Testing Vook — The Video Book Hybrid

Vook text screengrab

The e-book market has exploded, and readers have their pick of slim, little e-readers to choose from — but they’re still just reading words on a page, albeit digitally. Enter Vook, the funny-named startup that’s trying to take books to the next level, by integrating video and social media elements with the story. The company launched its first four titles, called Vooks, with Simon & Schuster and Atria Books today. Once you buy the video book hybrid, you log in and the Flash-based application opens right in your browser. There are also individual iPhone or iTouch apps; the online versions cost $6.99, and the iPhone apps are $4.99.

I was intrigued by the premise of the Vook from when news about it first trickled out; the company is founded by Bradley Inman, founder of online video stock production company TurnHere, so I jumped at the chance to test it out. I tried Richard Doetsch’s Embassy, a suspense title, first. The Vook browser makes the book look a bit like a web page; icons at the top of the screen let you switch between a text view, video view or a split-screen view (For a slide show of images, click on picture on the left). There’s also a “connect” button that brings up info about the author, links for sharing details about the story on Facebook and Twitter, as well as a Twitter stream linked to a hashtag of the Vook’s title (in this case, #embassyvook).

It’s decidedly interactive, which may not be a good thing for people that like to “veg” when they read. On the first page, my eyes immediately went to the small video icon nestled between the first and second paragraphs. I could barely skim the opening sentence before I clicked the button; it launched a drop-down video screen that set the scene with slightly ominous music, landscape shots of skyscrapers (Embassy is set in NYC) and glimpses of the main characters. The clips are in HD-quality, and you can skim through to videos in subsequent chapters; one clip featured a mock newscast detailing a kidnapping, another showed a police car chase.

Too hi-tech for its own good? The Flash-based browser makes the videos look slick, with fluid navigation buttons — but it’s almost too fluid. It’s very easy to skim past the next page when you click the forward arrow, and hard to get the clips to stop playing when you’d rather go back to just text. The semi-transparent background also makes the words hard to read, but those should be kinks that Vook will ultimately work out. Still, the overriding feeling I had when I was trying to read Embassy as a Vook was just that — I was trying too hard to read it and not be distracted by the interactivity.

Better for non-fiction: The second Vook, The 90 Second Fitness Solution, by Pete Cerqua, felt much more suited to the video/text hybrid. A tome for busy women that want to tone up and lose weight, the clips let you follow along with specific exercises, connect with Pete, the author and personal trainer, and even learn how to shop for healthier foods. Since the book is trying to get readers active, the need to click through videos and skim text feels natural.

The early verdict: I haven’t been able to sit with the Vooks for long enough to see whether I can make it through an entire novel, but my preliminary feeling is that the current iteration is better for non-fiction. I’m a champion of interactivity — I like it in my ads, in my video games, and even some of my TV shows — but when it comes to digging in to a crime thriller, the bells and whistles prevented me from losing myself in the story. It will be interesting to compare sales stats for the non-fiction vs. fiction Vooks in the coming months to see whether other readers feel the same way.

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