Vook You!

To tell the truth, it was probably the only short story that took a month to read, and I was glad I didn't buy one of the novels, like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; it was only a short story.

I'm talking about Anne Rice's latest venture, a partnership with Vook to create a “vook” version of her only short story, “The Master of Rampling Gate.” A vampire story from her early years when she rode coffins to book signings, before she became Catholic again and said she'd never write for Satan again, an ironic statement because she's still still taking money from her past lives: I will not write about vampires, but surely I will take money from them!

It's pragmatic in a way. With her books now dealing with retellings of the New Testament, and goths leaving her for the likes of the “New Paranormal” (Charlaine Harris and Sookie Stackhouse, Laurell Hamilton and Anita Blake, etc) a girl still gotta eat. The solution? Invest in new media that promise to outlive the outdated book.

Enter the Vook, the  “new innovation in reading that blends a well-written book, high-quality video and the power of the Internet into a single, complete story,” or so says the company, founded by Bradley Inman, a real estate columnist/businessman, which explains why the website offers oodles of business books, such as Gary Vaynerchuck's Crush It! (this is perhaps one of the most annoying guys I have ever seen; like a failed businessman [think Willy Loman] trying to believe in the system; his voice squeaks—it squeaks!—when he talks; watch the trailer!), and Seth Godin's Unleashing the Super Idea Virus. According to the company and Rice, “Vook represents a very exciting combination of new technological elements, that I think is long overdo in publishing.”

To some—it might be perfect because it attempts to keep ahead of the game by merging with the enemies of literature: mainly Youtube, that viral website the interrupts that project you have at work because videos of cute sneezing pandas are so much more fun! YouTube has changed the way we are entertained: we want visual, we want instant. To keep up, in theory, publishing must be like Youtube. Thus—the Vook—which is essentially a Flash-based webpage with video and text. The videos are touted as enhancements to the story, extras like the “Making-Of” featurettes on DVDs.

Anne Rice's Vook does precisely that. The first video introduces Rice, further videos talk about her accomplishments, her life, and her inspiration for the story—which in all honesty isn't that great (believe it or not, some people find it easier to write a 60,000 word novel than a 4000 word short story, Rice is probably one of them). But the problem is that I had to have internet connection to read the story and watch it's extra contents.

Which is hard to do. I can't carry around my netbook everywhere I go: for security reasons, because I don't need it anywhere, yet I do need a book in my backpack wherever I go. Here then, is one of the Vook's flaws: it is dependent upon internet connection.

Of course you can use the I-Phone edition, but we all don't have I-Phones, and we spend our money on more important things—books, food, and putty that makes farting noises. I read parts of the story once a week, for four weeks, because the time when I wanted most to read were not times when I felt like hooking my computer up and watching the lights flash. And besides, there are so many other things to do on the internet. During the course of reading, I checked my email, looked up books online—Sue Miller has a new book coming out, and she had a short story collection back in the day too; there's this nifty book on Africa, which I got interested in because I read this one article on the Human Rights Watch website; I watched two episodes of The Simpsons on Hulu, and searched for music on I-Tunes. All this before I could finish the story, which in itself is interrupted by the videos that tell you what happens before it actually happens in the story, or by links embedded on words that you might not know, the way there's blue all over Wikipedia pages. Besides that, in full screen mode, the words get cut off on the side, and when exiting full screen mode, you lose your page.

There were some nice elements. I am nearly blind and I could change the font size.

But mainly the Vook is FAIL: its strengths its own weakness. Internet connections and videos prove to be interruptions.

And besides, videos have already been introduced for literature. Shopping, I came across MiBooks, guides that include videos to help you with DIY projects and the likes, but is it worth paying $70 plus the cost of the book to learn how to do one thing and truly will you happy with the small choice of MiBooks they have, will you use all the MiBooks?

Such “innovations” I think are largely ignored by publishers who are putting more faith in e-books, which they hope will give an I-Pod spin on literature. Amazon has already said that it is working on apps for the Kindle and some writers are already working on “enhanced” e-book editions of their work, such as David Baldacci, who announced that he would release an enhanced version of his next novel, which will come with audio interviews. The enhanced ebook, then, will be like portable Vook, with extra media to “help” the story and get intimate with the writer.

My problem though is I don't want to know anything else other than what is already written. I hate it when writers added “deleted scenes” to their books (Christine Feehan does this all the time). They are supposedly deleted for a reason in the first place and adding them only means that you as a writer have no idea what you want to say with your story, and clearly your characters are not fleshed out enough because obviously you can fling them around and delete them for sales.

Similarly, I don't want to know about how the author got the idea for the story, nor how the author writes, nor where he lives, nor what is his favorite food, nor the type of potato chip he eats on Sundays. At most, I only need a picture; other than that it should only be “X is a writer.” Because at the end of it, what you write should be important, the story should be important and not the extraneous distractions. That's why the book—that paperbound thing—is good the way it is.

But then again, maybe I'm just an anomaly. Publishers must compete, not only with themselves, but with new media. To some writers, publishers must engage the reading public fully. Seth Grahame-Smith predicts that the enhanced e-book is the way of the future:

"I think books have to find a way to stay current in a marketplace that's crowded with YouTube users learning to consume media in a new way. Publishers are realizing that now, and in terms of the iPad, the Kindle, the Nook and all of that, I think you're going to see books come out with special features. I think the video we did for Lincoln won't just be available on YouTube, but if you download it to your iPad you can have it as part of the added value of that book. Things like that are only going to increase." 

But the question to me would be: is this really literature? I would say yes, if that was your intention. If you write something that must be multimedia, go ahead—that is your work of art. But if the extra-media is simply extra and can be removed without any effect on the work, it's just extraneous and not art: just gimmicky, like those mysteries with the recipes and cleaning tips. Publishers are looking for an easy additive to boost sales and gain a higher readership. This is not the solution. It might be a quick fix, but can easily die.

But a possible solution lies within the writers themselves to produce what others cannot do—Writers need to do what film makers cannot, what musicians cannot, what the painter cannot, what the others cannot possible think of doing. Writers must give readers something that cannot be obtained in other media sources. Because if you just add video to your product, you can always separate that media, you can always go on Youtube. What writers need to offer is something that no one else can offer (I think Chuck Palahniuk said this somewhere, but I can't find it, and then again here's a guy who sells the rights of his novels to make movies...).

It's in the words. It's about the way the sentences connect with the readers; it's about how it sounds in your head; it's about the poetics and flow and imaginary music and pictures and people and feeling. It's about the words. It's always about the words. If we keep this in mind, I think we'd have something.


  1. Sorry that you didn't have a very positive experience with the Vook. Internet connection issues are certainly annoying, but they can be ironed out as tweaks are made to the technology.

    I totally agree that when reading a book, it's "always about the words." But movies aren't always about the words, movies are about images, integration and flow.

    Vooks are a hybrid, and I think if you thought of them as entirely new product, instead of something to replace books, you might feel differently.

    For example, the Vook of Shakespeare sonnets is a whole new category of entertainment/education...

  2. But the problem is that the Vook tries to present itself as something new while using something that is old. It is not a hybrid of media, it is a hodgepodge. In order to be new, to be truly a "Vook" and not just a Flash webpage with video and text, they need to seek out original Vook artists. Right now, all they're selling are a few special Vook editions of stuff already in print, the rest are just stuff from the free domain.

    Until they change their business model, they're just book wannabes.