(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 Sophie was originally made for educational purposes, with the idea that students in developing countries would be able to benefit from multimedia ‘books’ in easily transferrable,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
  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com Gavin

    It’s something I think about from time to time: the Internet allows us to create multi-media experiences (podcasts, videos, forums, music, pictures alongside text) and I think that’s great. But it’s not always necessary. The features won’t matter if there’s not also a good story.

  • http://www.midnightreading.com/rocket Pete Tzinski

    I sometimes wonder if it’s just a generational thing, and I’m just not built to like the multimedia idea for storytelling, like they’re offering…or if it’s actually a rubbish idea.

    I’ve seen a few sites that do try to offer me a text story, and videos and audio and places to text and so on. And the only time I can think of it working is when the story is, by itself, complete…and all that other stuff is just extras. It’s just the equivalent of the bonus features on a DVD. In those instances, I think it’s pretty cool.

    …beyond that, the word “vook” just irritates me… :)

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Gavin: agreed. Which leads us to ask: how many authors are there who can adapt quick enough? As in to make full use of a multimedia platform to create compelling fiction? There are some in We Tell Stories, especially that of the Google Maps novel … but those require a team of people – programmers and designers and writer all working together. Is a team of people any less good than an individual author writing a novel? Why? Why not?

    @Peter: I wonder about that too. But whether or not it’s a generational thing would only be apparent 10, 20 years down the road. I’ve a nagging feeling that the multimedia approach to storytelling isn’t as horrible as I’m assuming here, and that it can and probably will catch on, but certainly not as an ‘ebook’ format. Maybe online …

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com Gavin

    I think there are two approaches to that:

    1) as an individual, slowly adding extras like a DVD, I like what Pete said. For instance, (and I’m not a great example, but I’m drawing from my own experience here) I put up character sketches on the original NMAI site, and then a “family tree” of how characters are connected, when fans asked. I think I could do a better one, but at the time even my rough efforts were appreciated.

    I think fans like to see personal touches, and embellishments, and an individual can work away at that.

    Then there’s the team approach — I think it still has to be rooted and connected to the story. But a team can do a lot — there’s the map example, and remember that site you told us about with the flash media, clicking items to get more text? I think it’s possible to weave in videos, like youtube on blogs, pictures, music — it would be interesting to see all that come together. I’d love to do a teaser-trailer for the NMAI book on like Youtube and see what happens — I just have no idea how to even post a video online.

  • http://www.vook.com Brad Inman

    Thoughtful analysis. I agree with most of what you said.
    Would love to share prototype with you.

  • http://noveloflife.wordpress.com/welcome Lethe

    You never really know what’s going to take off. Take, for example, the site “Second Life”. It’s a huge hit. People create worlds inside of it. Not how I would like spending my time exercising my creativity, but hey, some people really enjoy this medium.

    As an online fiction writer who integrates pictures, video, quotations, links and text into my work–I am curious about this project. I absolutely agree with Gavin. All the gadgets in the world aren’t going to make a difference if the stories have no staying power. I write the story first and add links, photos, YouTube videos last. All of which, with the exception of the single image I choose at the beginning of each of my chapters, are links. Links are present to extend the story or but they can easily be ignored by the reader. I think of it in the same way an author might use footnotes.

    Too much multimedia can ruin a good story. Then again, some online novels thrive on multimedia. But these novels become a different beast. I can’t even call them “novels” after a certain point.

    The hype is probably coming from the rich possibilities that are present at this time in technology. Whether the software of Vook is slick enough to compel users to create with it is another matter. Possibilities can soon become fantasies–such as in the demise of “hypertext”. Hypertext in the 90′s actually gave way to blogging in the late 90′s and up to the present. Why does it work so well? An utterly simple technology that can be used in a million ways–it’s cross-purpose technology. Blogging has truly changed how we communicate and express ourselves.

    My predictions (just because predictions are fun). Some users will be able to create compelling projects with it, but most won’t. Without enough compelling stories, who’s going to read let alone buy?

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Gavin: The acid test of the medium: if you strip away all that multimedia and leave just the text … will the work still make sense? If it does, then I don’t regard that work as multimedia-based any longer. It appears to me that the only way a multimedia format can gain acceptance is if it’s so integral to the piece that if you strip it away its music, or its interactivity, the work as a whole would no longer make sense. That is multimedia. Attaching snazzy stuff to a text story written beforehand is just bloat. A truly multimedian approach to storytelling would mean writing the project for multiple mediums from the start … and how many writers are up to that challenge? (nudges Gavin to go get video cam and mike and write one)

    @Brad: Hello there. =) Welcome to Novelr! Throw me a line through Novelr’s contact form about that prototype and I’ll see what I can do for you …

    @Chris: In one sense you’re right – hindsight is 50/50. But here’s where you’re mistaken: Second Life came out at a time when multiple game producers were putting out virtual worlds, so it isn’t correct to say that Second Life had no chance in succeeding. Etopia, for instance, came out around the same time Second Life did, though it never really took off. And remember: there’s Everquest, which was making a lot of money way before SL was released, though Everquest appealed to the hardcore gamer demographic. The first step in asking whether or not a product can work is to check to see if it’s the first of it’s kind: if it isn’t and there’s no dominant product of its type, then yes, it probably is a good idea (for multiple people to have come up with it) … so yes, there’s a shot at making it.

