a coaching session with the chief executive of a London charity.  (I accept assignments from the Cranfield Trust for pro bono assignments with charities which need help.  Cranfield Trust is, itself, a charity – originally associated with Cranfield Business School – and which maintains a roster of management consultants.  The Trust’s role is to match consultants with charities in need.)

Like a professional football coach, I am supposed to be more experienced than the players (charity managers) I coach, and I am supposed to see problems and solutions which the player (charity manager) didn’t see or hadn’t seen yet.


The chief executive I’m coaching has some difficult problems.  The charity he is running is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and his board of trustees see their role as asking a lot of questions, rather than taking difficult decisions.  Moreover, the trustees seem to be allergic to the idea of making a personal commitment to do something useful.  I am by no means a perfect trustee, but I am treasurer of another charity which was technically bankrupt, and which absolutely had to win a particular contract to survive.  The chairman and I put a lot of personal hours into helping the managing director prepare a proposal which brought in £1.5 million in revenue.

My chief executive coachee believes that one strategy might be to merge with a larger, related charity.  Such a merger would reduce overheads, and, with a larger activity, would make fund raising easier.  But the trustees seem to feel that the charity would lose its identity, and they are insisting on meeting with the charity’s employees to get their opinions.  I think it’s pretty obvious that most employees, being worried about job security, will oppose any merger.  Some of the trustees seem to be so emotionally wedded to the current identity of the charity that they are unable to see that there is a larger question: which is better: a charity that does things differently with a different identity or no charity at all?

The chief executive is struggling to keep the trustees from behaving like lemmings and diving, en mass, into the sea.  We want to keep the trustees moving toward a rational decision: talk to other charities about their views on a potential merger.  In the meetings that he and I have, we talk about the details of how to: instill a sense of urgency; keep things rational; obtain a decision, and often, in our discussions, I will suggest a tactic, or an approach that he hadn’t thought of.

So, I got to thinking about the similarities between a coach and a literary editor.  As you may know, I don’t have a literary editor, but I would really like to have one.  An editor would be someone who might say: “These couple of pages don’t really add anything to your theme.  Cut it down to one well-constructed paragraph” or “This character would be more interesting and would add emphasis to your theme if you exposed this trait in her character” or “This section here comes across as foggy; what are you trying to say?”

As it is, I have to rely on my own judgement, but like the chief executive, I may sometimes miss a crucial point or detail.  And, I’m sure my writing would benefit from having an editor.

My publisher doesn’t offer an editorial service.  There is a lady who reviews submissions and accepts or rejects them, as submitted, in their entirety.  Traditional publishers have assigned editors who read the entire manuscript carefully, and suggest changes before publication.

I realize that I could hire an editor to review my manuscript.  But apart from the fact that I, personally, would have to pay him/her, the editor wouldn’t be part of a publication team that knows the market and is working together to please readers and increase sales.

So, I guess what I’m saying is that I, too, would like to have a coach, and that I haven’t given up on the idea of working with a traditional publisher.