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  • Devils’ Advocates? I love ‘em. Controversy? Bring it on. .

    Ok, I admit it:  I’ve drunk the Vook Kool-Aid.  But trust me:  my first sip was bitter.  I love books, I live in a world (and an apartment!) flooded with books.   I like movies, too — but honestly, for me they always have been a completely different experience from reading.  So when I first heard that Bradley Inman was starting Vook — and I like Brad! — I was waaaay skeptical.  Even my fifteen year old son said, “Mom, when I want to read a book, I’ll read a book — when I want to see a movie, I’ll see a movie.  (That’s my boy!)

    So when I first read the posts from another skeptic at the Website ireaderreview I understood.   Why “integrate” such different experiences?    But this guy, like me a few months ago, hadn’t seen what vooks really were.  They’re not a forced combinaton, they’re an option. You can just read ‘em if you want.  You can read one time, come back later and watch the videos separately.  You can watch first, socially interact later.   And for certain kinds of books — stories that instruct and advise — there’s nothing like the shared abilities.     I don’t just want to read about how to make beef stroganoff (believe me, you wouldn’t want to taste the results. . .) but maybe if I could read the recipe AND watch somebody do it at the same time,  I just might not poison my family.   Ditto some of the other, more impressionistic vooks:   done seamlessly, as vooks are, the added value of a video in a piece of fiction can add not subtract from the experience.

    Don’t believe me?   Ok, I understand that too. .. so why not sign up at vook.com for our beta, coming soon?    It won’t cost you a thing — except your skepticism.

    One small step for book publishing. . .

    The news today that HarperCollins was designating one person as its digital guru brought joy to my heart. . .  Sure Simon & Schuster hired the great Elie Hirschorn eighteen months ago and recently recruited long time book vet Mark Gompertz to the digital fold — and yes, Random House has had a serious group in place for some time — but the idea that in these so-called troubled times that a major publisher would take such a major step. . .Well, I was heartened.    Crain’s Matthew Flamm said it best: 

    “In a sign of the growing importance of e-books, HarperCollins Publishers has created what appears to be the first “editor in chief”-style role for the digital category at a major publishing house,” he wrote, in his exclusive announcement that Margot Schupf, an associate publisher at HarperCollins and a former editorial director at Rodale, had been named to the post of eic of digital.  

    A sign of the growing importance, indeed.    Proof positive, if we still needed it, that we vook-ers are on the right track. 

    One of the things that scares publishing people most is the breadth and scope of Amazon’s power — and the news the other day that the company had gone “into” people’s Kindles and removed copies of George Orwell’s novels 1984 and Animal Farm.   Say, what?   In the same week that lawyers filed another motion to give a novice writer the opportunity (nay, the right) to publish an homage-or-ripoff, depending whom you ask to another great writer, JD Salinger, the biggest player on the operational level, Amazon, played its own censorship card.  Apparently, Orwell’s books were not authorized for Kindle, or they were and suddenly they weren’t, and Amazon either believed or were persuaded by the publisherthat anyone who’d bought Kindle versions of Orwell’s classics  needed to return them.


    Obviously, this whole mess could have been avoided had Amazon and publishers been clearer up front about which e-rights,  if any, were available to Kindle.  But this is, of course, the central stumbling block in the already fraught relationship between publishers and e-publishers — and one that is particularly problematic when the author in question is deceased and his contracts written long before even the most forward thinking had imagined e-books.   But to offer them and then remove them?   Not only is this upsetting to the user — the piece I read suggests it’s akin to a bookstore employee breaking into your house to take a couple of books off the nightstand, even if they do leave a check for the value behind — but it threatens to become another crisis for publishers and booksellers.    Amazon has always promised that it wasn’t interested in being a publisher — despite its acquisition of certain self publishing arms — but only a bookseller.  And yet by having books live on its server in Kindle form and thus having the power to send, remove or — and this is the part that scares publishers in the future — ALTER them. .  ..well, nothing good can come of this. ..  That “live on the server” business is, after all, what has inspired some publishers to favor other readers, the kind that don’t actually require you to access any server but your own pc.   Cut out the middle man, the thinking goes, and you’ve saved your business.