    Also: hypertext never died, Chris. Everytime somebody links to somebody else in a body of text … that’s hypertext right there. All that’s happened is that hypertext evolved. Wikipedia is still essentially hypertextual, as is the blogosphere. You can’t run away from it … it is, after all, the way the web was built.

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com Gavin

    @Eli — I think I see what you’re saying, and it parallels something I was thinking a while back. For No Man an Island, I liked Pete’s approach — sketches and family trees as “DVD extras.” Funnily enough, I’ve slowly started doing “Author Commentary” on my new site, kind of like “Director’s Commentary,” giving behind-the-scenes insight to some chapters.

    But that’s creating an extra for an existing story. A multi-media story would NEED media as a necessary part of the story, and I think that’s what you’re talking about. The story would fall apart without it. I criticized someone’s “fictional blog” for not doing that once — they mentioned in their text their photo site — and I said a realistic blog wouldn’t just mention it, there would be a link. To create the reality of the story, those embellishments should be there.

    I’ll come back to this later. Gotta get my kid to school. :)

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com Gavin

    So I took my daughter to school and then my sons and I went to the mall. They’re little, so they were more there for moral support and so their mom could sleep.

    Anyway, I immediately went to the Sony store, because it was closer to the mall entrance I used than Radio Shack. Radio Shack changed its name, but I can’t remember the new name at all, so it’s still Radio Shack in my heart.

    Anyhoo, I went to the Sony store and looked at camcorders, because the one we got at our wedding wasn’t compatible with our laptop. I saw that I’d have to save some serious money for the fancy, directly Youtube compatible 2009 model. Then, the helpful salesman showed me a new product.

    The Vdr-Mc3 — which can record digital photographs, camcorder, dvd, straight from television or VHS, at the touch of a single button. It’s really an amazing product. He said he can even attach a microphone and cdplayers to it, and record music (for fun, it’s not like studio quality) so that films have a soundtrack.

    It’s only about $230 (in Canada) but I predict this little sucker will not only make home movies, but it (and technology like it) will make multi-media web experiences more possible.

    here’s a link: http://www.sonystyle.ca/commerce/servlet/ProductDetailDisplayView?storeId=10001&catalogId=10001&langId=-1&productId=1003365

    So I know what I want for Father’s Day. How does that affect fiction? Well, here are some ideas I’ve had:

    1. A realistic blog — staying entirely in character, relating the character’s life and observations with video, art, text, links, photos, etc. Maybe even a fictional Facebook account to link to. On one level, there’s the creativity of making their life realistic and interactive. On another level, the story could become increasingly fictionalized: aliens, superpowers, monsters, magic — but fun and interactive nonetheless.

    2. A multimedia story, where it’s necessary to see things instead of just read text about them. My first idea is a detective story, with pictures and videos of clues and crime scenes. It would take a lot of prep work, but the payoff would be in creating scenes the readers would be searching for clues and trying to solve the mystery before the protagonist.

    3. Penpals — communication back and forth between two fictional people, involving their emails, photos — like the blog idea, but with characters interacting and building some relationship. The audience would be eavesdropping, listening to playlists, watching videos, etc.

    Now, a design team (instead of an individual) could create this stuff a lot faster but it’s still workable for one person. The trick is getting people to “act” in the videos as characters consistently — or being clever enough to never show faces and still make it engaging? Logistical details aside, I’ll probably think of more ideas later.

    But, that’s not bad for 24 hours.

  • Jan Oda

    Since I’ve read about Sophie here, I was thinking about writing a short novel about it. 5 friends would take a roadtrip and start a blog about it. (This would be an actual blog online). The Sophie Book would include the blog, but also what happened ‘behind the scenes’, and what they don’t share with their audience. This could include postcards sent, telephones home (including a very dirty break-up), home-movies beside the camp-fire and so on…

    So it doesn’t have to be a crime or detective story in my eyes. It needs to be realistic that the’re multi media witnessess of the story.

