Sounds or silence?

Sounds or silence?

Paul Cameron admits that the official launch of  Booktrack—a company that is for the moment heavily linked to the Apple ecosystem—might have benefited from a bit better timing. "We launched about 12 hours before Steve Jobs resigned," he says with a laugh. "We were lucky; we did get a lot of press. But had it been 24 hours later I think we might not have gotten any attention."

Cameron cannot be faulted for being overshadowed by Jobs’ surprise resignation, which caught most of the tech world flat-footed. Yet Booktrack—with its elevator pitch of "soundtrack for e-books"—has managed to capture the attention of other Jobs-level Silicon Valley movers and shakers. Peter Thiel, who founded PayPal before selling it to eBay for $1.5bn in 2002, is the lead investor, while Facebook director for global creative solutions Mark D’Arcy is a board member and investor.

Booktrack currently has six apps on the Apple Store, five free classic titles including a Sherlock Holmes collection and Hansel and Gretel, plus one paid-for app, Pittacus Lore’s The Power of Six (Michael Joseph).

The idea is simply that the apps provide, like a film, background ambient sounds, sound effects and music as you go through the narrative, with the bespoke software that synchs the sound to the user’s reading speed. In the opening of The Power of Six, for example, which takes place on a beach, there is the sound of the sea, the wind whistling and moody music.

Some of that attention that Booktrack is getting is not entirely positive, some even downright hostile, the notion of having possibly distracting background noise in a reading app seeming to have incensed many. Reviewing the app in Wired Charlie Sorrel called the experience "incredibly jarring". Paul Carr on writes that Booktrack is "just a horrible idea. Really horrible" (though perhaps having Carr, who by his own admission, has failed as a entrepreneur railing against your idea might be a good thing).

Cameron is unfazed. "On the surface it might seem like a daft idea," he concedes. D’Arcy was one refusnik, with Cameron chasing him around for a year for a meeting. "I finally met him for lunch and he said: ‘Yeah, that books with sounds thing, I’m not really interested.’ I told him to try it, he put the headphones on, and after five minutes he wanted in."

He argues that people do often have their own soundtrack to books already. "We are in a multi-media hungry environment. When you go on the Tube, and I see this in New York where I’m mostly based now, about every third or fourth person who is reading will be doing so with headphones on, listening to music. It’s just not synchronised."

He continues: "The whole idea is a read first, listen second activity. If you make the sound effects too loud and right in the forefront, it’s too distracting. What we have is something that blends in. A lot of products in the enhanced e-book market take you away from reading—games, video, etc. We think we’ve created something that is about complementing an author’s work, not taking away from it."

Cameron, a New Zealand native with a background in IT companies, founded Booktrack with his entrepreneur brother Mark three years ago as the iPad was entering production. The company’s two offices are in New York and Auckland—the sound production is largely done by Park Road Post Production, the Wellington-based studio that did the sound on the "Lord of the Rings" films—and Cameron is aiming to open a London office soon. Booktrack soundtracks currently stay away from lyrical music in order not to detract from the text. Yet negotiations are under way with another partner, Sony ATV Music—the music publisher for Bob Dylan, The Beatles and Hank Williams among many others—and publishers about incorporating the technology into music biographies.

By the end of this year, Booktrack will have 20 titles on the App Store, by the end of 2012 between 200–300. It is developing the technology for other devices and platforms, including Android. Currently the company’s apps are branded under the Booktrack name, yet the long-term aim for Cameron is to become a standard background technology for publishers, a sort of PowerPoint for books with soundtracks.

He says Booktrack is in talks with Amazon and other major e-tailers. "What they like about it is its ability to upsell—which you can’t really do with books at the moment. Other products you can—when Amazon sells shoes they can ask: ‘Would you like polish with that?’ But if you’re on and buy a Kindle book for $9.99, there is the possibility to have a button that says: ‘Why not try the soundtrack for $1.99 more?’"

Booktrack has been focusing mostly on the Anglophone market but is looking to expand to other languages. For next year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, for which New Zealand is the Guest of Honour, it will produce a bespoke German language book available at the New Zealand pavilion. Cameron is pleased with the take-up so far, with the Sherlock Holmes app hitting number four in the US App Store book charts when it was launched. "We’re hovering around the top 50 in App Stores around the world. We were number one in Bahrain, for some reason. Which I think goes to show how people are interested in reading and trying something new."

How it works:
Dubious. That was my attitude before I tried Booktrack. I like to read my books in silence, and I think my imagination is sufficient to conjure up atmosphere from the text alone. My doubts were not allayed by a promotional video on the Booktrack website which shows Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City which is accompanied by rubbish disco music and a cacophony of voices in a loud party scene. Yet I was pleasantly surprised with the app itself on a test drive in my morning commute. First off, the software is intuitive; after about three pages or so, it judges your reading speed and matches the music and sound effects to where you are in the text. Jump ahead a few pages and it recalibrates the speed. The soundtrack itself is at first hearing obtrusive, but after a few pages becomes an immersive experience not detracting from the text. In one of the Sherlock Holmes’ stories, "The Adventure of the Speckled Band", there is moody, ominous music, crackling fires, a woman screaming in the distance . . . all well-judged and perfectly timed. I do not think I would choose to use Booktrack in a quiet room. But in an environment where my attention was competing with the hubbub of my fellow commuters and bus announcements, it helped close the rest of the world out. Booktrack may not be the next evolution of the book, but it is an extremely useful and clever enhanced add-on to an e-book.