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  • How eBooks Can Help pBook Writers

    And Why You Should be Thinking About Digital Now

    by a Writer, for other Writers

    This past weekend saw the New Yorker Festival book signings at McNally-Jackson. Get ready for some serious name-dropping: Not only did Sarah McNally ring up my purchases, but Jennifer Egan shook my hand, Gary Shteyngart invited me to email him, and Jonathan Franzen asked that I call him “Jon.” After the 2-day festival concluded on Sunday, I went to Williamsburg to hear Alexander Chee and Josh Mohr read at an event hosted by Jami Attenburg. We talked about everything from magazine industry frustrations to cookies. My weekend ended as I toasted the emerald-green Empire State Building across the river (Gatsby reference, anyone?).

    Talking with literary writers, I often have trouble describing what I do. I’m a writer, it’s true. I’m a huge bibliophile—I love meeting authors and getting my books signed—but I’m also more interested in digital than print.


    1. For one, digital is the future. We’ve all heard that eBooks are outselling print books—or “pbooks”—on Amazon.com, a retailer that already represents 15% (?) of a publisher’s distribution market.
    2. Secondly, eBooks are wonderfully portable. The first Vook I read was ZMOT, by Google’s Jim Lecinski—as I waited in line for a concert in Williamsburg. As a writer, it’s important that I waste no downtime. In On Writing, Stephen King agrees.
    3. Thirdly, you can do things in digital that simply aren’t possible in print. The second Vook I read was Crush It by Gary Vaynerchuk. Gary’s a fine writer, but watching him speak at conferences (in the video in the book) was inspiring.

    I think a lot of print natives may not yet understand how important eBook design is. As we saw with Neal Stepphenson’s Reamde scandal last week, it’s easy for production errors to ruin an experience. If you want to succeed in digital, you have to bring the same loving care to your eBook that you do to your pbook. Users notice and appreciate well-designed work.

    I’m just glad that our Vook’s platform makes it easy for everyone—from designers to writers to publishers (to grandmothers?)—to do just that. That is, create a great-looking eBook in seconds, control the output, and distribute to all major channels. Vook makes ebook publishing as easy as working in Word. Now, as for the writing itself, that’s another matter…

    Anne Rice’s Vook Experience

    It’s a fact: Vampires are back and bigger than ever. And while we certainly owe some of the resurgence to Twilight, there’s another vampire expert getting some serious attention right now: Anne Rice. Why? Because she took a plunge into the realm of mixed media and made a Vook — The Master of Rampling Gate.  Now, as an early adopter of the Vook, her vampires are in the news in a big way. Even celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, who hardly ever writes about books, took note of the launch with a post called “Why Didn’t Stephanie Meyer Get This Memo” asking, “Seriously, Twilighters: how come you guys don’t have cool shiz like this?”

    Anne already had a great fan base, but she needed to spark interaction on her social media sites. She has a staggering 57,000 followers on Facebook and over 10,000 followers on Twitter. The Master of Rampling Gate Vook was an immense draw that got readers interested, engaged and effusive. When she hosted an online chat with her Facebook fans, they were beyond enthusiastic both about Rice herself, and The Master of Rampling Gate. One fan gushed, “There were so many great features. It was beautifully produced and I think the video and pictures set a great atmosphere for appreciating the story.” Another observed, “Vook is a fabulous outlet for contemporary novelists.”

    Not only were Rice’s fans thrilled, but so was the author herself. She would certainly agree that Vook was great outlet, not just as medium for creative innovation and inspiration, but also as a way to reconnect with her audience.  She was delighted with the new and exciting benefits her Vook offered her as an author, and effused, “I would love to write another story for Vook. Very exciting. No doubt we will be talking about this in the future!

    WE MEANT — 20,000 Sherlock Downloads!

    We are thrilled to announce a tremendously successful week of downloads for our Sherlock Holmes Experience vook. With great support from Apple, picking our app as the #1 “Staff Favorite” for the holiday week, Sherlock received over 17,000 20,000 downloads in just a matter of a few days (Ed: we just got some NEW sales info, upping the numbers even higher!).

    2009 was a great year for Vook—it was the year we launched and it was the year we saw the publishing industry start committing to the digital medium. As our holiday present to everyone, we gave away our Sherlock Holmes Vook for free in the iTunes store from December 23rd through the 27th. We expected we’d get at most a few thousand downloads—after all, it’s difficult to attract attention even for a free app. And it was the middle of the holidays. So, with modest expectations, we set the app price to free and welcomed a few days of vacation.

