The march of the digital e-readers continues, and the pace is only expected to quicken. As the prices of the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle devices are lowered, content is added, and features are improved, analysts see consumer acceptance of e-readers increasing at a faster-than-expected pace. In a report released Oct. 7 called "Forrester's eReader Holiday Outlook 2009," Forrester Research predicted that sales of e-readers will be a rare bright spot for holiday sales; it revised its estimates for total 2009 sales upward by 33% to 3 million units, with sales volume doubling through 2010. The newest digital reading option entering the fray is the Vook, a video/book hybrid launched on Oct. 1.
Simon & Schuster (www.simonandschuster.com) is partnering with Emeryville, Calif.-based Vook (www.vook.com) to publish four titles exclusively via Vook's newly launched digital book platform, which combines text and video into a single, integrated "viewing experience." Social interaction is also baked into the platform, with links allowing readers to follow authors on Facebook and Twitter.
The idea behind a "vook" is to combine high-quality, professionally produced video alongside the digital text in a way that adds depth to the information presented. Think of a physical trainer demonstrating the exercises he or she has described or a chef showcasing a particularly tricky cooking technique. For fiction offerings, vooks use text and video interdependently to advance the plot and to enhance the sense of place.
Bradley Inman, founder and chief executive officer of Vook, says the idea isn't to create a video of a printed book but rather to enhance the reading experience using all the tools that the web provides. Inman says the thought was, "What if we had a filmmaker and an author work together on this, to create something completely new?"
In the case of Promises, a romance by best-selling author Jude Deveraux, filmmaker Robert Sobul spent time with Deveraux determining where a video clip could enhance an emotion or a feeling in the novella. The thriller Embassy by Richard Doetsch uses video in a more concrete style; for instance, a mock newscast reveals the identity of a crime victim.
The videos are produced by another company founded and led by Inman, TurnHere (www.turnhere.com), which boasts a network of some 10,000 filmmakers globally. Inman says announcements of more publishing partners will be made over the next few months and that the company plans to roll out new titles every other week.
Judith Curr, executive vice president and publisher of Atria Books, the Simon & Schuster division involved in the first rollout, had reservations about previous efforts to combine video and text in the online reading experience, feeling that it distracted the reader from the story. "But Vook is different because this technology allows you to remain within the world of the story," Curr says, underpinning the power of the narrative.
A key part of Vook's appeal is that, unlike a conventional e-reader, users do not purchase a separate device for accessing their vooks. Instead, they choose between a web browser-based platform or an iPhone/iPod touch mobile application. While Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps believes that the web-based option will have limited appeal due to its lack of portability, she points out that "More people have iPhones than Sony Readers and Amazon Kindles put together." The brisk pace of downloads for other iPhone e-readers such as Lexcycle's Stanza (www.lexcycle.com) and Barnes & Noble's e-reader (www.ereader.com/ereader/home.htm) would seem to underscore the consumer preference for books on the go versus at the desktop. However, the web-based option may also draw on the appeal of mobility-and expand Vook's market in doing so-as netbooks, laptops, tablets, and other portable computing devices all reach the web.
The applications itself is free, with the user paying for each book purchased; introductory pricing is $6.99 for access via the web browser and $4.99 for mobile access. Final pricing for the books are still undetermined, according to Inman. "With this first version we're studying consumer behavior with Vook, and we've undertaken an exhaustive customer survey." He expects the feedback from buyers to inform product and pricing decisions in a new version that should come out within 60 days.
A big challenge for Vook will be creating that original video content without pushing prices so high that readers are turned off before they can get used to the hybrid style of a vook. "The way they are creating original content is fascinating, but it's not scalable," says Epps-particularly when compared with an approach such as Google's in which books are simply digitized from their print format. Inman, however, believes the very originality and customization of the video in each vook will help inspire people to pay. "We're at a tipping point with premium content," he says. "We have to give people a reason to rationalize spending."
Early impressions of Vook in the blogosphere have been decidedly mixed, with reviewers lauding the video/text mashup approach for nonfiction. Even Curr notes that "For nonfiction, Vook is a perfect marriage of form and function." Indeed, the format might work well for textbook publishers actively seeking ways to increase the value of their content offerings; it's easy to imagine an art theory textbook embedding video clips of a painter demonstrating particular brush techniques to clarify the lessons of the text, for instance.
But others feel that Vook's multimedia mashup may be distracting for a fiction reader who prefers to get lost in a story without switching between media formats and social networks. Curr believes the naysayers are being shortsighted. "I'm a big believer in the power of story and in books. But I'm not selling a book-that happens to be its form-but I'm selling content. Vook is about content being expressed in different ways, and that is the future of publishing." Within a few days of the launch, Curr had received her first author submission written specifically for Vook.
Whatever Vook looks like today, it's likely to evolve quickly. "We're like Lewis and Clark in Missouri trying figure out which way to take the river. The idea here is to experiment," says Inman. "We want to see if using video will inspire nonreaders to read and perhaps inspire readers to see the value of online videos."