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

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 … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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2 responses to “Video and Books: Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together?”

  1. Brad Inman says:

    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