Issues with Issuu: An Open Letter to Literary Magazines

Dear literary magazines,

I’m writing you this letter to beseech you not to use Issuu and to explain why I feel so strongly about it. I will be as concise as I can, but the platform has many problems.

Let’s start with the most obvious: Nobody visiting your website on an iPhone or iPad will be able to read the work you care so much about. Issuu uses Flash, and there is no Flash on those devices. (In fact, Adobe has stopped developing mobile Flash plugins for any phone.)

It’s true that Issuu has a reader app for iOS, but that doesn’t help you when somebody clicks a link to your website from their chosen iPhone Twitter app, for example. It only helps if you put your entire publication out via the Issuu iOS Reader (which you probably don’t) and a user of the app decides to subscribe. I’d stake my reputation on that fact that most of your readers do not subscribe to any version of your content—print or, for example, RSS—and won’t likely become subscribers just to see your content in the Issuu reader.

A second, related problem is that Flash is clunky in the Mac OS. It crashes often and is notoriously slow and insecure. Personally, I have had enough seemingly Flash-based problems with Issuu that unless I have a really good reason to want to read some piece of writing presented to me in Issuu—like, maybe my wife wrote it—I usually don’t.

A third technological problem with Issuu is that web searches for content you present in Issuu don’t ever lead searchers to your site. By Issuu’s own admission, because they always host the actual content and serve it to your visitors via your embed code, searches that turn up your content will point to issuu.com instead of awesomelitmag.com.

Maybe someday Issuu will abandon Flash (which it seems like they will have to) and come up with some unique way of delivering to you the search-engine traffic that should be yours (a task in which I’m sure they have no interest). Even then, there would be reasons to avoid them. These are mostly usability concerns, the kinds of things that ultimately cost you readers.

The usability issues that seem to matter most all stem from the fact that reading Issuu content requires switching to a full-screen interface. This makes for a worse user experience (UX) in several ways.

First, it’s a long-held tenet of web usability that the interface must prioritize “user control and freedom,” in the words of Jakob Nielsen, the godfather of the field. (Nielsen’s time-tested software interface design principles have been usefully adapted for the web by Keith Instone and Jess McMullin and Grant Skinner, among others) When a website forces users into a full-screen interface in order to read its core content, it violates this critical principle.

Second, Issuu’s particular implementation of full-screen reading also requires users to learn a new interface. The power of the web lies in its consistency across sites: I click a link; I’m on a page; I’m looking at the content I wanted to see. The browser, in other words, is the interface we have all already learned, and the one that websites should take as much advantage of as possible. (“Follow platform conventions,” writes Nielsen; Issuu doesn’t even use a standard Print icon.)

Issuu's controls
Issuu’s many controls. (Click for a larger version.)

Issuu’s interface includes not only the many little icons and buttons shown at right, but also a set of controls tied to things like your arrow keys and scroll wheel. All of this must be learned by new users, and re-learned again and again by occasional users. In its failure to provide any readily available documentation (like tips appearing, after delay, on rollover; or a single, unobtrusive “Help” link), Issuu also violates Nielsen’s final usability guideline.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons to create a new interface and force users to learn it. Or really, there is one: because you are providing a new function—and there are plenty of new functions you can provide. Tweeting, for example, or playing and pausing a video. Reading is not a new function. Reading is the foundational function of the Internet. It’s the only thing—literally the only thing—that every single browser can handle, right down to text browsers and screen-readers for the visually impaired.

Speaking of the visually impaired, they can’t use Issuu—not if they’re using the specialized browsers developed for them. So if you don’t want to lose them as readers, you’d better be sure Issuu provides their browsers with an alternative form of the content. (I don’t believe it does.) Failing to do that is the smaller-scale moral equivalent of not having a wheelchair-accessible entrance to your building. In a way, it’s worse (depending on what’s in the building), because while it costs a lot of money to pour a concrete ramp, not using Issuu is absolutely free.

Finally, although again it is a fact of the Internet that I will have to click several times to accomplish my browsing goals in any given scenario, it is never a good idea to add extraneous clicks. Forcing users who have just clicked a link (from Twitter, say, or from your home page) expecting to read a piece of writing to click again before they can do so is bad form and likely to cost you readers.

