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Q&A with Brad Inman, founder of Vook

After the widely-covered Gary Vaynerchuk launch, we caught up with Brad Inman to see what Vook was going to do next.

LJND: So what’s on tap for the Vook now?

BI: We’ve got a Japanese cookbook coming out, where we’ve worked directly with the author. There will be a series of other publishers getting involved – we’ve found lots of publishers dying to do it.

LJND: So the response has been enthusiastic?

BI: The response has been overwhelming, and we’re still learning & trying to figure it all out. We’ve got mass production planned for next year – we’re still working out which genres are best, the best places to get distribution. We’re experimenting with pricing and business models. We’re new to the book business – in our industry, you get proof of concept, you do experimenting and testing, and then once you have a vein you think you can tap, you get really aggressive. We are seeing that there’s an opportunity here – book, ebook, audiobook, vook.

LJND: One of your other businesses is TurnHere, the book video company. Does Vook use Turn Here footage – is there a natural outgrowth here?

BI: We’ve always viewed Vook as an extension of TurnHere – we shoot very high quality video at very low cost. This gives us great leverage and scalability in the market. Simultaneous production gives us great capacity to scale the business. We’re going to do hundreds or more book videos next year.

LJND: How did the "Crush It" Vook come about?

BI: Gary’s publisher came to us when they saw the article in the NYT in the spring – they thought he was perfect for it. They have a series of other titles we’re negotiating with them on. The Vook is natural for his audience and his crowd.

LJND: What sort of book is ideal for the Vook?

BI: The fan base needs to be there on the internet – and it can be a book from a traditional author, because the internet is so comprehensive. There are some authors that don’t have any internet fan bases and they’re not authors we’d want to do – this is a way to expand the audience of the book publishing business: tons of people are watching video all day and not reading. So if the author (or genre) doesn’t have an internet fan base, that’s a problem. We’ll be taking two of the Sherlock Holmes stories out of the public domain – we shot the videos in London with the cooperation of the Sherlock Holmes Society. The title has a huge fan base and they helped us shape the video – which is an annotation to the stories.

Another example: recently we had a newsletter that’s focused on losing weight, where they send out to a list every day – in that case, our author had no connection to this group, but the fan base around the genre is huge – it’s about a 90-second workout. You unsurface a whole new distribution channel on the internet than by only going to B&N.

LJND: It sounds like what Mike Shatzkin has to say about vertical markets , about niches.

BI: We think verticals/niches is really the way the internet works. The internet is already organized around subjects. The general, mass-market shotgun approach – from news, television, books – these sales channels haven’t been very organized. And the internet is made for verticals. Users are affiliated with a group; they’ve personalized a page.

LJND: Obviously Vooks can’t play on ebook readers – how do you see people accessing them?

BI: We seem people using smaller devices – phones. It won’t be long before everything’s browser-based, so there are no closed systems. Universality is making sure your app is universally accessible. If you’re in all the devices, the global population can find you. Once you’re universally available, you can then use the power of segmentation of the internet.

Our iPhone app is our best seller. Of every 100 sales, two-thirds are iPhone apps. Apple’s gotten behind us in a big way – two of our apps are in the top 10 for books that turn into apps. Our apps get featured. Apple’s seeing the value of our multimedia. That’s really what we’re building to, is the market for these devices. They embrace multimedia.

Everything’s going to come together by the end of next year. There will be a multiple selection of computers and devices that we can choose from, all browser-enabled. And there will be more competition – the good thing about B&N coming out is all the competition. They’re going to have to add features and content, and that’s going to enable all kinds of creative enterprises.

LJND: Now that you’ve been working with publishers a little, what final observations do you have?

BI: We bring video and technology and internet marketing and relationships – but the foundation of all of this is good books; we depend on publishers and authors for that.

We’re in the first inning of something that’s much bigger than people realize. Handwringing and fear don’t get us anywhere. There’s a huge new opportunity. The key is to experiment – with us or others – but the only way you’re going to be part of it is to participate.

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PubPocalypse Now – a guest post by Brett Sandusky

Digital Marketing Manager at Kaplan, Brett Sandusky is also a co-founder of . His love for books is rivaled only by his love for France.