    As for Vook itself, I can’t help it, but I always feel a small dismay if something is hyped before there is anything to be seen.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Gavin: You’ll have to write a script and all that for it to work … ooh I can’t wait to see what you come up with =)

    @Jan Oda: If you’re going to do that, be careful about the cohesion of the piece – I think there are specific tones and styles for each medium and it’ll do to make sure each component blends with the others.

    Also: agreed =) It risks being called vaporware, that’s for sure.

  • http://www.eveda.org Iouri Haller

    I did not to look Sophia. MAC. Vook – while too it will be not clear what. We make two years experiments with multimedia EBooks. But only 4 books are published. We carry on negotiations on the invitation of the well-known actors to scoring of roles, composers, artists. We prepare the first full-format multimedia ebook. By my experience – only technology Adobe Flash it is capable to support multimedia Ebook. Also good financing is necessary. As the trand on multimedia ebook already develops. There are at least 4 analogues. And commerce or education questions…
    Good multimedia EBook will consult and with that and another!
    Good luck!

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I took a look at your site and … wow. The amount of ads there pretty much blinded me for a bit. I don’t suppose you’ve gotten a lot of multimedia ebook downloads?

  • http://www.eveda.org Iouri Haller

    It is not ads. It is a multi-media. Such marketing. The cover and the text is for usual ebook. Multimedia EBook do not read the book, it to “play”. Only 4 books, the new authors, new marketing. Certainly – a lot downloads. Under each book it is necessary to make video EBook Trailer, a free preview, pdf version, the mobile version, translation into English… That in the existing market to receive a share. Strong stereotypes.
    The budget last year has come to an end. A lot of work, but is not enough financing. Thanks!
    And what – about Ebooks?

  • http://www.cosproductions.com Sheila

    Whether or not Vook will catch on will be at least interesting to watch. I wish them all the best. If there is something out there that encourages reading in an exciting way I am all for it.

    I may be a bit more optimistic because in 2002 I trademarked the term “Book trailer” and started a book trailer production company that is now thriving. At that time I was awarded the trademark because you couldn’t even find it on Google. And we couldn’t find anyone in the industry who could tell us what one was. Lucky me.
    But, during my meetings in NYC with publishers, while I tried to tell them book video was going to be big in the future, I had one publishing executive tell me that it was the “Stupidest idea” he’d ever heard and went so far as to imply that I was also stupid.

    That publisher is now one of my biggest clients. “Stupid idea”-guy no longer works there.

    The point is, you just don’t know what will catch on. As we all know, risk takers have to be good at failure just as they have to be prepared for success.

  • http://noveloflife.wordpress.com/welcome chris

    Little off the topic of Vook, but my Novel of Life was just published to Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0029XGUYG

    If you want to put your blog novel on Kindle go here:

    https://kindlepublishing.amazon.com/gp/vendor/sign-in

    Best,
    Chris

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Chris: 1st reaction: that’s AWESOME!

    2nd reaction: wait, I’m a little confused. That’s a blog subscription, isn’t it?

    @Sheila: I like your last line, and I think you’re right with your first as well. Whatever happens, I’ll definitely be keeping a close eye on the format.

  • http://noveloflife.wordpress.com/welcome chris

    Eli,

    My novel is published on a blog . . .

    Also, you still haven’t responded to my email about Twitter. Novelists need to take advantage of this technology. It’s working for me. I’m up to 200 hits a day on my novel!

    Chris

  • http://vook.com/ Mattehw

    All,

    Matthew from Vook here. I really appreciate all the thoughtful responses and ideas both in this blog post and in the comments. You can see that our founder Brad Inman even stopped by to share a word. I’d love it if all of you would follow us on Twitter for more information about what we’re doing and the digital book market generally and if you’d sign up for our Beta (http://vook.com/) — we really need feedback and input from people like you.

    Furthermore, please contact me at Matthew [at] Vook [dot] Com to discuss any of this further. I would love to be in touch with you personally.

    Again, the beta is here:
    http://vook.com/

    And the twitter is here:

    http://twitter.com/vook

    Thanks again!

    Matthew

  • Pingback: Some Looks at Vooks | Confluence Book Services

  • http://tanagerretreat.com Jerry Ellis

    I’ve taken a serious look at Vook and I’m impressed with their intent. It seems that the Vook could lift the reading/viewing/listening experience to a new level. They are currently interested my most popular book published first by Delacorte Press and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize: WALKING THE TRAIL, ONE MAN’S JOURNEY ALONG THE CHEROKEE TRAIL OF TEARS. It’s sold over 250,000 copies and I’d love to see it read by more students who might otherwise not read very much. A Cherokee, I chronicle my 900 mile along the Trail of Tears and write about the history of the Indian removal, people I meet and the spiritual aspects of my both personal and universal trek.