Lighting Up the World’s Text: A Talk with Vook Founder Brad Inman
The San Francisco Bay Area is one of those places where the new is always coming up against the old, with strange and often delightful results. You’d think, for example, that anyone who has an iPad would want to show it off. But in the Potrero Hill neighborhood, not far from my office, there’s a company called Dodocase that builds hand-made iPad cases that disguise the devices as old-fashioned Moleskine notebooks. So many people want the cases for their Apple tablets that there’s a six-week waiting list.
Just a few blocks away from Dodocase, there’s a workshop called the San Francisco Center for the Book, where anyone can take classes from masters in the traditional bookmaking crafts, from bookbinding to letterpress printing. But while you won’t see any Kindles inside the center, these people are no Luddites: there’s a surprisingly spiffy SFCB website, and you can follow the organization on Twitter or Facebook. And just a few miles away, over in Alameda, there’s a startup called Vook that’s exploding the whole concept of the book, producing multimedia mixes of text, audio, and video and distributing its creations on new platforms like the iPhone and the iPad.
I wrote a column about Vook back in February, when there were only about 20 video-book titles available. Now there are more than 60, including 20 designed specifically for the iPad, with its much larger screen. My favorite vook at the moment is “Best of Times,” an annotated collection of the videos that experimental filmmaker Jeff Scher has been creating for the New York Times since 2007. The iPad is the ideal platform for this kind of work. You can read Scher’s essays about why and how he created each video, then jump right into the full-screen version. If you like what you see, you can even share the videos with friends via e-mail, Twitter, or Facebook. This may not be the future of books, but it’s definitely one of the interesting directions that’s opened up by ultra-portable, wireless, multimedia-friendly gadgets like the iPad.
Since I’m now based in San Francisco, I wanted to find out more about Vook, so I made an appointment to meet founder and CEO Brad Inman. Inman is a serial entrepreneur who also started TurnHere, a provider of Internet video marketing services, and the real estate portal HomeGain. He started Vook in 2008. With backing from a bicoastal group of high-profile angel investors like Ron Conway, Mike Maples, Steve Anderson, Chris Dixon, Eric Paley, and Kenneth Lerer, he’s built a 13-employee company that recently hit a big milestone—selling its 100,000th vook. A writeup of our conversation follows.
Xconomy: What’s the mission of Vook?
Brad Inman: The vision is really to light up the world’s text. The “gray matter” is moving to these devices and to online. Lots of people are doing interesting things with books, from basic linear e-book functionality to dictionaries to social features that allow you to share things with your friends. We think there is much more we can do. One of mainstays is adding video. That was step one. Then comes interactivity and other elements that we’ll announce in a couple of weeks. Text is obviously the foundation of the house of books, and we’re just making the house more alive, more colorful, and more interesting. We added talk to movies, color to TV, and windows to DOS. This is one of those game-changing moments when all of the text that’s online, can light up.
X: Where did the idea to start Vook come from?
BI: I own a company called TurnHere, a network of video producers around the world, primarily small-business entertainment and travel. A small part of our business was doing video profiles of book authors. Publishers were looking for new ways to market and promote their authors. By getting to know publishers through that experience, I began to learn about their fears and concerns and sometimes (rarely) their enthusiasm about e-book. If such a big industry was wringing their hands in fear, it seemed like a big opportunity.
We looked at maybe having TurnHere do e-books, but they were very focused, so we spun it off. I had written a novel on a lark, and I got a filmmaker and a couple of engineers and we started mixing video and text. The company lore is, one day I was typing “book,” and the V key is next to the B, and I typed “vook.” But the name turned out to be fortuitous, because people say it piques their curiosity.
X: Did you feel there was something lacking about the old-fashioned book?
BI: I think of publishing like the Tate Museum in London. The conventional art is at the Tate, and the Tate Modern does all this new, innovative stuff. In music videos, people at first thought that having videos set to music was insane. Our belief is that authors will come together with filmmakers and make things happen. Our company was built around this idea that creators will do new stuff, because they can, and we are just about helping to enable that. We have now down 60 titles and should do about 300 this year, which will make us one of the largest independent publishers.
X: In some ways, what Vook is doing reminds me of what producers of edutainment CD-ROMs were doing as long ago as the mid-1990s. Did you study that genre at all?
BI: I was never in that world of CD-ROMs and never used them myself, so I’m pretty unfamiliar with it. If you just look at computers, every day there is text and there is video, so I’m not sure how original my ideas were. I had somebody say to me once that they were reading a book, and then flipping to YouTube to get related videos as they were reading. When I heard that, I thought “Wow, you could do that a lot easier.”