    Imagine our surprise this morning when we got our sales figures from Apple for those days.

    17,000 20,000 downloads! (Ed: We can’t get enough of this)

    We were stunned. We’d seen some good responses on Twitter and through email, but nothing of this magnitude. 17,000 20,000 people have had the chance to read and watch and enjoy our enhanced version of Sherlock Holmes. 17,000 20,000 people know what a Vook is—and why we think it’s such a great new platform for books.

    We want to thank all of you who downloaded the free Sherlock Holmes Vook. We thought we were giving the reading public a gift, but you all made our offer into a huge present for us. Thanks to all of you who downloaded the Sherlock Holmes Experience, tweeted about it, mentioned it on Facebook, told their friends, and sent us emails. We’re glad we have such a great audience—and we can’t wait to bring you more great vooks!

    Happy New Year!

    Team Vook

    Marble Hornets, a new kind of storytelling

    I hesitate to bring this project to wider public attention—both because I don’t want anyone to steal it and because I fear its creators might find some of way of afflicting the sinister, malevolent force at its center on me. But it’s just too blood-curdling a yarn not to share — though you wouldn’t guess it from the title: Marble Hornets.

    What is Marble Hornets? It appears to be some combination of ARG (Alternate Reality Game) and Blair Witch-esque horror narrative, all told through Twitter, YouTube, and a Wiki page started by those who find themselves a little obsessed with the story.

    You can visit the Twitter page to learn about the sequence of events up till now, but here’s the basic summary: A young man named Alex Kralie was making a film. In the process of making the film, he found himself haunted by a strange and sinister figure known as “the Slender Man,” a tall, blank faced apparition that began to appear mysteriously in the background of his footage. After a series of strange events, Alex transferred to another college, leaving all of his tapes with his friend J. J reviewed the tapes and began to post key moments of Alex’s footage on YouTube, moments that he found particularly disturbing or inexplicable. Many of them feature the sinister character of the Slender Man. J also posts comments to Twitter about how he doesn’t know where Alex is now, how he himself has begun to experience weird occurrences, and how he’s beginning to suspect that Alex was caught up in something truly dark and otherworldly. It’s a totally convincing, hair-raising story, and it’s told entirely through YouTube videos, some Twitter posts, and a wide ranging Internet back-story.

    What does this have to do with Vook? Marble Hornets is a new kind of narrative, a new kind of story, but it’s just as horribly, horrifically effective and frightening as an ancient ghost story. Whoever is behind Marble Hornets has figured out how to tell the perfect tale for our fractured digital lives. If you think storytelling is being destroyed by hyper connectivity and short attention spans you haven’t experienced Marble Hornets.

    Of course I’d love to see this story become a vook. The potential to really crank up the horror and the dark history and the strange coincidences are unlimited on the Vook platform. For now, I’ll have to be content waiting with everyone else for a new Twitter or YouTube post.

    Which, I’m beginning to suspect, is exactly what the Slender Man wants.

    Too Busy to Read?

    I’ve been doing some initial market testing with Facebook ads to figure out how to get people excited about Vook. I’ve run a bunch of different headlines – “See the Future of Books” “The New Way to Read” – but the ad that’s grabbed far and away the most attention is simply titled “Too Busy to Read?” Sure, I carefully targeted my ads so they’ll reach an audience that I think will enjoy Vook (and, in one instance, are also fans of “The Mighty Boosh”), but even in that audience – a book loving one – people don’t seem to have enough time to read. But in the digital age reading is the one thing we’re doing more of: Most of our days are spent staring at computer screens, writing emails, reading replies and pouring through written information on the Internet. I’d say people are reading more than ever and reading more diversely. But we don’t think of that kind of reading as reading. We think of it as something else – parsing, perhaps, or even wasting time. Most of us probably still think of reading as holding a real, physical book. I’d go further and say most of envision the act of reading as a quiet, contemplative act that we need to take time out from the world to experience fully.

    I’m definitely one of those readers. I’m one of the few people who still buys a boatload of contemporary fiction . . . and even poetry. Research reports probably aren’t exaggerating the decline of my type. But what my Facebook ad showed me, even if on an small scale, is that people still want to be immersed in a great story or an incredible book. The opportunity to do so is just hard to come by. Even when we’re alone in our apartments or living rooms there’s probably an email terminal in reach, an Ipod to flip through, a few episodes of “The Mighty Boosh” to catch on a laptop. We’re just more comfortable with glowing rectangles. Which is why I’m so determined to make Vook a success: It’s going to make it easier for me to read more. That’s my main goal at this company: to help develop a product that all the readers of the world, overwhelmed with video games, email, Facebook, and memes, will be able to use to enjoy digital books as much as, say, Lolcats or the latest Tumblr site.