I would be remiss if I didn’t close by offering you a pair of possible alternatives. The first and most obvious is to use whatever web publishing platform you have in place to publish your magazine’s content—not just your blog and your “About” page.

The second is just to link to a PDF or, better, a series of PDFs, one for each piece in your magazine. This latter solution will get you out of some—not necessarily all—of the usability hurdles, and will be far better for both search-engine optimization and compatibility with technology used by the visually impaired (so long as the PDFs are well-formed). I would encourage you only to go this route if you have some very compelling reason to do so, and I can’t think of one.

As I mention it, I honestly don’t know what drove some of you to Issuu in the first place. If you felt like letting me know, I would be more than happy to help you think through (and possibly implement) other alternatives that more specifically address your needs.

Most sincerely,
Devan

P.S.: May I call you “lit mags” in any future correspondence?

How not to Email a Professor: A Lesson on Audience

Professor Michael Leddy’s “How to email a professor” is making the rounds on Facebook for the third time in as many years. While there’s much good advice in there, there’s also advice that seems useful mostly for students with professors who think like Leddy.

There are other ways to think, though, and examining a handful of differences between Leddy’s perspective and how I would have my students email me provides us with an interesting chance to think about the role of audience in professional communication (as I do in my advice at the end of this post). In what follows, I use Leddy’s headings to aid the reader in her comparisons of our positions.

I should say quickly that Leddy’s post dates from over six years ago, and his own opinions may well have changed in the interim. So I direct this post not to him, but to students and faculty everywhere. [Rainbow appears.]

“Write from your college or university email account.”

College and university email accounts that I’ve used are spam-ridden, have inconvenient webmail interfaces, and lack features for integration with desktop clients (e.g., fully-supported IMAP access). I try never to use mine; frankly I’d rather get a Facebook message from a student than a message to any institutional email address.

And while I agree that email addresses should be professional rather than “salacious”—which seems, at any rate, a strong word to describe any of the examples he uses (even “qtpie2005”)—I can’t see any difference in professionalism between “firstname.lastname@gmail.com” and the series of odd initials and numbers that comprise most email addresses. And since Gmail accounts are free, if I were the proverbial qtpie2005, I’d simply create a second account for my professional communications.

“Choose an appropriate greeting.”

Leddy bristles at “Dear ____,” but it’s quite common in my sphere. As a graduate student, many of my professors used it; I, in turn, picked up the habit of using it with my students, especially when addressing them as a group.

In fact, if I haven’t heard from a student before, I prefer they begin with “Dear,” as I would when writing to a colleague I didn’t know well, or to a writer who had submitted to the fledgling literary magazine I help out with. Here as in the first case, a student following Leddy’s advice would actually do slightly worse with me—to whatever insignificant extent they’d do better with Leddy, at least.

“Sign with your full name, course number, and meeting time.”

Leddy notes that signing “eliminates the need for stilted self-identification (‘I am a student in your such-and-such class’).” It seems to me, though, that making me scroll down to the end of your email to find out who’s email I’m reading is inconsiderate. If a student doubts that a professor will know him by name—as he probably should, depending on the class—he should identify himself as quickly as possible.

“Don’t send unexpected attachments.”

It’s not clear from Leddy’s post whether it’s the “attachments” or the “unexpected” that he has a bigger problem with, but the points he makes in this section and my responses are as follows:

  1. “It’s bad form.” Not so much an argument as an assertion, and one I couldn’t disagree with more. I’ve never thought for a second that it was rude to send me an attachment without some kind of prior authorization.
  2. “Attaching an essay with a request that your professor look it over is very bad form.” Context is everything. If a student wants to send me a draft to glance at, I am more than happy to do so, and it saves me time. If we have a lot to talk about, I will suggest we meet in person—but why should it be on the student’s shoulders to decide that for both of us? After all, I’m the teacher here; she’s the one who’s not sure how to feel about her paper.
  3. “Your professor is supposed to print out your essay because you’re not coming to class?” I never print out student work, and they only turn in work electronically. This issue is a non-starter for me.

My Advice: Know Your Audience.

