Vook Puts E-Book Publishing Power in More Hands

Just one year after moving from San Francisco to New York, Vook is enhancing its cloud-based e-book publishing platform this week. Vook, which has made its name by enabling non-techie types to publish their work electronically, is now rolling out features such as an HTML5-based reader that will let many tablets and smartphones pull up titles published through the platform.

Matthew Cavnar, Vook’s vice president of business development, who demoed the new features at this month’s NY Tech Meetup, says it’s all part of the company’s strategy to further disrupt the publishing world. “It’s like a WordPress for e-books,” he says. “Anyone can quickly create an e-book, add video, audio, and publish it.”

Vook works with small to midsize publishers and authors such as Gary Vaynerchuk, but its platform is also used to publish individual titles from bigger guys such as HarperCollins, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Penguin. The three-year-old company has thus far raised $7.75 million from backers that include Lerer Ventures, Floodgate, Baseline Ventures, Founder Collective, VantagePoint Capital Partners, and Ron Conway.

Cavnar believes Vook’s platform can also help authors who self-publish stand out among the growing number of digital titles. “An everyday author can [make] a publisher-quality e-book in twenty minutes through our tool,” he says.

The new features Vook has been developing include automated creation of landing pages that contain information about authors, sharing buttons for social media, and the ability to display preview versions of the e-books. Vook also plans to add a star-ratings system and a place for comments, so readers can discuss the e-books on the landing pages. These services, Cavnar says, are intended to help authors and publishers promote and sell their digital titles on their own. Vook takes a 15 percent cut from the royalties on sales made through the Web pages it provides. (Or publishers can pay $89 to have their works distributed through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple iBooks without Vook taking a cut of royalties.)

Up until last summer, Vook’s engineering staff operated on the West Coast while its business operations ran out of its New York offices. By 2011, the company had put together 800 e-book titles and wanted to leverage its technology in new ways. Cavnar says moving its headquarters helped Vook nab Rob Guttman, vice president of engineering, who was based in the New York area. “We like to say we built the company around Rob,” Cavnar says.

Prior to joining Vook, Guttman was chief technology officer at Juju in New York, which operates a job-search engine. Cavnar says the hire gave Vook a new core to grow the staff around. “[Guttman] knew how to recruit [talent] and create technology that’s sustainable and scalable,” he says. Two of Vook’s engineers made the move to New York with the new headquarters, according to Cavnar, and another five engineers were hired locally.

The opportunities in New York’s media and technology community, says Cavnar, were also too much for Vook to pass up. “We had to have a business front in New York because [at first] I had to convince publishers to give us content,” he says. Furthermore, he says the presence of tech companies such as Google, Facebook, Foursquare, and tumblr made the city attractive. “New York in 2012 is like Paris in the 1920s but for content, e-books, digital publishing, and cloud-based publishing platforms,” Cavnar says.

Cavnar will have to keep Vook’s offerings fresh, especially if media organizations such as The Wall Street Journal and NBC start launching their own digital publishing initiatives. By pairing their content with their own technology, Cavnar says such media outlets could build bookstores on their websites. “In the next six to seven months, with a smart bit of technology, most of the media companies will be selling e-books directly to their audience,” he says. “I think that is a huge sign for the future of the industry.” Such a trend, he says, could lead to more opportunities for Vook to work with content publishers who may not have the means to set up their own digital bookstores.

Regardless of their size, publishers and authors want to gain more traction with their audiences, especially on crowded third-party e-book websites. Furthermore, Cavnar says that by helping publishers sell directly to the consumer, Vook could help loosen the iron grip that distributors have on the digital-publishing market. “Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple keep all the customer information [such as e-mail addresses],” he says. “If publishers want that information, they need a way to sell e-books directly.”

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