Let’s be honest here: the publishing industry is tanking. Everyone knows it; we just won’t admit it. Houses are merging, imprints are quietly dying, talented people are being laid off. All the while, we keep trying to find some shred of a thought of a possibility of reinvention so we can stay afloat for another quarter or two. Print books are starting to go the way of vinyl and CD, and all we can do is look around and pretend that our former glory perfumes the air through which we walk.

We are in the midst of an identity crisis. There, I said it.

We want to be print, we want to be digital, we want to be prigital , we want to be traditional, we want to be POD, we want to be ePress, we want to be social media, we want to be a New York Times bestseller, we want to rank on Amazon, and we want to sell at your local indie bookstore. We want to sell books like other consumer products and yet we still hold onto the notion that we are the filterers of content for the masses. All in all, we’re doing it wrong!

One of the biggest arguments against POD and self-publishing is that no one is there (read: we are not there) to determine if the content is worthy of publication or not. Well, look around – what exactly are we determining is suitable for publication?

Celebrities who don’t actually read or write, with seven figure advances and ghostwriters and media circuses?

There are zombies, vampires, and sea monsters (oh, my!). There is shlock lit, autobiographies of failed politicians and former meth addicts-cum-tennis-players. And reality show personalities – Lauren Conrad, Heidi Montag, Spencer Pratt and Bam Margera all have their own books. It’s the truth! And gimmicky blogs with two-month track records.

This is what we’re selling. No joke. Nice version: We’ve diluted the waters of quality content and now we’re paying the price. Not so nice version: We’re addicted to the crack of the home-run bestseller and we’re stealing from whomever we can just to buy our next bump.

It’s time to take a look at ourselves and decide what we are going to pursue. Are we filterers of content or are we distributors of content? Are we book printers, eBook suppliers, movie makers, game designers, app developers?

It’s time for a new model. A truly new model. A model that does not include the returns of those home-run "bestsellers". A model that does not include the same advance and royalty structures that have been on life support. Content has changed, ergo pay structures for providers of content should change. PULL THE PLUG! A model that supports readers’ device preferences (printed books are devices, too). A model that is adaptable for the future. A model that …

We need an XML business model. Time to retool.

What do I mean by XML business model, you ask? I am talking about a business model that is adaptable. A model that is made up of components which not only work in tandem with each other but can be applied or omitted based on specific needs. A model that would, in the end, be lean and yet address every scenario we could encounter. I am talking about a customizable, modular business plan that would allow us to have just the right equation for each type of content combination were it print, digital, or a combination thereof. Is it so crazy to ask that the business model mirror the business?

This issue’s acronym is courtesy of Brett Sandusky, from his column: "prigital"

This issue’s acronym is not an acronym at all, but a portmanteau. I used this word above, and thought I should define what I mean by prigital. Prigital is the combination of both print and digital publishing into one product that seemingly bridges the gap between both. By combining these two elements, it is possible to offer a reading experience enhanced by rich digital content. Some examples of prigital products: companion apps that are to be used simultaneously to reading, vooks, integrated video in digital eBook products, integrated audio in digital eBook products. 

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Mythbusting the ISBN

It’s probably not healthy to keep thinking about this. It certainly makes me a lousy conversationalist. Because in all the ruminating and talking and (if you must know) mad nattering to myself (luckily, I spend LARGE portions of my day alone), I keep coming back to the ISBN.

Bear with me. (I have already investigated, and there is no rehab facility that deals in identifier addiction problems, so that’s out.)

Last month, the AAP’s Digital Initiatives Working Group and BISAC’s Identifiers Committee conducted a survey among members to determine what publishers’ views actually are on the ISBN. Publishers have been told what to think, repeatedly – and we know how much publishers like being told what to think – so we thought we’d turn the conversation around and ask them what they thought. The results are not yet finalized, and when they are I will talk about them.

But I worry. Because as we expand book distribution from merely a paper-with-occasional-ebook business to an all-kinds-of-paper-and-lots-of-different-ebooks-plus-vooks-plus-promotional-packages-plus-print-on-demand-plus-subscriptions-to-book-content-plus-downloadable-audio – well, you can see where this is going, and it’s messy.

And I have been in more than one meeting where I have heard these exact words (and I am not making this up), “If only we had some kind of system to deal with this, some way of identifying content…”


So, first, some mythbusting.