To be fair, some of Leddy’s advice seems applicable across a far more broad sampling of professors (for example, “Proofread what you’ve written.”). Still, rather than issue a set of fixed rules, I would advise my students to learn as much as they can about how each of their professors prefers to communicate.

How? By observation, first of all. Start with the basics of professionalism, to be sure—and as always, Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab has a fine guide—but beyond that, read your professors’ emails carefully and respond in ways that seem consistent with their tone and formatting. (If this process seems familiar, consider how you’re learning to write the academic essays with which you’re all apparently surprising Prof. Leddy.)

Also, by asking. A simple question like “Do you prefer to be called Prof. Goldstein?” goes a long way. I’d rather play a part in shaping your professional communication to my liking than have Prof. Leddy do it for me.

Wheel of Fortune Before & After Rejects

I don’t know at what point I should consider this embarrassing and stop posting my rejected McSweeney’s lists, but I guess I’m not there yet.

Rejected Wheel of Fortune “Before and After” Puzzles

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON OF SAM

UNDER THE BOARDWALK OF SHAME

YOUR MOTHER IS SO FAT THAT WHEN I SAY SHE SITS AROUND THE HOUSE, I MEAN SHE REALLY SITS AROUND THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

VANNA WHITE SUPREMACIST

A Like-Button List

Had another list rejected by McSweeney’s, but I like this one enough to show you the whole thing. Without further ado:

What I Might Mean When I Click the Like Button Next to Your Comment on My Facebook Status Update

I like your comment.

I like you, though your comment leaves me disinterested.

I like that you left a comment, though your comment leaves me enraged and I don’t know how much I care for you anymore.

I don’t like you or your comment, but I worry about the consequences of your knowing my feelings.

I don’t like you or your comment, and I don’t care whether you find out, but I worry that others involved with this thread might think it callous of me not to acknowledge your comment, since everybody knows you have no friends and we all feel bad for you.

I don’t like you or your comment, and I don’t care whether you or anyone else finds out, but I’ve had a few to drink and in a moment of dizzy compassion, I thought I should Like your comment. I wake up to find myself mistaken, but I think that Unliking your comment the morning after would be too cruel a way to treat even you, given the night we’ve just had together, and given that I forgot my wallet and will have to borrow money from you for the breakfast we’re eating right now, while I check Facebook on my iPhone.

The Truth as Stronger than Fiction

In this week’s New Yorker, Daniel Mendelsohn has a fascinating look at the ancient and recent histories of the memoir genre. Naturally, he can’t help but address what might now be termed a subgenre, the “fraudulent memoir.” Wrapping up the section, he notes:

When readers defended Frey on the ground that his book, however falsified its “memories” were, had nonetheless (as he had hoped) provided them with the genuine uplift they were looking for, they were really defending fiction: an uplifting entertainment that can tell truths but cannot tell the truth.

Mendelsohn provides insightful evidence that James Frey’s own defense of A Million Little Pieces was indeed a defense of the role fiction has traditionally played. (“‘I wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require,’ Frey explained.”) But the claim that Frey’s third-party defenders take up the same argument doesn’t quite fit, because we don’t process fiction in the same way that we process non-fiction.

That is, I would bet that a recovering addict reading Frey’s book would only be so inspired if she thought that the book were true (in the “the truth” sense Mendelsohn mentions, not the “truths” sense). Her awareness of the book’s falsifications would interrupt the particular kind of attachment to the narrative that’s necessary for “uplift” to obtain. “If I can’t hang my hopes on somebody actually having made this kind of turnaround,” she might think, “what good is it?”

In other words, what we think we’re reading greatly affects how we feel about reading it—and this emotion, formed at the time of reading, cannot be erased from the history of our experiences once reading is through. Even now, we don’t read Frey’s book as fiction, exactly; it would no doubt make for a lousy novel, composed too far outside the structural and linguistic conventions of that form.

Instead, we read Frey’s book and others like it as partially made-up memoirs, as ruses that didn’t hold up, as fodder for our amateur detective sensibilities. That’s an entirely different experience—and, as I mean for my title to suggest, a weaker one (on affective terms)—than reading a novel for its “truths,” or than reading a memoir for its “the truth,” as it were.