Clean Reader, the ereader app that “prevents swear words in books from being displayed on your screen,” looks almost old news now, since it’s already been hit by such a shitstorm of the profanity it professes to screen out that it’s likely to find the going very difficult from here on. For one thing, Smashwords has come out publicly against the app, which comes only second to a boycott by Kindle in terms of stopping an ebook-linked product in its tracks. Smashwords’ Mark Coker said:

Books are works of art, and the art is manifested by the author’s word choice. You can’t block, change or censor words without changing the book.  I also think such an app is counter to the best interests of book culture. Books should be judged, celebrated and debated in their naked glory as their creators intended. The sanitization of books IMHO leads to greater ignorance and intolerance in the world. Books don’t need santization when proper categorization and honest book descriptions will do the trick.

Chuck Wendig, who has appeared in Teleread before, enlarges on the same point about word choice, stating that: “My consent matters when it comes to the book. If changes are necessary to the book — then I consent to making them. An editor sends me edits, I can say whether those edits fly or not. Just as the publisher can consent to the book they publish. That’s the deal. That’s how this works. And here you may say: But what of the consent of the reader? To which I respond: Your consent as a reader is being able to pick up the book or not.”

And if you want a quick no-brainer guide to how stupid as well as distorting Clean Reader can be, just look at this list of suggested replacements for ostensibly profane words – then imagine a serious Christological tome in which every occurrence of “Jesus Christ” is replaced by “geez,” or a German cuisine cookbook in which every occurrence of “wiener” is replaced by “groin.”

“Our initial release of this app has stirred up WAY more emotion than we ever anticipated,” stated the app’s creators, in an email to Joanne Harris, one of the legions of writers to object vociferously to its entire reason for being. ” We are certainly not interested in engaging in a battle with authors.” Well, they may not be, but seems like they got one.

Joanne Harris states clearly what I agree is one of the most telling objections to Clean Reader: “It’s clear from the list of words you consider ‘profane’ that this app is designed to impose a Christian agenda on books. This is insulting to non-Christians.” You do wonder whether Clean Reader would be anything like as effective at picking up racist, anti-Semitic, or other offensive language that isn’t specifically profane in the narrow Christian definition. This app is not just providing a screening service on behalf of parents, like any number of government-sponsored or other child protection filters – it is actively imposing a specifically sectarian agenda on works of art.

I’m not sure if that kind of implicit bias might make enough of a case for Clean Reader to be removed from the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store, but in any case, it seems to have triggered an outcry far out of proportion to its actual user base. The Google Play Store puts it down in the 500-1,000 installs range – hardly compelling usage figures.

And, as Joanne Harris appends, citing an anonymous poster, “How is the Clear Reader thing NOT a copyright violation if they’re changing the text in your work without permission? Excellent question, to which I have not, as yet, received a convincing answer…”

So Clean Reader may be about to die a death of a thousand f*cks: f*ck-yous and f*ck-off indifference. It can’t be soon enough.

Editor’s Note: Nate at Ink, Bits & Pixels has noted that the bookstore underlying Clean Reader has been pulled, effectively killing the app.



  1. What amazes me is that there are still readers who truly object to profanity. I have seen 1 star reviews were the main complaint is the cuss words: “This would have been a good book, but the heavy use of bad words made me put the book down. Clean up your act Mr. Author!” Yes, I really did read a review that told the author to clean it up.

    I suppose it’s an important concern for some readers which is why the Christian bent of Clean Reader is no surprise. Cuss words happen. Hemingway and Mailer famously had to convert the bad language into something inoffensive. Hemingway replaced the bad words with the word obscenity: e.g., a soldier might say something like “I obscenity in the milk of your obscenity mother.” Mailer had to use fug for fuck – but ass and shit were ok.

    Even more interesting is what counts as bad language. For example, old French had hundreds of words for shit because there were all kinds of different shit everywhere back then. Shit was commonplace. And in a world with few closed doors, fucking wasn’t a secret, and not offensive. To cuss you had to insult the Devine. Modern people might find God’s Blood quaint, but at one time it was worse than dropped the F bomb.

    Goodbye Clean Reader.

  2. Meant to write something on this, but didn’t get the chance. Think it’s worth noting that TeleRead has covered a Kickstarter for an app with a similar idea that failed to get off the ground. Nonetheless, a DVD player called ClearPlay that does the same thing for DVDs and streaming movies (blips out the obscenities by following specific search-and-replace editing instructions) was not only considered a legal fair use, it was explicitly declared legal by an Act of Congress.

    Given that Clean Reader similarly performed its edits within the app itself on the full text of the work, rather than selling a pre-expurgated version, it is arguable that it would have been considered fair use, just as ClearPlay was.

    Of course, nothing stops people from decompiling the e-book, searching and replacing words they don’t like, and recompiling it for their own personal use. (Well, nothing except DRM, and that probably won’t stop anyone already tech-savvy enough to edit an e-book document for bad words.)

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