ISBNs are expensive.

Actually, no they are not! The new My Identifiers site will offer new pricing in January. A single ISBN will cost an author or publisher $125. Ten ISBNs are $250, or $25 per ISBN. A hundred ISBNs are $575. This is cheap!

An ISBN is just a bar code for a book, and if my books are digital, I don’t need ISBNs.

Not so! In using an ISBN for a digital book (or any book), a publisher creates an automatic web page for that book, which is populated by the bibliographic data in Books in Print (and can be edited or added to by the publisher). Bowker hosts that web page, and the hosting price is included in the purchase of the ISBN. Publishers can choose which booksellers will sell their titles on that page – or direct traffic specifically to the publisher itself.
br /> The price of the ISBNs also includes a widget for each title, to put on your own website or to share – you can choose to display as much or as little of each book as you want.

Amazon doesn’t use ISBNs, so I don’t need them.

Wrong again! It is true that Amazon doesn’t depend on ISBNs – but when they have them, they do use them to create their ASINs. ISBNs are the foundation of Bowker’s Books in Print, which in fact licenses data to Amazon. Also to Barnes & Noble – the website and the physical stores. Also to ebooks.com, Abebooks.com, Indigo, and almost every single public and institutional library in the US.

So if your book is listed in Books in Print (and if it has an ISBN, it will be), it is automatically available to book buyers – consumers, librarians, and the people who stock books in physical bookstores. If your book is NOT in Books in Print, it might be available on Amazon – but unless you approach all these other outlets yourself (and many will require an ISBN to sell your product anyway), Amazon will be the ONLY place it is listed.

Consumers don’t search using ISBNs.

Again, not true! College students have learned that the best way to find the textbooks they need is to search by ISBN. This way, they can be sure that they are getting the latest edition, the used version, the ebook – whatever they want – at the best price possible. (Almost two years ago, the Harvard Coop arrested students who were jotting down ISBNs to take home and search online to see if they could find better prices.)

These students will graduate. And by then they will be used to finding their books online by searching for the ISBN.

More importantly – search engines use ISBNs. Books in Print licenses its database to “the top 3 search engines” (they are not allowed to name names, but we know who they are). BIP is also searchable on the open web. Search engines crawl that database as well. ISBNs are, in fact, the cornerstone of book search on the web – even though most people don’t realize it. Books – whether digital, print, or audio – are very nearly not findable without an ISBN; publishers are really testing the odds by not using them.

And now…some confirmation of suspicions. The more ISBNs I have, the more metadata I have to keep track of.

Absolutely true. If you have a lot of products, they all need to be described. This is not an argument for fewer ISBNs, however. It may be an argument for fewer products. It may be an argument for the ISTC, which would allow publishers to group ISBNs together and repurpose much of the same metadata among them, streamlining databases everywhere. But not using ISBNs will not ever solve your metadata problems.

We only produce a single EPUB file, which has a single ISBN. We don’t care what it gets converted to once we send it to our distributors. They can assign more ISBNs for the different formats they create from our EPUB file.

And that makes a lot of sense. Until you need to change the metadata on that file – if, for example, you’ve accidentally misspelled the author’s name. Or if the price changes. Or if your hung-over intern has assigned a BISAC category of “Juvenile – Ducks” to a romance novel. Once metadata is being assigned to an ISBN you did not create, you have no control over that data. None. Even though it’s your product. So the metadata associated with that EPUB file better be pristine before it leaves your house, or you’ll be in a massive game of catch-up.

Publishers in other countries don’t have to pay for ISBNs.

This is true – except for the UK. ISBN agencies are subsidized by taxes, ultimately, in many other countries. (Somehow I don’t see politicians being able to put that one across here. Call me cynical, but I just don’t think we have such powerful lobbyists in the book industry.) But the money that publishers pay does actually go somewhere. It funds the web pages for each ISBN. It funds the widgets. It funds manual editing of a publisher’s metadata when there are typos or misspellings or other errors. It funds the title maintenance software, the data hosting, and the teams of programmers and editors who manage Books in Print.

The very fact that I know all of this disturbs me deeply. But what disturbs me still more is that so many publishers do not know it. Yet.

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