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  • In Response to Jonathan Franzen

    I read Jonathan Franzen’s attack on ebooks with that pained internal wince I experience when a friend I respect dislikes an off-beat movie I thought was fantastic. Of course, Franzen’s not knocking one book or movie or thing but an entire technology I’m invested in — which makes the incident a little more piercing. In his comments at the Hay Festival in Colombia, Franzen seems to be opposing ebooks on the basis they’re ephemeral and easily tampered with—let’s say temptingly impermanent. He wants the solidity of books, the sense they’ll always exist, fixed, that malign powers can’t delete or adjust or update them at will.

    His fears aren’t groundless. Human meddling aside, look at the degradation of the digital media that recorded the first Gulf War. But though it has its points, I still couldn’t disagree more with Franzen’s anti-ebook sentiment or with the implications of his concerns.

    I love books, so it’s a little personally off-putting to hear Franzen opine that serious reader think a “sense of permanence has always been part of the experience.” I think I’m a serious reader (I too have read The Recognitions with pleasure!) but permanence has never been what I prize in reading. It’s the connection. I like the direct link to words and other minds that books provide, the way they can be totally transporting. Ebooks have vastly expanded the amount of words I can direct into my brain; they’re unleashing a firehose where previously I could access a trickle.

    This weekend, I was reading about Kubrick and The Shining and a commenter who thought the cascade of blood from the elevator is a perfect metaphor for the horrors of the 20th century. Maybe our century didn’t start so promisingly, but I’d like to think the flood we’re unleashing is one of content, an overwhelming tide of books and other media that will wash over and through everything, not in bloody chaos but in transformative, shimmering color. We’ll have to figure out how to adjust to a super-abundance, not how it might destroy us.

    On a knottier level, Franzen’s talking about how human beings need permanence to have a just society. We need some things, he’s implying, to stay the same. But I’m convinced we have to give ourselves more of a challenge than that.

    Recently, Internet users, from Redditors to Googlers, organized against SOPA and PIPA. They opposed fairly obscure pieces of legislation, popularized their dissent, and derailed the bills. They took responsibility and became actual digital citizens, advocating successfully for their point of view. And what motivated the SOPA/PIPA protestors? The thought that muckty-mucks we’re going to start controlling their content, their vision of the Web. They thought they had a responsibility to themselves and other members of the digital world — and they did something about it. If opening all books to digital experiences might lead to corruption and abuses of power, maybe we should have to deal with that threat instead of just leaving everything be. Instead of worrying about the destruction of permanence, we should see an opportunity to shape the future the way we want it. We should consider ourselves lucky — we’re getting the chance to to decide what we want books and freedom to mean. The challenge is to learn from what’s come before — that wave of books, many of which represent people trying extremely hard and patiently to tell us how to live better. Our job is to pay attention and make a world that rises up to match their vision.

    Digital Book World Recap

    Digital Book World 2024 marked our third visit to the conference and our second time with a booth and a banner and a strong company presence. We spoke on panels, live demoed the platform twice (creating a styled eBook in just over five minutes), and had the usual variety of encouraging meetings, new connections and oddball observations—most notably the impressive quality of distribution company representative’s side projects. I’ve long had Scott Simpson’s Twitter stream and blog bookmarked, this year I learned Kobo’s Mark Lefebvre is working on a werewolf-in-New York novel, appropriately titled A Canadian Werewolf in New York.

    Interestingly, this year I found myself most engaged when learning about projects like Mark’s or discussing what people were doing creatively, like seeing Michael Fabiano and Peter Costanzo fresh from the NBC Publishing announcement, or stopping conversion company reps to look at their sample ePub 3 files. Walking the vendor hall or peeking in on panels, I got the sense that the technology for content creation is falling into place. The tools exist, the ways to create digital books and create them at scale. What we need now is the will to put those tools to use and start producing new titles and new experiences (hats off to NBC here).

    I’m reading the David Foster Wallace road-trip/bio Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, and it resonated with my experience at Digital Book World. The conference is a place where bookish tech people and techish book people learn about new platforms and files and metadata tactics. But ultimately we’re all going to end up being ourselves, and those selves are in most cases people who like books. And what we want, what gets us, is new experiences—the mental pyrotechnics the technology is making easier to deliver.

    This year’s DBW drove home that  the tools exist—including ours. Last year I heard everyone talking about “experimenting,” I didn’t hear that phrase so much this year. People know digital books work. Now’s the time to make more and better books—better styled books, better formatted books, better looking books, unexpected books and books from unexpected sources.

    Next year? It’s all going to be about marketing.

    Vook in Motion

    Watch the Vook video!

