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.

A page from Vook's "Best of Times" video e-bookSince 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 … 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 “Lighting Up the World’s Text: A Talk with Vook Founder Brad Inman”

  1. Kurt Johnson says:

    I just bought Vook’s e-book on Rick Perry through Barnes & Noble. It is only 28 e-book pages in length and contains absolutely nothing not already available through news articles. It’s a serial cut-and-paste job. A few color images are from Flickr. This book is a scam at $3.99. The description prior to purchase is a gross misrepresentation. Don’t buy it.