(My) Problem With Vook

VookThere’s been some hype lately about Vook.tv and the new ebook format they’re putting out (i.e.: vook, as in I’m reading a good vook today … yes I know, the backlash over this name would probably suck). A vook is supposed to be a mixture of video, pictures, text, social media and community features. And while I can’t say that I’ve seen the actual implementation of the platform, I’d like to raise a few questions about the now recurring  idea that ebook formats can and should bring together multiple experiential mediums.

First, however: I’d like to point out that the Vook concept sounds vaguely similar to that of the Sophie project (first covered here and here) – which was originally conceived and produced by the fine people over at the Institute for the Future of the Book. Note the difference: Sophie is currently being developed by a private contractor for the University of South Carolina; Vook is a startup by entrepreneur Bradley Inman. 

There are two reasons why I think Sophie makes sense, and Vook does not. The first is that of reach. Sophie was originally made for educational purposes, with the idea that students in developing countries would be able to benefit from multimedia ‘books’ in easily transferrable, non-OS-specific form. Vook, on the other hand, appears to be aimed at a completely different audience – the about page on the admittedly snazzy Vook site tells us that ‘Authors and Publishers will directly benefit from this new distribution platform’, and that they aim to do everything from ‘creating new sources of revenue’ to providing a ‘turnkey media solution’. (A solution to what they don’t say, though we can assume that it’ll be to the current problems the publishing industry’s got at their doorsteps.)

The chief difference between the two is that the multimedia approach to ebook design only makes sense when you’re talking about education. I won’t mind my kids learning from Sophie ebooks in the future, probably because I think it’s pretty cool to watch a video on polar bears right after you’ve read a bit of text on the North Pole. But Vook is a commercial format, and it’ll be a hard sell convincing book buyers that they have to purchase a multi-sensory product as opposed to their traditional formatted text ebook. I don’t intend to watch video when I’m reading, the same way I don’t like listening to music when I’m curled up with a good non-fiction volume. And even if Vook says it’ll be just like reading blogs (and watching/listening to video/podcasts on said blogs), there is the added problem of perception associated with the ebook tag. Vook will have to single-handedly change the way the world sees digital books for the format to work, and that’s no small task for any company, even one as ambitious and as well-funded as this one appears to be.

The topic of funding brings us to the second problem with Vook: they are, in the end, trying to make money from this. Now leaving aside the obvious question of business model, let’s ask ourselves: how many publishers are willing to opt in to this format, dispensing in the process the traditional way they format and sell ebooks?[1] There aren’t likely to be many, I’d say. The one thing that Sophie has got going for it that Vook doesn’t is that Sophie doesn’t rely on commercial success to last – all they need is mainstream acceptance in educational programs a couple of years down the road – like, say, the One Notebook per Child initiative, and they’re good to go. Vook, on the other hand, would require a user-base and a marketplace for them to be sustainable in the long run, and while they fashion themselves to be the answer to the book-future, I’d rather think that Sophie has a better chance of being the format of choice for multimedia ebooks and for the publishing world at large.

In the end, what I’m trying to say here is that the amount of innovation in the current ebook market is exciting on a good day and crazy on a bad one. But whenever a new startup, like Vook, comes along and announces that the way forward is to combine video and music and whatever into the ebook format … I tend to get skeptical. I think the future of the book is tied to the future of written literature. And I’m inclined to believe that both futures depend largely on the way text is treated today – on the Internet, in our cellphones, and within our ebook readers.

1. i.e.: make digital copies of existing paper books, package them and then sell them to users who want multiple novels in their cellphone, mobile device, etc.

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Category: Publishing