    Screen shot 2024-01-23 at 5.38.35 PM

    We demo’d our platform today at DBW (without a hiccup!) and fielded lots of curious eBook creation questions at our booth. For everyone who couldn’t be at the event, please check out this video. We’re launching it in honor of of our DBW appearance. It gives you the complete picture of what’s in the works at Vook.

    eBooks (and Vook) everywhere

    Apple’s iBooks 2 and iBooks Author announcement ahead of next week’s Digital Book World lit up eBook discussions like a bonfire of paper books or, you know, End User License Agreements—which is exactly what many commenters seemed to want to make of Apple’s EULA for iBooks Author, which requires books created with the application to be sold exclusively through iBooks.

    EULA brouhaha aside — Apple’s an innovative company, a valued distribution partner and we think they’ve made a sharp tool.  There’s more than enough room for other eBook creation platforms (like us!) to co-exist with what Apple’s developed. We’re agnostic in who we serve; they’re a grand cathedral—though more like Osaka’s Church of the Light than a gothic Chartres.

    Content holders are going to need platforms to create files that can be accessed by a multitude of devices and readers, both those existing now and those yet to come. Vook’s already delivering this service, and our output file types and feature sets will grow ever more robust.

    We’ve been featured in articles and interviews this week, both giving our take on the Apple announcement and talking about what we’re building. Here’s a quick round up of the Vook press coverage for those keeping score.

    Vook in eBook Newser: We defend publishers, which isn’t too surprising—some of our best friends are publishers.


    Vook in GigaOm: We give some perspective on the iBooks Author announcement.


    Vook in Digital Book World: We deploy the phrase “barbed wire gardens”.


    Look for us next week at Digital Book World!

    iBooks 2 and iBooks Author: Another opportunity & headache

    People wax nostalgic about the smell of books, but no one pines for the smell of textbooks. They smelled like glue, they were heavy, and they were—usually—boring. So we were happy to read Apple’s announcement of iBooks 2 and iBooks Author: finally, a kind of book everyone wants to see go digital fast.

    It’s a great announcement for digital publishing, for readers, and for platform and tool creators like us. It also raises some interesting complications that we’ve spent months tackling. Here’s how we’re looking at this announcement at Vook.

    The Good

    eBooks Really Matter

    Finally, eBooks are coming of age. This was not an Apple announcement about a new app creation platform. This is about eBooks—and we understand and obsess over eBooks in all of their various incarnations at Vook.  Apple really is committing to eBooks. That means great enhanced reading experiences are going to start coming more and more from iBooks instead of the iTunes App store. In turn, eBooks are going to get more attention, more user adoption and more momentum.

    The Complicated

    More proprietary files

    iBooks Author outputs an entirely new file format called “.ibooks.” This is a proprietary file format that only plays in iBooks (edit: it’s not quite epub2 and it’s not quite epub3, nor is it quite XHTML5—plus the widgets are iBooks built-in components rather than open standards JS). As one of our colleagues remarked, “Reminds me of another file format (Amazon’s .mobi, anyone?)”. More file formats—especialy more proprietary file formats (or formats intended for only one device)—means more restrictions for content, more headaches for creators, and less freedom for consumers. The title you produce with iBooks Author aren’t for Amazon, on BN, on Google Books. It’s one channel only.

    The Future

    More problems = more opportunity

    When people write a book, they want that book to be available everywhere. Not just on one platform or device. They want as many people to be able to read their book as possible. Which is why this is announcement has us so happy at Vook.  Our platform allows you to build and create files in ePub and Mobi, for Amazon, BN, iBooks, Kobo and others. Vook is not a proprietary format, though we can produce those files. We serve as many of the distributors as possible, bringing your content—and making sure it looks great—to the vast diversity of existing devices and platforms.

    The titans of digital book delivery seem to be arming themselves for war. It’s like something out of a textbook on World War II. But Vook lets publishers, creators and content holders work with all of the major players. We’re like the Switzerland of digital publishing. And like the Swiss, our technology is absolutely world class.

    Inside the Vook Beta

    Before posting more on cloud-based reading experiences, I wanted to give everyone a quick update on the Vook beta. Everyday, users are working in Vook and helping us identify issues we need to address. Our engineering queue is essentially a cue taken from our users — ha! (Like that? Wait til you read my Vook produced comic memoir!)

    Last week we fixed 48 issues that users caught — items ranging from Kindle file generation to adding the ability to delete projects.

    I wanted to share three recent achievements, especially user Diane Massad’s publishing success. Diane is a beta tester/author who worked in Vook to create her KidSKILLS Up and Over educational eBook, which she then released through Amazon. We love to see users creating and selling eBooks.