    Vooking in a Grand Tradition

    I was just reading a fascinating post on the great e-book blog TeleRead about the real reasons those of us involved with digital publishing should be discussing Henry Louis Gates—forget the political rumpus, in short, and recall that Gates is one of the foremost scholars of the Public Domain. You can read the whole post here. But while reading that post I noticed a link to “Wired for Books”—a site I’d seen before but had never really investigated. “Wired for Books” is a stark, plain, to the point collection of author interviews in .mp3 format from Ohio University. Don Swaim, who hosted the radio program Book Beat, conducts the interviews and they’re uniformly excellent. It’s a useful site with a real purpose—and another reason I can’t wait to get more and more titles for Vook. Once we have books opened up to the world of the Internet, we can begin to link to compelling content like this and really expand the value of the book without getting in the way of the story or the experience—and without requiring the user to put the book down, go to the computer, check out a site, come back to the book, etc. The experience will be compressed and easily accessible. Sites like “Wired for Books” will only benefit from the streams of new listeners Vook can deliver, and each Vook will become more richly engaged with the digital world we spend so much time in now.

    I remember recording an audio lecture once with the writer H.W. Brands on Benjamin Franklin. Brands made the point that every town Franklin moved to he always tried to improve—opening stores, printing presses, cultivating a social scene for intellectual discussion—and he did this first and foremost so that he would live in a place that he enjoyed. I see Vook as doing the same thing for the almost endless town of the Internet—it’s our effort to get books into a format where I can do all the things I want with them that right now just aren’t available.

    B&N Steps Up

    In the traditional book business, it is generally held that Barnes and Noble — still by far the biggest retailer in the group — is losing out to Amazon, at least when it comes to mindshare.   And people were thinking that even before the introduction of the Kindle.  Indeed, in bookland, “Kindle” was synonymous with “e-book”  So synonymous, in fact, that some of us book-watchers were wondering if B&N was ever going to catch up.

    A few months ago, the behemoth bought fictionwise, which was a major step in its road back to prominence.  This week, they jumped in with both feet with the introduction of their ebook store.      And unlike at Amazon, you can buy your ebooks, your enhanced ebooks, your vooks even eventually for use in many different kinds of player

    Lady Chatterley’s Vook?

    At first, um, blush, the fact that today is the 50th anniversary of the ruling that allowed D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover to be published in this country has nothing to do with technology, or ebooks or vooks.   But in an excellent op ed in today’s New York Times, the writer Fred Kaplan makes a point about how standards of acceptability always have, have to and always will change with the times.    Yes, a brilliant lawyer named Charles Rembar figured out how to overturn obscenity laws regarding this DH Lawrence classic, but it was his forward-thinking nature that helped.

    Today, ebooks are still somewhat out of the mainstream;  vooks are just being invented.  And surely there have been and will be arguments not only about their viability, but about the rights and laws surounding their production and dissemination. “For many decades, the courts upheld racial segregation,”  Kaplan writes,  “then suddenly they didn’t . . . Laws hadn’t changed;  society did.”  And so it will be with attitudes and fears about nontraditional books, whatever their format or content.

    Publishing catches up

    For most of my twenty five plus years in the media business,  I’ve been privileged to “shape young minds” at two of the most prestigious publishing courses in the country:  the NYU Publishing Institute, and the Columbia (formerly Radcliffe) Publishing Course.   Over the years, I have met and come to know and even some time have come to work for people who were “merely” enterprising students when I met them.

    Newly back on the circuit this year, I have been involved with both programs — and have to say that I’m pleased to see that both have changed with the times.  At NYU the other week, I moderated a panel on The group of us who talked about books on the Web, and at Columbia this past week, I was a “resource person,” counseling students on how to start online projects.  This was the first year Columbia offered such a course, and of course there were glitches in a 40 plus year system, but I was struck and honored and overwhelmed to see that what I and a number of my other “resource people” were able to impart to students about new media.  (And of course there was lots that they, in their 20s could impart to us)   Sometimes it was frustrating not to be able to go further, but then, hey, this is publishing, and any start is a good start.  So my hats are off to my wonderful students and the people who run the programs that allow them to be taught about all the new ways to go about publishing.

