'Today, we have 2.5 million users'
Five years in — and with a new $5 million round of Series B financing in place — the New Zealand-based Booktrack is at that point at which a start-up begins to show staying power.
Late last week, it was announced that the company has become a partner in the Google for Education programme for its Booktrack Classroom that allows teachers to set up accounts in which their students can create soundtracks for the books they're reading. With University of Auckland and New York University tests indicating that sound enhancements can increase comprehension by 17 percent and reading retention by 30 percent, this is the kind of student-proactive approach that many school settings can use. The company says the program is in place now in more than 12,000 classrooms, internationally.
But it's big kids, too, who are signing up as users of Booktrack. Lots of them.
"Eighteen months ago," c.e.o. Paul Cameron (pictured) tells me, "we had 250,000 users. Today, we have 2.5 million users."
This may be yet another indication that forms of digitally enhanced reading have more of a chance of making headway now.
In Arcadia's vision for a new way of reading," The Bookseller's Philip Jones wrote of the long march to release the new iOS app from Touchpress and Faber of the Iain Pears novel. "I’d like to think Arcadia could change the game again, just as Faber did with The Waste Land," Jones wrote. Coincidentally released on Thursday, just as Booktrack's Google partnership was being announced, the Pears app tells its story through a reader-driven weave of 10 character "strands" or storylines.
As Theodore Gray and his Arcadia developers might agree, Cameron is adamant that a digitally enabled offer has to be made to work properly before getting it to market.
"We started five years ago," he says, "working on all the intricacies of 'How do we measure someone's reading speed to seamlessly deliver a multi-layered soundtrack?' Multi-layered being a combination of music, ambient studio and sound effects, so that when you're reading something, the right sound is played at the right time."
No, it's not just the sound of an orchestra vamping along underneath Chapter 5 if you're a slow reader, I learn as we talk. The music is not being slowed down to sound like what Camille Saint-Saëns did to Offenbach for the "Tortoise" movement of Carnival of the Animals. Cameron's secret? If you're a slow reader, you're hearing more music than a fast reader will. There's actually more scoring delivered to a slower read-rate by his algorithms.
"The best way to think about it is as a dynamic soundtrack," he says. "It's not a matter of stretching one music file. It's a bit like having a conductor sitting there, 'Hold that track, now pick that one up.'
"Let’s say you read twice as fast as I do," he says, "30 seconds, not a minute" for a passage. "We change the duration of hundreds of tracks at a time. We don’t stretch sound. You're actually hearing less" because you're reading faster. To make this happen, Cameron says, "We know more about eye-tracking than anybody. But it's not enough. We measure your reading speed, we know every time you turn the page. If you get distracted, tap on a word. We can tell if you're speeding up or slowing down. And through these educated assumptions, we've tailored the soundtrack. We're estimating where you are."
'We want to immerse you, not interrupt, you'
Reading purists might like Cameron's approach more than they expect. While he's intent on wrapping the reader in a sonic evocation of a book, yes, he also speaks frequently about his respect for the essential immersive reading experience. He takes the word "enhance" seriously. It's more important to him than "show off.":
"The one thing we realised," he says, "is that this is a new category we've created, and a new category is hard to give away. And so we had to be sure that this is just like reading a normal book but it adds this extra dimension" as a supplement, not competition, to the text.
"Most enhancements stop you reading," he says. "We don't think of this as enhancement because we keep you reading. We want to immerse you, not interrupt, you."
Proximity to digital entertainment — and buyers
What may be most promising for publishers who are looking for practical, proven digital developments to explore, is Booktrack's close proximity to that realm of electronic entertainment we so often see as a threat to reading. This is music of the kind that filmgoers respond to viscerally. What my favorite film composers John Powell, Hans Zimmer, and Tom Tykwer do for movies, Booktrack attempts to do for reading. Elements of music, film, and television production — even old radio-play tech — are involved in a parallel that's easy for a reader to understand: we hear scored entertainment all the time.
And the sales proposition Cameron can hear — the music in his own mind, if you will — carries that proximity over to the point of sale.
"Imagine that you're buying an ebook," he says, "one of the top 1,000 titles on sale at iTunes or Amazon or wherever. Imagine that it says, 'Hey, you just bought the ebook. Would you like to add a soundtrack to that for another three dollars?' The uptake on that would be logical. We wouldn't have to go out and find an audience, we'd be able to provide the soundtrack on the back of someone who already has" that audience.
Essentially, Cameron is envisioning the soundtracked ebook, Booktrack's stock in trade, as a new format that can stand beside a regular ebook, a hardcover, a paperback copy, and an audiobook edition.
Premium content for a media-savvy readership
With offices now in Takapuna, Auckland, and in San Francisco, Cameron says that today's push is to develop more premium content with its signature technique. He takes heart, for example, he says, in the fact that, "There's no Dan Brown on our platform."
That's not a slap at Mr. Brown's oft-derided writing (I'll do the complaining in that department, thank you), but a way of saying that Booktrack's fast expansion of its user base has been accomplished without the draws of major blockbuster-level offerings.
"And we've done book deals with HarperCollins, Penguin Random House in the past, but we want to change the scale of that now. We don't want to do one or two titles. And now the conversations, which are at various stages in the process, are in that direction."
An author or publisher can produce his or her own soundtrack on the Booktrack platform free of charge, on a 70-30 royalty split, using its deep library of music and sound effects, or have the team do the work for about $1,000. Clearly, for a major release, that's not a lot of money to a large publishing house as a one-time outlay to create the soundtrack. "You don't have to sell that many copies to recoup that cost," Cameron says. "Publishers are looking at this and saying, 'Well, that's quite palatable."
And in the case of a large enough release — say, the Harper Lee Go Set a Watchman, a pivotal-level title — Cameron is willing to talk about absorbing the production costs for a royalty sharing arrangement.
"And here's another thing," he says: "Consider all these backlists being re-released. We can help to reinvigorate a backlist. Say that we work on an iconic work, one of Stephen King's first novels, and have it released with a soundtrack. That's an excuse for readers to buy and read the book again."
Another premium potential: Booktrack and a publisher could approach a major musical artist for content that's a good fit to a title's soundtrack. Then the release could be a joint effort between that musical artist promoting to his or her fans, the publishing house, and Booktrack.
'Digital dust on digital shelves'
"There's a lot of digital books, and digital music," Cameron says, "gathering digital dust on digital shelves. We can bring that out and make new revenue streams for everyone involved."
That's Booktrack's new stance. The author Hugh Howey and the 40-miillion-member reading and writing community Wattpad have partnered with Booktrack in the last year on a competition involving Howey's Half Way Home and fan fiction.
Now, with its technology proven and its product attractive enough to draw a crowd without major star power, Cameron is keen to see what happens when you take something like this and crank up the volume.
Paul Cameron will speak on Friday 16th October at 3 p.m., in a "Hug the Alien" presentation on the "Internet of Things" at Frankfurt Book Fair's Business Club. More information is here.
Main image - iStockphoto: aetb