X: Do you think some genres are better suited to the video e-book treatment than others? Cookbooks and self-help books seem to lend themselves well to your format, for example, but what about novels—do you have a harder time there knowing how to supplement the text?
BI: I don’t think there’s any limitation. People say non-fiction works better, but if people hadn’t started playing around with new ways of presenting fiction we wouldn’t have movies. The very fact that there are tools artists can use means this will happen in fiction as well. There are some things that are suited better, maybe. We are big into the inspirational category, where people want to meet the leaders, like Gary Vaynerchuk or Seth Godin or Stephen Covey or Deepak Chopra or Karen Armstrong. Those are best-sellers. But we’ve also done a very good job of selling some of the fiction we’ve done.
X: If you talk to committed readers, a lot of them will say they love to get absorbed in a book, that there’s something immersive about reading. I’m just playing devil’s advocate here—because I’m fascinated by multimedia myself—but I wonder whether having video and other media at hand can sometimes interfere with that immersion.
BI: I used to know people who were journalists and complained when they got a PC that they missed the sound of the carriage return on their typewriter. I used to like talking to my travel agent. Technology enables people to do new things. We are not destroying the book; you can still go and buy a regular book. But there are people who respond extraordinarily well to the immersive experience of video, and to the experience that video can add to text.
You’re right, though, there is something sacred about a book. My father said once, “Why are you doing this, it’s like attacking motherhood!” And I said, “Dad, we’re not attacking anything, we’re adding a layer that people can choose to engage with or not.”
By the way, I think we’re going to see new forms of storytelling that we can’t even imagine. That is the part I’m really interested in pursuing. Our stuff is only as good as the authors’ original stories, which today is mostly text. But there are people who are going to go out and tell stories with their cameras. That doesn’t ruin anything that already exists.
But the bar is always higher for technology. The same people who used to wait half an hour in the bank-teller line now get upset if their ATM takes more than ten seconds. So we have to show them that this is a better experience.
X: You launched Vook before the iPad came out, and your first vooks were readable only on the iPhone and in Web browsers. How has the iPad changed the landscape for you?
BI: Before the iPad, I had this mission of going around telling people about mixing video and books, and the reality is that Steve Jobs and the iPad are telling my story a lot better than I ever could. We put vooks on the browser and the iPhone with the anticipation that the device market would make it easier over time to render mixed media. We just had no clue they would render it as beautifully as the iPad does. In fact, it raised the bar for us, and we are now reworking all of our titles for the iPad. We’ve come out with 20 and soon it will be all 60.
X: What do you have to do differently for the iPad?
BI: It’s a visual device so you have to lead with the visual imagery. The whole UI and look and feel of the product is so much more visual. [Inman pauses to demonstrate Reckless Road, the company's first fully iPad-optimized title; it's a tribute to the hard rock band Guns N' Roses.] You can see we have much more in the way of graphics. There’s more emphasis on video, and the text takes a back seat. We have 250 images in here and 50 videos. Then you can also share in all kinds of new ways. It has the typical e-book reader stuff, like adjustable fonts. But it also has ads, which is a very controversial idea. We are going to experiment with live streaming and all kinds of stuff. The vision is the same—we’ve just been given this wonderful, game-changing device that allows us as creators to do something different.
X: You mentioned advertisements, which is one way to get away from the old economic model of single-copy sales in publishing. Do you think mixed-media books will bring with them whole new ways for authors and publishers to earn money?
BI: We’re experimenting. For example, in the e-book world you can sell “singles” instead of “albums.” We have a golf title that sells in bookstores in the form of a $19 book with a DVD tucked in the back. We took that one book and turned it into eight separate vooks and sold them for $5 each. So we are demonstrating that publishers can get double what they could before, and leverage the value of what you have and get better economics out of each unit.
Then there’s advertising. These ads are elegant, they’re not going to get in your way. And in the future we may give people an option. The consumer can choose: would you like to pay $6 for this e-book, or is it okay if, say, Fender Guitar sends you some ads? Those are things that haven’t really been done in the book world.
X: Do you plan to take vooks beyond the iPhone and iPad?
BI: Sure, we’re going to be on Android and everywhere. We already have a ubiquitous, HTML5 browser product. The challenge with the other platforms is that they don’t have that elegant marketplace like iTunes. With Apple, it’s like a candy store. Whether other platforms will be able to create that monetization platform is a big, open-ended question. But we are going to be everywhere. We don’t have an ideology—we’re too new.
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