    What we’ve figured out is that Vook drags books out of the constraints of the real world and opens them up to the world we live in now. That doesn’t mean your book is going to be sitting on your desktop competing with live concert footage of early Roxy Music (or whatever you like to watch online)—a vook is immersive. It will take over your desktop or laptop screen if you want it to. But the important distinction is that it can make the contemplative, inward act of reading part of your daily experience. A vook is easy to read, not a pain on the eyes, and the design is so gorgeous and tempting that the text, while you’re reading it, actually entices you to keep reading. It sounds strange, but after playing around with some of our early tests, I can say that it’s true. I’d better stop before I start promising that it’s going to be more exciting than “Grand Theft Auto IV” – but for those of who love to read, that’s probably a foregone conclusion anyway.

    The Future of Digital Books?

    I recently reread the Wall Street Journal article “The Digital Future of Books” by L. Gordon Crovitz. I was looking for guidelines to help me describe what a Vook is. Even though we’re building the product, it’s still tricky to articulate exactly what Vook is going to do for books — and someone has to do something for books. As a recent Onion piece joked, “90% Of Waking Hours Spent Staring At Glowing Rectangles.” The Internet, with its trove of instantly accessible content, is pulling more people away from books than even television could. But in his article, Crovitz makes the excellent point that books and the Internet have a lot in common – not in terms of the content and entertainment and information they provide, but in terms of their structure and the way we use them. As Crovitz writes, “The book introduced a disciplined way of thinking about topics, organized around contents, pages, indexing, citation and bibliography. These are the root of Web structure as well.” A few sentences earlier, he quotes from “Print is Dead: Books in Our Digital Age” where author Jeff Gomez writes, “What’s going to be transformed isn’t just the reading of one book, but the ability to read a passage from practically any book that exists, at any time that you want to, as well as the ability to click on hyperlinks, experience multimedia, and add notes and share passages with others.”

    What I’ve realized is that Vook fulfills that promise. It’s one of the main things I need to stress when I try to describe Vook. Ebooks have yet to take advantage of the vast universe of the Internet. But Vook will—it’s going to stuff access to the Web into the context of a book. At the same time, it’s going to break books out of their binding and bring them to life in the world where our information lives. It’s the world where our music and videos and pictures and friends live – it’s the world where we live – and thanks to Vook we’re going to be able to bring our books into it too.

    The kids are alright (and reading)!

    We were pleased to see Vook’s editorial consultant Sara Nelson quoted in a USA Today article on young adult readers and book culture yesterday – and we couldn’t agree more with her point: kids are reading, they’re just not reading in a way we’re accustomed to seeing. I’ve been hearing this point from a lot of different experts in the educational and publishing world. Last year, I briefly worked with Alan Sitomer, a Teacher of the Year and published author, who’s trying to develop a new curriculum (called Book Jam) for schools to get kids reading. Allen is religious about his belief that kids are reading more than ever: on their laptops, cell phones, even video game consoles. Sure, maybe they’re not reading big books, but they’re still learning to construct sentences and process information through the written word. He’s convinced that if you present the books to kids in the right medium and let kids read what they want to read—you’ll find they can get just as sucked up in a text as they can in the Wii.

    I’m personally convinced of this too – I grew up at the same pace as video games. From early text adventures to the graphical adventures from Sierra to the frenetic first person shooters of today. I still try to keep up with video games, but I often find they’ve moved too far from their origins in a rich story telling environment. Very few video games of this century can match the thematic and story telling complexity of a show such as Lost or a book like Cloud Atlas. I know there are exceptions – and I make sure to play them – but games are missing a vital element that someone like me, a rabid digital consumer, still can only find in books and a few exceptional television shows. I’ve been going back recently to the early text adventures I used to play (Zork’s even online!), looking for inspiration for Vook. There must be potential for a more interactive book experience that Vook could facilitate that would still keep the author in control. A surrealist take on Choose Your Own Adventure? Don Quixote meets the Sierra model? Once authors see what we’re doing with Vook and think about the potential – they could start producing stories that could finally realize the epic cross referencing, hyper textuality (and awesome story telling) that House of Leaves so promisingly hinted at.

