Video and Books: Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together?

2/26/10Follow @wroush

If a book can be made from something other than paper—say, pixels on a screen—then why can’t it consist of something other than plain old words and pictures?

It can. Companies like Eastgate Systems in Watertown, MA, have been publishing PC-based interactive “hypertexts” for almost 30 years. Thanks to the built-in speech synthesis software on Amazon’s Kindle, every e-book can also be an audio book. And now a few publishers are experimenting with video books.

That phrase, video book, is where Emeryville, CA-based startup Vook gets its name. Since launching its first titles last fall, Vook has come out with 19 video books, in a variety of genres from cookbooks to adult fiction to children’s books to fitness and self-help. Most are available in two formats—a Web version for consumption on a laptop or desktop and an iPhone/iPod Touch version for people with Apple devices.

This week I’ve been exploring two Vook titles (I refuse to refer to them using the company’s lower-case noun “vook”—it’s just too ugly). I’m pleased to say that they have exceeded my expectations.

I went into this as a skeptic. While I’m not someone who needs to be persuaded about the power of multimedia technology, I’ve seen enough poor-quality multimedia concoctions to know that the “multi” is only as good as the media. Simply throwing in a random video or making certain words into Wikipedia hyperlinks does not automatically enhance a text. In fact, adding digital goodies will more than likely detract from the simple pleasure of reading, unless the new material meets a few important criteria.

First, it must be relevant to, but different from, the text itself—providing information in a way that truly exploits the capabilities of the additional medium. Second, it should have high production values. I’m not asking for Emmy-winning quality here, but at least show me where you’ve put as much thought and work into your video as the author put into his words. Third, the added material should be both balanced with the text (I’m talking about volume—neither too little nor too much; let the main text do the driving) and smoothly integrated into it (meaning, for example, that it should be easy to switch back and forth between the text and the added media).

The Sherlock Holmes ExperienceI’ve read two Vook titles so far, and I’d give both of them decent grades on my scorecard. (By the way, my three criteria are purely personal. There are plenty of other critics with their own definitions of what makes good multimedia.)

The video books I picked were The Sherlock Holmes Experience, a double feature including the Arthur Conan Doyle stories “The Man with the Twisted Lip” and “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” and Crush It! Why NOW Is the Time To Cash In on Your Passion, by wine impresario Gary Vaynerchuk. The Holmes title goes for $2.99, and the Vaynerchuk costs $6.99. I read both books on my iPhone.

I’ll comment first on the Sherlock Holmes book, since it’s the less successful of the two and shows some of the pitfalls inherent in multimedia projects. If I were a producer at Vook, I’m not sure I would have dared to tackle the Holmes stories, given that they are, in a sense, multimedia artifacts to begin with. Conan Doyle published most of his stories in The Strand Magazine, an illustrated monthly sold mainly to London’s burgeoning class of rail commuters. From the very first story (“A Scandal in Bohemia,” 1891), the Holmes tales were accompanied by high-quality illustrations by Sidney Paget and other artists, establishing the image of Holmes as a tall, thin, beak-nosed patrician long before he was ever portrayed by actors like William Gillette, Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, or (gadzooks!) Robert Downey Jr. On top of that, the Holmes canon has given rise to more than 200 films and television episodes. So the question is how video can be used to enhance stories that already have a firmly ingrained visual component in most readers’ minds.

The Vook producers try several different solutions. Each story is broken into seven or eight parts, with each part prefaced by a video lasting two or three minutes. (On an iPhone, the videos open in a new window, as all QuickTime or YouTube files do.) The first three Holmes videos are informative: one features an actor in Victorian garb, strolling the gaslit back alleys of London and explaining how the British press sensationalized the opium dens in which Conan Doyle set parts of “The Man with the Twisted Lip.” The next two revisit modern-day Baker Street, showing interviews with an archivist at the Sherlock Holmes Museum and the former editor of the Sherlock Holmes Journal. Both characters are charming and contribute interesting tidbits from Sherlockian lore.

