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iDoLVine: Bringing Authors and Their Fans Closer Together – Virtually

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Acclaimed novelist Margaret Atwood is once again at the cutting edge of innovation, identifying ways for authors and their readers to connect in a way that will minimize travel (and leave a smaller carbon footprint). But it’s not only the environment that will benefit from Atwood’s ideas.

The question to which Atwood and the brilliant minds at iDoLVine have found the answer is: How do you enable authors to connect with the most readers in a given time and place? How do you overcome the expense of book tours (something that many authors haven’t either the time or money) and at the same time allow authors to reach out to their fans in remote places all at once?

After meeting Atwood briefly in New York at a party during Book Expo America, I learned that she is working with a company called iDoLVine on something very, very cool and of interest to all authors (whether or not they’re on the best seller list) and anyone who’s ever wanted to meet, talk with, and get an personal autograph from their favorite author.

Watch live streaming video from idolvinelive at livestream.com

The idea, according to Matthew Gibson, CEO of IDoLVine, “began back in 2004. Margaret came a need in the marketplace for book authors who were touring to be able to reach a broader segment of their fan base without the sort of maniacal travel requirements and the costs associated with it.”

Back then, the solution was something called LongPen. “Margaret called me,” Gibson explained wondering whether there was “a technology available that could be used in conjunction with video conferencing that would allow her to sign physical books in her own handwriting using a real pen.” Gibson confessed that although the task was monumental, they set out to develop the technology. “If I had known how difficult it would be,” he said, “I would have preferred to have made a remote surgery machine!” Using the LongPen technology allows a person to sign anything remotely—with a genuine, certifiable signature—to physically sign books—hard copy books anywhere in the world. Margaret had envisaged a way for her to sit in the comfort of her house, not as a way to exclude physical book tours but a way to augment them. To meet fans in markets that she wouldn’t otherwise get to.” Signings at remotely-located and distant bookstores now became possible; authors who could not (or did not like to) travel could now attend book signing events.

With the growing popularity of digital content, e-books and the new social medial frontier, Atwood and Gibson saw a new, remarkable way to extend this vision so that not only the author might sit in the comfort of their living room, so can the fans. “Anyone with an e-reader or a computer to be able to interact with an artist, whether it be an author or whether it be a musician, or a sports celebrity, or a Hollywood movie star, whoever it is, can meet with their fans from the comfort and the security of their home and sign high-value products.” The iDoLVine technology creates original unique limited editions. “It’s not just a picture,” explained Gibson. “The handwriting is being embedded into the object.”

When iDoLVine was introduced last month at Book Expo America, Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon, Atwood and other authors held virtual-real events. Any graphical image, whether a drawing or a signature “that was digitally delivered could be output using our robotic technology with a real pen as if the fan and the author were in the same room when that transaction took place.”

Gibson explained how iDoLVine works. “Until you see it (watch the video below), it’s sort of difficult to wrap your head around it,” said Gibson. It is actually a “robotic device that holds a $1.29 cent pen and will take whatever you input into a tablet wherever you happen to be and output it onto a physical piece of paper or a book. What we create and output at the far end is legally binding, biometrically accurate, absolutely your handwriting.” It is so real that signatures created by it have been used by Ontario’s Cabinet to enact legislation.

Gibson noted, “fans and artists to actually communicate comfortably in a high quality way.” The fan gets more than a signed book or e-book. Because it’s done via the Internet with a camera, the entire thing is filmed. So “you also get a copy of the video clip if you’re talking to your favorite author” to share friends.” As Gibson pointed out, it’s more of a keepsake than a simple memory of having met the author, and an autograph.

Authors can also make personally autographed books available for readers to purchase at checkout, say at Amazon.com. “If an author gets a request from a consumer out in the marketplace going through a checkout process buying a book, we can provide a small tab that [asks if the buyer would] like this book dedicated? And we arrange that with the author in advance.  The author can say in any given month I will sign 200 books and what happens is that you as a consumer buying Stephen King’s latest novel will have—be presented an opportunity to have that book personalized to you, whether it be an e-book or whether it be a hard copy book. Our system will send a request to Stephen and Stephen will at his leisure while he’s at home, sign the dedications into a digital signing tablet and that will be the end process back into the backend.  The book will be signed or the e-book will be signed and both of them will be delivered almost instantaneously.”

For author and fan, the interaction is from the privacy and comfort of their home…or wherever he or she might be. “Margaret has signed things for people sitting in the airport while she’s waiting to board a plane, so really you can do this from anywhere!” Gibson said.

Although iDoLVine showcased some very high profile authors at its BEA launch, Gibson made clear that “we built a service and a system that [is accessible to] even the self-published author. We have tools, mechanisms, promotional features that will allow even those just getting into the market to be able to promote themselves, hold events, and promote themselves within our environment.”