    New Fonts We realized today we’ve added 53 new fonts since the beginning of January, with many more on the way. New fonts help users create unique eBooks with our robust styling tool.

    Easier integration of multi-media It turns out that many users want to create video and audio enhanced eBooks. We’re the only platform that allows for the quick addition of these elements, but it takes a lot of fine-tuning to get the mechanism right. Users are helping us make the process more and more straightforward. Also, some of us can now launch second careers in video compression.

    We’ll be showing off addtional functionality around Digital Book World next week, so you’ll be hearing more soon. In the meantime, write me for further info on the beta or to share my extensive repertoire of engineering puns at Matthew@vook.com.

    Where can the caged eBook sing?

    I used to say I thought Amazon saw Kindle more as a brand than a device—reading that now, I don’t know what I meant. Of course Kindle’s a brand. In plain talk, I should have said, “Kindle’s a device, but it’s more accurately an eReader service that’s impressive for its cross-platform versatility and accessibility.”

    (Then I sound like an Amazon marketing rep but at least I make sense.)

    The Kindle reading service is available on Android, on BlackBerry, on Windows Phone 7, on Mac and PC desktops and for iOS. Kobo and BN also offer excellent cross platform apps — but the robustness of Amazon’s reach underscores something crucial about digital publishing: Creating a book, distributing a book, purchasing and reading a book are almost inextricably welded together in digital publishing.

    Amazon needs to have extensive platform coverage to reach its customers. But content creators need that service just as much. Today, creating a digital book doesn’t mean you’ve created a file anyone can read instantly — or even easily — on any device.

    Many people outside of publishing don’t seem to be aware that no one-size fits all eBook solution exists. eBooks can be difficult to make, difficult to distribute and, yes, difficult for the reader to experience if they’re not purchased from a major distributor and read on a compatible device.

    ePublishing is not like video production—where you can create a video and host it on your site and put it on a DVD and distribute it a variety of Internet channels. eBooks require creation technology, distribution technology and reader technology. Basically, it can be a byzantine process to get a digital book to a reader.

    For eBook creators who want to deliver eBooks independently of the major retailers or through their own website as well as through retailers, serious challenges arise. What seems like it should be a simple process isn’t.

    What’s the point? In the short term, content holders who want to create digital books must develop strong relationships with distributors. These markets fundamentally offer the best way to reach an audience and the best consumer experience solution for readers. But in the longer term, content holders need to look to the mobile Web.

    As e-book expert-about-town Pablo Definidni said to me last night, “The future of eBooks is the Web.” It’s a much smarter statement then “Amazon thinks Kindle is a brand blah blah blah”.  An ePub file is essentially a Website wrapped up as a book. As technology evolves, ways will emerge to read easily, independently of storefronts and other controls—just as you can now watch video (caveat Flash) fairly ubiquitously.

    Amazon’s already there, of course. Which is why next time I’ll talk about Kindle’s cloud based reader and their new iPad optimized storefront. But for now, focus one eye on the markets that offer eBooks and the other on the larger Web that houses them. Those two functions will grow ever closer together in the coming months.

    The good, the bad and the Guggenheim

    The Guggenheim’s usually ahead of the curve (probably inspired by their geometry),  so it’s no surprise to see them move into eBooks. They’ve recently launched Guggenheim.org/publications, which offers a “newly digitized selection of essays and historical material dating to the 1937 founding.”

    The offer fits our vision of the future, where non-traditional publishers quickly become publishers.The museum has an audience and a content back-catalog, and most of that content is ideal for eBooks.

    I went and tried out the service and had a few thoughts.

    First, the Guggenheim doesn’t seem to be selling its titles through any major digital book markets—ie, Amazon, BN, iBooks. Selling the books/essays solely off their site allows them to keep all the revenue,  but it also results in a cumbersome purchase process, where I have to fill out a variety of order fields and CC information to get my file.

    But the real rigamarole comes post purchase — when I have to find a way to read the file.

    The Guggenheim lets me download my ePub as soon as I buy it—but if I was a general consumer, I’d probably be at a loss. What do I do with this thing now? How do I get it onto my iPad? There’s no instructions, no way to easily figure it out.

    Buying from an eBook merchant means that eBook is sent directly to your device. Without this feature, you can have some confused consumers.

    It all brings up a larger issue—ePub is a leading file format and one recognized by most devices. But since most device manufacturers also provide eBook storefronts, how does one seamlessly get eBooks onto a mobile without selling through device supported stores?

    At some point, there will be more options for reading and distributing eBooks, but right now, the very question of eBook formats and file types is inextricably linked to the distributors and their storefronts.

    It’s an interesting conundrum for content holders.