    Comic Vook

    As digital publishing sweeps up printed matter of all genres and formats, producers of comic books and graphic novels are making their presence known. Marvel offers a monthly subscription to its digital comics collection: thousands of online versions created from the original files used to print them. Daily Bits did a roundup of graphic novels available free online, from a gritty murder mystery to the whimsical tale of a girl and her salamander spirit friend. At Vook, we’re thrilled that comics and graphic novels are taking the plunge into the digital ocean, but we’d like to make one suggestion: add video to the mix. A Comic Vook could include videos related to key plot moments, behind the scenes footage of artists and writers working in tandem, and even live reports filmed at the story’s location. Ok, so we won’t be shooting video on Planet Krypton, but Japanese rice paddies and African jungles are within the realm of possibility.

    by Sabrina Jaszi

    Harry Potter and the Book of the Future

    I learned to read by sounding out The Lord of the Rings sentence by sentence, an experience that pretty much set my fantasy genre prejudices in stone : one dimensional villains, orc hewing, hardy little people (obviously Willow was a big hit with me). So when Harry Potter made his debut I shrugged it off: what wizard can compete with Gandalf? And then (only a few weeks ago!) I saw the movies. It was a conversion experience. The first two films are a little baggy and by the numbers, but the later films are excellent, emotionally involving far beyond any temporary concerns that Gandalf might have died fighting the Balrog. The films also solved a big riddle for me: every time I’ve described Vook to a friend, they’ve said: “That’s so Harry Potter.” I had no idea what they were talking about. Then I saw the Daily Prophet and realized: Of course—we’re building something similar to the Harry Potter newspaper. Sure, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but when I saw the recent Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire with its snazzy Daily Prophet fonts and page lay out, I began to think that Vook might realize Clarke’s Third Law. For those of you who aren’t science fiction geeks, that law reads: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    Check out the video of the Daily Prophet, and please forgive the awful background music the YouTube poster edited into the clip:

    YouTube Preview Image

    It’s all in the timing

    When I first read the New York Times piece today about how Random House is wrestling with the timing of the release of its ebook version of Dan Brown’s forthcoming novel, I thought:  “how silly of them to worry that e-books would cannibalize sales of the hardcover books, especially a blockbuster like  The Lost Symbol is sure to be.”  Isn’t the idea to create more of a muchness, to blanket the market, cover the waterfront  (and all that) with as many forms of a much-desired book as possible?

    THen I read on in the piece, which was, incidentally, co written with Brad Stone, who wrote the original NY Times story on vook back in  April – and I realized that of course that the fact that timing has become such a big issue for publishers means that maybe, finally, the so called hidebound traditional publishers are starting to “get” it:  e-books are important, people want them, and maybe not just because they’re currently priced at least half of what the hardcover costs.      The piece doesn’t say so — it wouldn’t, because publishers don’t want to go on the record saying so, even if it’s what they believe — but the fact is that some people actually prefer e-books to “real” ones.  I, as dyed-in-the-wool reader as there ever was one, actually do — for certain books at certain times.  What’s more — and I keep trying to tell publishers this — there are certain titles that lend themselves better to an e book format than a traditional one, and, what’s more, by releasing several formats of books at one time doesn’t cannibalize the existing market, it expands it.  


    But this being publishing, even good news can’t be wholly embraced without a lot of sturm und drang.  What if, what if, what if, is the worried corporate rallying cry.  So let me try a different tack:   What if ebooks (and, of course, by extension, enhanced ebooks like vooks) ended up acting just as videos did to theatrical releases and, closer to home, audio books did to paper ones?  To wit:  that they didn’t make its purveyors poorer and sadder, but that, because they expanded the market  both by reaching people usually loathe to part with the bills for a hardcover book, and by spreading the word that reading is another form of entertainment, and one within the reach of the masses.

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