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Simon & Schuster Unveils Video Book Service

Simon & Schuster today introduced an online video book service available in two formats -- as an Apple iPhone application and in an edition for PC Web browsers.

The book format, dubbed "vooks", blends text and video into what the publishing giant describes as a seamless reading experience "to advance the plot and enhance the sense of place."

The technology behind the format comes via Simon & Schuster's work with Emeryville, Calif. startup Vook.

On the desktop, the digital titles are viewable through the Vook Reader, which is built using Adobe Flash. Its XML-based text and HD-quality videos are streamed directly through any browser, so the reader can expect a continuous, streamlined reading and viewing experience, according to Simon & Schuster.

Whether on the browser-based or mobile platform, the Vook Reader also allows and encourages readers to communicate and share their enthusiasm for vooks with other readers through built-in social media functionality and connections.

"Vook is a game-changing model for reading in the age of digital multimedia, the first viable combination of text and video that is user-friendly and that addresses today's multitasking audience and how it absorbs information and entertainment," Ellie Hirschhorn, vice president and chief digital officer at Simon & Schuster, said in a statement.

"It is easily accessible in the way that consumers have come to expect from digital content, has great potential for distribution through traditional and non-traditional outlets, and expands and improves upon what was previously possible in the area of reading digitally," she said.

Four titles are available today, each priced at $6.99, through Simon & Schuster's Atria Books imprint.

"For the benefit of authors, publishers, filmmakers and most of all readers, Vook is bringing together two creative mediums -- books and video -- taking the best of both and redefining how we tell and consume stories," Vook CEO Bradley Inman said in a statement. "Vook's professionally shot videos are downloaded to an iPhone and iPod Touch or streamed directly to a browser application alongside the text to create a seamless new reading experience that will engage readers far more than the one-dimensional e-book options currently on the market."

The news comes on the heels of Disney Publishing Group's launch of a computer-based subscription digital book service, Disney Digital Books. The offering is targeted at children ages 3 to 12.

But Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps sees the work between Simon & Schuster and Vook focusing instead on the future, rather than competing with rivals now -- and like Disney, is looking beyond today's e-reader device market.

"They're laying the groundwork for the anticipated releases of tablet PCs from Microsoft, and hopefully Apple, that will support video, interactivity and color, and have a richer content experience than e-readers," Epps told InternetNews.com.

"I don't think many people are going to sit and read books on the desktop computer, and I don't think [Simon & Schuster] really is banking on that for the long-term," she added. "They just want to already be out there when these new portable devices that support video and have Internet access come into play."

Another factor may be playing a role in pushing publishers like Disney and Simon & Schuster to new formats is that the e-reader and digital book market is expected to begin growing dramatically.

Worldwide e-reader shipments for 2008 totaled 1 million, but should grow to 30 million by 2013, according to In-Stat, while iSuppli estimates 18 million device sales by 2012.

But those prospects have attracted a number of competitors. After Amazon's rollout of the Kindle 2 e-book reader and large-screen DX version earlier this year, Sony, Asus, Barnes & Noble and iRex Technologies have all unveiled plans for their answer to the popular Kindle.

Unlike Disney, which is banking on subscriptions, and Simon & Schuster, which thus far is focusing on software offerings, these companies are counting on the sale of devices and digital books.

Epps added that the integration of video is also a hot topic among the publishing industry.

"All the book publishers I talk to ask, 'What about video? What about video?' They see the e-book format as it exists now as low-tech. Their hope is to add value to content with video, which in turn means they can justify charging more for it, as opposed to delivering a stripped-down version product with limited revenue possibilities."