Laughing at (not with) the Gary Shteyngart App

Random House publicity has done a great job pulling out all the stops for the ubiquitous Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, including an actually worthwhile author video. There was one serious misstep, however.

My rule of online marketing is similar to a memorable upbraiding by a certain chaos theory mathematician in a certain blockbuster movie about dinosaurs: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” The Shteyngart app reeks of groupthink and misguidedness. Let’s run a short experiment: in one minute, write down all the features you’d like to see in an app for a well-known satirical novelist. (It’s okay if your answer is: “I don’t care, just give me the book.”)

I came up with some basics: information beyond reviews and Wikipedia, excerpts of his books, and reflowable type so I could read it equally well on the iPhone and iPad. One may assume this third request is a no-brainer, but alas. Oh, and since the new novel’s characters sport a popular mobile device called an äppärät, perhaps a few imaginary capabilities befitting a futuristic phone?

The actual app is clearly built for iPhones – when I run it on my iPad, the interface only takes up the center 50% of the screen, leaving a large black border. If I zoom on the interface to fill the screen, the entire app pixelates into a blur. (I’ve never seen this with any other app.) Moving past its insistence on being read on a smaller screen, I decided to read the first chapter of the new novel. You know, the one that’s been getting all the coverage. And the reason they built the app and echoed its cover throughout.

No such luck. While I can read excerpts from Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, I’m shit out of luck with the new one. I can click to read reviews, or buy it online. (Gee, thanks.) This may have been related to first serial rights, though that’s just a guess. It would be comic if it weren’t so bone-headed. (I then proceeded to the Kindle app for iPhone to download a sample.)

But look, you can find the author’s tours and events. Perfect. I knew he was reading at Greenlight Bookstore – let’s check the start time. …Or not. Though I checked the app a few days before the New York event, I saw only a listing for a DC appearance in the “Upcoming” section.

Okay, enough caviling. The real problem here is one plaguing several new tech projects in publishing. Nobody in the room bothers to ask, “What would the user want?” There are basic errors here that any test user would sniff out instantly. This is the equivalent of buying a full-page ad and forgetting to add the book’s title. (Who cares, right? The ad looks great!) Here’s hoping by the time the Super Sad True Love Story paperback releases they’ll create an app worth downloading.

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Filed under industry, mobile

2 responses to “Laughing at (not with) the Gary Shteyngart App

  1. Pingback: ‘Super Sad True Love’ coinage  ¶  Personal Weblog of Joe Clark, Toronto

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