    At Vook, we let you email a link that readers can immediately click in a device’s email program to open the book inside that device’s native reader—it’s the first step towards a more elegant solution.

    Until then, it makes the most sense for non-traditional publishers to develop some distribution relationship, either with an aggregator, or with a storefront directly.

    It’s a positive sign for the future though. I jumped through hoops to read my Guggenheim eBook. If the file was delivered more directly, I’m sure I’d have purchased additional titles.

    EDIT: I’m seeing reports that the Guggenheim will sell through Amazon, BN, and iBooks — but the files don’t seem to be available yet.

    The first read for technology

    imagesWriters can’t just write for the drawer; technologists can’t just program for themselves. At some point, the work must emerge. And that first draft always requires editorial review. Software companies need their equivalent of Thomas Wolfe’s Maxwell Perkins — the Scribner’s editor who famously (and justly) reduced Wofle’s first novel by 90,000 words. As book editors are readers first, so tech ‘editors’ have to be users.

    Vook’s in closed beta and hundreds of people are pounding on the platform. The gnarly world of eBook creation is nunaced with file formats, unique styling needs and the sometimes crazy-making multi-media requirements of enhanced eBooks.

    A beta-user is tech’s version of a good editor who chops, slims, suggests, and improves the text, giving even clean copy a nose bleed with red ink or “track changes”.

    We think of closed beta as the first-pass edit of a book, where you might realize you need to restructure entire sections, drop others and enhance some. But it’s all in the service of getting it right.

    An open beta is more like copy editing, where you go line-by-line cleaning up the final product. But you don’t give that draft to the copy editor until the structure and content are right. In the same way, we’ll open up our beta once we’re confident we’ve addressed the bulk of closed beta feedback.

    We take all of this seriously. It’s our way to listen to our customers about work flow, feature complexity and missing features.

    Maxwell Perkins once said, “Every good thing that comes is accompanied by trouble.” When it comes to trouble, our head of engineering Rob Guttman has his own maxim: “Bring it on.”

    We live next door to Comixology

    comics-by-comixologyWe’ve been working — and in the case of customer support honcho Jeffrey Yozwiak, sometimes kind of living — at Vook’s office on 25th and 7th since July, but it still feels new and shiny and interestingly sophisticated. One floor down is the iconic agency Magnum Photos. In 2024, a friend of mine interned there and would invite me over for lectures from the likes of Bruce Davidson and Philip Jones Griffith, who I remember saying, “We’re all anarchists right? The only reason worth doing anything is to change the world.” So, we’re in the midst of prime historical-cultural real-estate, and we’re working in eBooks on the cultural, technological edge — and I just found out that we’re not the only ones: While walking to get a coffee, a friend pointed out that our next door neighbor is app-creator Comixology.

    I love Comixology. I hadn’t read comics before I discovered their app — now I’m hooked. I’ve read a few hundred titles, spent far too much money. I understand why people rave about Grant Morrison, Robert Kirkman, Neil Gaiman’s comics (never even read Sandman). Comixology represents what apps can do better than any medium: serve bite sized content regularly, save my favorite titles, suggest more items I’d like.

    Which had me wondering why books have never taken off in the same way in the app store. Some might disagree—but I haven’t seen the app environment become the go-to-destination for readers that Amazon, BN and iBooks are. Looking at the top 10 Paid Book Apps, I see the same selection of Oceanhouse titles, Sesame and Disney Apps, Al Gore’s book, and the Solar System that I saw almost a year ago. You could argue that reading on my Kindle App represents exactly a successful ebook app strategy — but the Kindle App, the iBooks App, and the Nook, are so monolithic they’re more like windows onto content, whereas a Comixology, with its Guided View technology, also represents a new way of engaging and experiencing content.

    Books, even digitally, are still books. They’re pretty much perfectly encapsulated objects. My father calls them, “The ultimate in random access memory—you can always flip a book open and immediately engage with it.”  And though we both prefer reading digital books, I don’t necessarily want them served up as apps. I want smart enhancements—hyperlinks, interior links, video, maps, rich images, other smart filigree—and I enjoy beautiful fixed lay out books—but there’s something about launching an app, no matter how fast it runs, that’s still too similar to launching a game. While with an eBook you can dip into like you can dip into a book.

    Of course, there’s a caveat here: Even though near-ideal in terms of functionality, books have always been improving, from the poor print of early paperbacks to the careful work that goes into print design today. At Vook, we aim to deliver tools that let creators build digital books as lovingly and carefully as Keith Gessen detailed the thought that went into publishing the Art of Fielding.

    Which is why I think it’s perfect that we’re next door to Comixology. If you want to see someone doing apps right, you should visit their office. If you want to see how you should create ebooks—visit ours.

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