But matters go drastically downhill from there. Apparently feeling that they’ve exhausted the historical-reenactment and documentary-interview approaches, the Vook filmmakers revert to MTV style, sending a twenty-something hipster in aviator glasses into the streets of London to interview pedestrians about the current-day whereabouts of Sherlock Holmes—the shtick being that the interviewer is pretending to believe that Holmes was a real, historical personage. With this goofball questions, he tries to trick passers-by, including several American tourists, into betraying their own confusion about whether Holmes was fictional. It doesn’t work. If it had been funny, the man-on-the-street gag might have been tolerable, but it comes off as cheaply ironic. The tone is so off the mark in this context—the Holmes stories are all about nostalgia and suspension of disbelief, after all—that it detracts from the experience.

Crush It! by Gary VaynerchukThe video enhancements are more effective, by several orders of magnitude, in the Vook version of Vaynerchuk’s book, a business-oriented motivational tome. That’s probably because most of the videos star Vaynerchuk, who’s gained Internet fame as the creator of the video blog Wine Library TV and is a complete natural in front of the camera.

The standard, text-only (i.e. paper and Kindle) version of Crush It! is published by HarperStudio, a small imprint at giant HarperCollins charged with rethinking the book business. Apparently that includes being open to partnering with companies like Vook. For the 18 videos in the Vook version, the producers did the sensible thing, which was simply to follow Vaynerchuk as he goes through his days as a wine retailer / Internet marketing consultant / vlogging star / author / motivational speaker. The 35-year-old entrepreneur is an incurably high-energy loudmouth with a penchant for foul language and an utter conviction that if you’re willing to give up your boring old job, work 20-hour days pursuing your inner passion, and learn the ways of Twitter and Facebook, you can create a personal brand that will rocket you to business success. As it turns out, this is a message that comes across much more effectively on video than it does in writing.

But the two still make a useful combination. In the text, Vaynerchuk ratchets down the energy to a level where the reader/viewer can concentrate on the ideas rather than on the author’s unapologetically in-your-face personality. You can tell from the text that Vaynerchuk has given some serious thought to how the Internet changes the way entrepreneurs can communicate with their customers. Nonetheless, I’m glad I bought the Vook version rather than the paper or Kindle version, because the videos give Vaynerchuk a chance to share his enthusiasm in a way that his writing alone, which is sincere but suffers from an unfortunate profusion of cliches, can’t quite capture. In the hands of a personal-branding Jedi like Vaynerchuk, the Vook format really shines. (By the way, I’ve met Vaynerchuk and I can assure you that he’s much less of an egomaniac in person than he would seem to be from his wine vlog and the Vook videos.)

From a purely technical point of view, Vook’s titles work okay, although I do have a couple of complaints. First, the sliding-page animation when you page forward through the iPhone versions of Vook’s books is jarringly jerky. Second, the Vook titles, which are sold as stand-alone apps, don’t seem to be bookmark-enabled. If you close a Vook app and come back to it later, you’re deposited at the table of contents, and it’s up to you to find your way back to the place where you stopped reading. There’s really no excuse for these mechanical problems—there are plenty of other companies publishing e-books on the iPhone/iPod Touch platform, such as Amazon and Kobo and Lexcycle, who have gotten them right.

But in the end, I’d say that Vook is off to a promising start. I haven’t sampled the startup’s modern fiction titles or cookbooks, so I can’t comment on how well the video format works for those genres. But it’s clear that as more mobile computing devices begin to double as e-readers, there’s growing room for publishers to experiment with multimedia-enhanced book, magazine, and textbook formats. The Apple iPad and the other tablet devices coming to market this year will greatly expand the possibilities—in fact, I’m sure Vook is working on improved iPad versions of its titles. My prediction is that we’ll see a mixed bag of enhanced-book offerings, in terms of quality. The cost of video equipment and editing software is obviously falling, but it’s still not cheap to script, shoot, and edit a professional video, so there will always be the temptation to cut corners, the way Vook did with its MTV-style Holmes interviews. The best video books, I’m guessing, will be those where the author is telegenic or the subject matter is inherently visual. I’m definitely going to stay tuned.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.vook.com Brad Inman

    Wade,
    Thanks for your thoughtful review of two of our vooks. Our team would agree with most everything you wrote and we are constantly working to improve the product. Stay tuned!
    Brad Inman
    Founder, Vook

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