    Graphic Vook-lence

    Comics have pretty much lost their stigma as being just for kids and nerdy adults – even cute girls seem to have realized the geeks are onto something – and the Internet has been a huge player in making graphic storytelling more accessible. At Vook, graphic novels are a medium we’re really excited about, and not just because Watchmen did fairly well at the box office. Animation is definitely something we want to bring to Vook: charts, diagrams, even sharp historical lessons are all more interesting when they become quick, compelling videos. We found it a lot easier to get our heads around the credit crises after we saw an animated visualization of it from Jonathan Jarvis, a student at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Explanations like his once only came from a detailed newspaper article or an economics professor, but a graduate student whose real expertise is design turned the disaster into something everyone could understand – without neglecting depth and complexity.

    Of course, animations are also great for storytelling. We’ve been churning through a lot of the graphic novels available in the Itunes stores, and while they’re pretty great and fun to read, we feel ourselves yearning for them to be something else – something bigger, better, more elegant and immersive. A little animation goes a long way. Just check out this excellent take on Neil Gaiman’s sweet and slightly sad little poem, “The Day the Saucers Came.” (You might have to be patient, it seems to have a long load time.) Though it doesn’t use flashy graphics or lots of movement, the images pair up with the words perfectly, and the whole experience becomes a lot more involving. It’s certainly a piece that we’re taking inspiration from at Vook. The poem’s part of Microsoft’s Infinite Canvas application that’s still in the Alpha phase – and as of this writing was having some problems loading at the home page. The piece implements Microsoft’s Deep Zoom technology, which, according to the blog Ars Technica, lets you “smoothly zoom regardless of the size of the screen, bandwidth of your network, or the complexity of the images you’re looking at.” If such a simple effect can make the reading experience more powerful, imagine what’s going to happen to books when we combine them with the full range of options we’re providing at Vook . . . Books and computers might really become one, as in “Notebook,” a very charming short video from Dutch art student Evelien Lohbeck.

    WATCH: “The Crisis of Credit Visualized”

    WATCH: “The Day the Saucers Came”

    WATCH: “Notebook”

    Found in Translation

    We’re serious book lovers at Vook – one of our producers just read 2666 between takes on a long shoot – but we also love, obsessively follow and make movies and online video. That expertise will set Vook apart from other e-book creators: We understand books and video culture. Now we’re combining those mediums into a new experience that will really make words pop.

    As we scour the Internet for inspiration, a few projects stand out. Once a week, we’re going to share some of these finds to give you a feel for how we’re thinking creatively. This week, we’ve got three examples of poetry that’s made the translation into the digital world. If a new, more visual take on the written word can get people caught up in a poem, anything’s possible.

    One of the most impressive efforts has to be ad agency DDB of London’s transformation of a recording of Richard Burton reading a Dylan Thomas poem into a car ad. Though it’s as sleek and of the moment as a music video, the ad’s focus is squarely and reverently on Thomas’s poetry. When we first saw the spot a few years ago, it was a great reminder that poetry can still give us shivers – and maybe sell a few cars.

    On the amateur side, we’ve long been following the work of Jim Clark, a London based videographer who produces fascinating poetry videos. Jim combines black and white photos of poets, many from the WWI generation, with audio recordings of the poet reading his work. He then subtly animates the photo’s mouth in time with the recording. The final result makes it look as if the photograph is reciting the poem. The effect, though stiff, is haunting, uncanny, and often deeply affecting. But allow us one (kind of major) complaint. Clark insists on putting a copyright and title card in big letters over the photographs, just as the poem begins. It really jars the experience. While we’re listening to the opening lines of “Dolce et Decorum Est” seemingly spoken by Wilfred Owen himself, we don’t want to be reading a copyright notice.

    Finally, we often return to the charming animations on Billy Collins Action Poetry. This site collects eleven video interpretations of Billy Collins’ poetry in one place. Every video is a treat – though make sure you don’t miss Jeff Scher’s swirling “No Time” or Julian Grey’s beautiful “Forgetfulness.”

    If poetry – that most lamented literary genre – can be turned into groundbreaking video content, then we at Vook have a lot of work ahead of us: there’s a whole universe of books out there, just waiting to be stunningly enhanced with video.

    WATCH: DDB’s VW Ad with Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas

    WATCH: Jim Clark’s animated poets

    VISIT: Billy Collins Action Poetry

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