Friday, October 02, 2009


Yesterday an article appeared in the New York Times about a new publishing paradigm called the “vook.” ( This joins the “blog” which is a “web log”-- or was in the beginning -- and the podcast, which is a spoken-aloud essay like a broadcast, and a lot of other new words that have had to be invented to describe new “things.” I am grateful that instead of going with Latinate exclusivist academic terms, the preference has been short, preferably four-letter, acronyms like the good old Anglo-Saxon words we use for curses, sex and other intimate and emotional concepts. Because “vooks” are very much along those lines.

A vook is an ebook with a video insert. On your Kindle you’re reading along in a narrative, it says, “The party rode on over the hills.” At that point a video plays itself: there they are, on horseback. You see the hills and pick up much information from that: the weather, the geology, the distances, the effort required. You get closeups of each face. Back to text: “Suddenly . . .” Back to video: (Insert what you can imagine right here.) Then more print, discussing what it was that happened and its significance.

From early in our working relationship Tim and I have had vooks in mind, partly because I’m such a print freak and he’s focused on image. I have barely enough tech skills to get this blog out daily and Tim is way beyond that -- led, taught and guided by those boy-techies who grew up with their fingers on electronics. Sometimes I’ve written about their vids and sometimes they made vids about what I’ve written. Now we’re ready to go seamless.

One need not be writing fiction/non-fiction as discriminated categories. This throws all the academic parsing and splitting and defining of categories out the window. What do you believe now? What you’re told? What you see? What you hear? What you deduce? Maybe none of us will agree. The shift of media has entirely shifting the discussion and deconstruction is on entirely different terms that must be invented as we go.

When I went to Google “vooks” to locate the NYTimes article that everyone was forwarding to Tim yesterday, there were so many articles and secondary comment that I couldn’t choose which to link. So -- go to Google and knock yourself out! Simon and Schuster are the daring publishers who are going first, meaning that everyone else will soon be building on their shoulders.

At that point the lawyers will be chortling, because this is part of the shift from the actual (like paper books) to the virtual (like pixels accessible many ways and originating in many places). The questions of who-owns-what, how to write a contract that accounts for all contingencies and transformations, what to call the product, what the content ought to be, will not settle down for a long time after many lawsuits. For one thing, national copyrights, even backed up with international treaties among the major countries, will be unenforceable. The only limits will be imposed by who has what in their hand or on their desk or knees. Tim has already been keeping our vids in Apple-friendly mode so they can go anywhere iPhone can go.

But the demographic of people who absorb ideas by iPhone will be different and maybe not homogenous. Even with the great shared affinity of music as a force across cultures, tastes differ. Does this mean soundtracks for vids must differ? How much ambiguity can watchers tolerate? Cinematheque uses an overlay technique -- image on top of image, carefully matched and timed, then calibrated to music -- that multi-tasking kids are fine with. But a grandma like me has to go through several times to really “get” what happened. Some people simply won’t have the eyesight for it, but could get through a print book with no trouble.

Imagine you’re reading a lecture about something arcane. Suddenly a video unfurls and you either see a microscopic actual visioning of what the print has been discussing or an inspired metaphorical graphic cartoon of the same process or even both, one after the other.

Or let’s go the other way. Suppose you open the first page and find a video that is seductive, baffling, and emotional. You can barely tell what’s happening, much less what it means. Then comes print with some explanation or simply poetry that brings the image and music to more of a graspable metaphor, something like a dream explained by a psychoanalyst -- or a gypsy. James Joyce, eat your heart out!

Or what if you read print that seems clear enough, but there are cutaways to the actual event which are NOT what is being described. The print is lying. But why? Didn’t I see a movie like this? The voiceover said, “I was a lovable child who was never destructive,” and we see vid of a child smashing a toy. Maybe a closeup of a desperate doll face doomed not to survive -- but then back to the child’s face, which is an echo. And then the print discusses how much childhood tendencies play out in adult life. Or what if the print is a crime report but then you see something quite different. Are the images all lies?

Is any law going to be able to keep people from driving while distracted if they have access to this kind of stuff? But won’t it teach people the importance of paying attention and maybe thinking for themselves? Will this new hybrid take right off or will it stall out while publishers regain their nerve? Perhaps the very fact that publishing is mostly a pile of rubble these days will make way for “vooks.” It will also make it very hard on authors who can’t adapt. Can a Philip Roth novel simply be translated to a vook? Where would we buy vooks anyway? I’m not even sure where to buy an eBook, though I’m pretty confident that I can get a Book on Tape from a bookstore and also confident that whatever kind of widget comes next will show up on Amazon soon.

But excuse me. I’m needed to write continuity for a VOOK.

1 comment:

Lance M. Foster said...

"What is a Vook?" or

Simon and Schuster's promo of the Vook with several examples:

The New York Times story:

And of course there are other links as well...

I can see that for some kinds of books this would be a natural, but the risks include-

1. Novelty for novelty's sake, just to be trendy
2. Portability - what "new" gadget would this play on and how much would it cost
3. The same issue as with e-books- the tactile pleasure of paper books, shuffle and place-holding back and forth, and reading in the tub is gone...
4. Future tech changes, again for novelty's sake- I can read a book published 200 years ago, but the new Blu-Ray videos won't play on this year's Apple Computer...videodiscs, vinyl records, celluloid film, beta tapes, etc etc are all "the latest technologies" that are useless now...NASA can't even use the data on the initial Moon voyages because the data has decayed and computer program used to access them is long gone and no one can figure out

All these blogs and YouTube and vook trends are cool, sure, ...historians use old letter and diaries to write histories...future histories depend on electronic ephemera like email and blogs and...

What would Herodotus do?