Digital Dystopia – A Cautionary Tale

Yesterday, my friend Laure Baudot emailed me to tell me that one of her stories has been published by Found Press. She’s understandably stoked to have one of her stories picked up (I should think she’s also pretty happy that Sarah Selecky gave her work such a ringing endorsement and to be sharing an issue with the likes of Jessica Westhead). FPQ is a digital journal, so if you’d like to read Laure’s story (and a new story from Jessica Westhead) you can buy  it here (the price for the entire issue is $3.75).

However (and here we get to the cautionary tale part) be aware that you might have to labour a little before you have Laure’s words nestling gently on your hard drive. I did. It’s not Laure’s fault, and I don’t think it’s Found Press’s either. It’s just the current state of play in the digital book world. Found Press offers its stories (you can buy them by the story, for $0.99 each, or by the issue) in two formats – EPUB and MOBI. That’s entirely logical. They are currently the two most common formats for e-publishing, and give you the greatest coverage of devices and computing platforms for the least effort. So far so good.

Most of my digital book-buying has been done on my Kindle, which, for all its faults, does make the whole process quick and painless. Just a click of the buy button and the book is on the device a few seconds later. So I wasn’t prepared for the sink-hole which was about to open up at my feet when I chose the EPUB format and clicked the buy button on Found Press’s site.

I didn’t mind filling in the form which asked for my contact details. FPQ seems like something I’ll buy again in the future, so I was happy to take a minute to fill in my details. I waited for the email giving me access to the product. I recently purchased the second volume of Sarah Selecky’s Little Bird stories (not, you understand, by Sarah Selecky – it’s a competition she runs) by a similar process so at this point I was still sanguine that I’d have the issue any minute.

Sure enough, an email popped into my inbox a few minutes later, giving me a link which would download the file. I clicked it, and sure enough it downloaded almost instantly. So far so good.

Now I don’t think I’m a technological dinosaur. I may be the wrong side of 40 (ahem,,, 50) but my first degree was an electronics degree, and my masters was in digital systems. I’ve designed and built circuitry. I’ve coded in hexadecimal. I’ve worked on operating systems, and developed circuitry on digital simulators. I should have no problem accessing a stoopid little digital text file. Should I?

I imagined, in fact, that I’d probably have some little app already sitting on my Mac that would open the little doohicky up right away, and I could get reading. Notso. TextEdit wanted to have a go when I tried to open the file (I always try the simplest thing first – clicking on the downloaded file seemed like the way to go). I knew it wouldn’t work, of course, so I shut it down and looked around for another likely candidate. Adobe Reader didn’t seem interested, and neither did anything else. Back to the Found Press page. It suggested a couple of options:

EPUB files can be uploaded to and read on most non-Kindle e-readers. They can also be read on PCs and Macs, tablets, smartphones, and iPods, using a variety of free programs and apps such as Adobe Digital Editions, Stanza, Kobo, and iBooks.

My first inclination was to try Stanza. I downloaded it, copied it to my Applications folder and fired it up. Here’s what Stanza told me:


So, 20 minutes into the process, and I’m still no closer to getting hold of FPQ5, but I have a tangle of meaningless gobbledygook to untie. Never one to slavishly adhere to the advice of my parents (advice like Don’t Give Up at the First Obstacle and  Persistence Wins The Day) I gave up on Stanza and went in search of Adobe Digital Editions instead.

Now I’m a little steamed, so when it asks me (for the 2nd time in 20 mins) for my contact details, I’m less than impressed. I register, log in and finally (yay!) download yet another file, drag it to Applications and fire it up. Miraculously, it works. I now have FPQ5. At last.

But it was too hard to get it. Way too hard. WAAAAAYYYYY too hard. That’s me shouting. People less persistent than me (or more technologically challenged) would have given up a long time before they actually got their hands on the product. Actually, to be honest, I would have probably given up too, except I’d already paid for it. I felt as if I’d just crawled through razor wire and under a couple of machine gun emplacements to reach an enemy target. It certainly didn’t feel like shopping.

We have to figure this stuff out. People don’t want to be bothered with formats and standards, platforms and performance. They wanna read. That’s all. That’s why physical books are genius. All the fussing and nonsense that gets the book into our hands is hidden in the background, and we don’t have to deal with it. That’s the way it should be in the digital domain too. It should be invisible to the reader. It’s not my friend Laure’s job to figure this out, she just writes the stories. It’s probably beyond Found Press’s power to figure it out too – they are all about finding an audience for the stories. It’s the job of the software developers, the device manufacturers, the platform builders. Currently it’s a mess. Figure it out guys. Quickly. Before a generation of readers gives up and goes off to do something easier, and more fun.




4 responses to “Digital Dystopia – A Cautionary Tale

  1. There is a business waiting to be built…

  2. You’re probably right Ben, and it’s something I’ve thought about. But I have a feeling that the Adobes and Kobos of the world will figure it out in the next 2 to 3 years and that the room for a middle-man mediator between the text and the platform/software combination may be squeezed. Though maybe not. The ePub3 standard is supposed to be addressing the problem, but actually, no devices currently support it (where’s the emoticon for a disconbobulated face when you need it?). I’ll be having more to say on this issue in a future guest piece for TechCrunch. I’ll keep you posted.

  3. This is exactly why I’m avoiding digital books. You’re a bigger man than I. I would have pitched the thing across the room.

  4. That’s the softball player coming out in you Dale. Me? I’m a footballer at heart (AKA soccer player), so it would come more naturally to me to volley it into the street 😉
    Imagine going into a book shop and being offered our book in several different formats, which we then have to unpack ourselves before we can actually read it. No self-respecting retailer would put up with it…

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