The technology has application far beyond the literary world. “We’re now starting to see that starting to happen, which is phenomenal but we’re also now seeing it from the music industry and shortly I suspect we’ll see it from the sports memorabilia industry and the movie industries.  And you talk [about a television series] like House. What better way for a television program like that to reach their fan base than to have Dr. House sitting quietly interacting, doing some form of event, and then doing Q&As and signing things for people?” 

Although the technology to make it all happen is complex, fortunately, for both readers and authors, the process to connect is very simple. Gibson explained, and for the summer, while the system is still being tweaked, it’s free to join. “We have different levels of participation.  For example, if you held an event, you as an author, we would provide with the tools to basically have access to an event [virtual] space,” Gibson explained.

“We’re really creating this social network in a very different kind of way in the sense that we’re presenting the environment as if you are actually arriving somewhere.” For example if I as an author wanted to have my event set at a specific venue, say in Argentina, noted Gibson, “we can provide you with an event environment space where you show up and all of your fans show up, and there is a place that you’ve sort of arrived at even though you’re sitting in your living room! And so what we’re doing for you as the author is providing the venue, all of the support materials, access to our membership for promotion and publicity, access to our partners in the companies as we build those out to promote, you know, all the social media accesses to it, an on-line e-magazine which highlights events that are up and coming.”

The virtual event space is based on attendance—read bandwidth. “So what we do is we have a hall that will hold 500 people, 1000 people and depending upon the nature of the artist, it could be 100, 1000 or a million people.  And the cost associated with those different sized venues is all eyeball-driven because obviously we incur bandwidth cost for the more people who are actually watching and participating.”

The possibilities are pretty endless for this sort of technology, especially in this age of heightened security. It’s very hard for fans to get close, much less engage with celebrities of any sort, whether they’re authors like Atwood or movie stars. Gibson believes that “iDoLVine will become the event destination for on-line interactions between over 115 million fans and their idols and the artists that they actually physically want to talk to. It used to be that you might see a high profile author having a discussion with a fan directly but generally what’s happened over the last 10 years is that there has been buffers put in place given the sheer volume and interest and also the fear factor, that people who are public personalities, when they go out in public, I mean, there’s a very real concern for their safety,” Gibson commented.

Gibson has also found that the interactions between public figures and their fans become less guarded behind a virtual space, than, say at a book signing or other physical event. “If you’re in the music industry you have handlers.  I know when Margaret travels there are security issues and so when you have an artist who is well known go out, they have a public persona and they are guarded.” Gibson related an anecdote from a LongPen signing to explain just how unguarded these virtual book signings can be. “We were a little bit concerned initially that the perception of the video conference would be perceived by the fans by an impersonal experience and it was really completely the opposite because of the fact that the author was relaxed, and sitting in her own home. At one moment the door to her study opens and her son walks in [on the event]. And all of the sudden the son became part of the discussion with the fan group and then the family dog ran in and, you know, this is Buffy the dog and so there was this complete view into the life of an author that was shared by her because she permitted that to happen.” It becomes, suggested Gibson a far more personal experience between fan and author than a five-second. “Hi, how are you; can you sign my book?” 

Gibson noted that, “It really is inviting people into the most intimate part of your environment and allowing your fans to see parts of yourself that they would in no other circumstance ever get to experience.  And then we record the whole thing.”

Fans can also chat amongst themselves using Twitter and other chat technology, including video, while attending the event.  “And not only do the people who come into that virtual space get to be there, there’s going to be a whole global viewing audience that won’t have elected to participate or purchase but just want to watch.  They can watch the simulcast and reels and can submit questions to the moderator of the event.  So that you can take not only text questions but video questions from people in the viewing audience anywhere in the world who haven’t actually physically arrived at the VIP area of the event space,” explained Gibson.

To participate in an event, fans need only have a video camera, if they want a one-on-one encounter, or, if they just want to watch, they only need an Internet connected computer and membership in iDoLVine. “There’s no Skype installation of software, its just go to a web site.  If you have a camera, you can participate.  For the author, all you need is a video camera, a decent Internet connection, which most of us have today,” and a signing tablet. “We made the investment in this company Baanto and they’ve come up with a way for us to create a tablet that is a peripheral to your existing computer that is driven by two USB cables that is an LCD monitor that you can write on with biometrically accurate handwriting and our target price point for that is $70 dollars.”

Authors, musicians, anyone who has a fan base and wants to connect should find this cutting-edge new application of social media compelling. And in this increasingly more guarded world, it makes public figures more accessible, and perhaps ironically, draws them closer to their fans through the use of virtual space and social media. As we see in Twitter with celebrities and lesser known authors, actors, producers and musicians tweeting back to their fans, iDoLVine represents taking of social networking and between fan and celebrity to a whole new level. Sign up or learn more at the iDoLVine official site

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.