Booktrack is one of the more unique e-reading platforms out there, allowing for the combination of music and sound effects with ebooks to create an immersive experience for the reader—something of a movie-style soundtrack.
The site went live in August of 2011, and since that time, the platform, to some extent, has divided critics. Some view it as singular experience that is on the cutting edge of transforming e-reading; others view it as an unnecessary obstacle that reduces the need for imagination from the reader.
Whichever camp you plant your flag in, though, one thing is for sure: Booktrack is a different experience, and there’s little else like it. The platform gauges the speed of the reader and syncs the music accordingly, solving the problem of how to pace sound with each individual reader.
Since its launch, Booktrack has grown to include more than 2.5 million users.
Paul Cameron is the CEO and co-founder of the New Zealand-based company, and Digital Book World recently sat down with him to find out how the company got started, what its plans are for the future, and where the state of e-reading is headed.
What led to the creation of Booktrack?
So the idea for Booktrack came from the commuter market—people jumping on buses, trains, ferries. This is about mid 2000s. And we noticed this behavior where people were getting out their paper books and plugging in their headphones into their Discmans or Walkmans at the time, whatever it was. Two things we noticed: one was we thought it was a strange behavior to begin with. You know, if somebody came from outer space and looked at it, they would almost come and take the headphones off your ear and say, “Why are you listening to something that has nothing to do with what you’re reading?” It’s a bit like going home and turning down the television and then tuning the radio on. It just doesn’t make sense. You’re kind of entertaining yourself while you read, but they’re fighting, in another sense. And you use music to block things out, so why can’t you bring those two together? That was the other thing we did: we actually brought them together. So if you’re reading a happy story, we’d play happy music, or a sad story and sad music. And it was a really good experience.
So that was really where the idea kind of came from—we saw this behavior going on all around the world. But no one had brought those together, and the reason why is it’s really hard to bring them together because everybody reads at a different reading speed. And you think back to the mid-2000s, I think the iPhone had maybe just came out, so there were no real smartphones, there were no app stores or mobile data. So we had all these sort of barriers. But we prototyped and patented a lot. And what we learned was that it was just too early. So we unpacked it and it wasn’t until the iPad came around that we managed to launch the business and get it going.
How did you gauge the market beforehand? Obviously, you saw this with your own eyes, but to invest all the resources and time into this, you had to be able to confirm that indeed there was this very real audience. How were you guys able to do that?
That’s a very good question, because one of the things about Booktrack is that it’s a new, new thing. And you’ll hear people talk about it and say, “Wow, that’s so interesting,” or “Oh, that’s crazy. I’d never do it.” And I think the best parallel to that is in film. Adding sound to film in 1928, Mr. Warner is very famously quoted as saying, “Why the hell would you want to hear actors talk?” And there’s been Time Magazine saying it was an assault on the senses.
So the reality is, when you bring in a new, new thing to the market, which is what Booktrack is, it really is a change in behavior, fitting so to your point.
So what happened is one of our early investors actually paid for market research. It’s totally independent. And they got a bunch of people, and they gave them the product, and they explained what it is and asked them what they thought. And they got it, they recorded that, and then they gave them the experience of the prototype we had and then asked them what they thought again. There were definitely some—mostly younger people, but some were doctors, not always younger—who thought, “Oh, that’s cool,” and then they’d try it and say, “Wow, that’s great.”
But the interesting thing for us, was there was a definitely person in the group who would think, “That’s ridiculous. There’s no way I’d do that.” And by end, after trying the product, they would quite clearly say, “Wow, if I was on holiday I’d definitely do that if I was travelling.”
When we first launched, we had just two book titles, and they were separate apps and they rose straight through to the top of the app store. Maybe a week after they launched, the Apple team called me and said, “Everyone in the office is using your app.” And they asked us to be a key account, and we still are today.
So then we brought out 40 titles, and it moved up another incremental step and we had our own bookshelf. And then that grew. I think we had something like a quarter of a million users on there, really quickly. So it got popular, but people were telling us, “Look, you’ve only got 40 titles. You need more.” So then we went in and created a platform, and now that will allow anybody to add a soundtrack to their story. Now that’s grown to 2.5 million users. And we’ve created 15,000 titles in 30 different languages.
Publishers like it because it creates a new revenue stream, more money. But more, it’s a new category. It’s like you’re targeting new readers, as well. So publishers spend a lot of their time trying to steal each other’s business. Whereas what we do is say, “How do we get all these new readers over here if you want to sell to them and reach a new audience?” And that’s really, really powerful. That creates a new revenue stream that can reach a new audience. So they’re not cannibalizing the audience. But they can also say, “Wow, we’ve got this back stock sitting here. Let’s bring it out and try to sell it again.” You know, I mentioned to someone recently that you could sell Stephen King’s first novel again or some of the iconic series like Harry Potter or Twilight. All of those fans now have an excuse for the first time in publishing history to buy the book again.
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Because it’s such a completely different experience, what goes into preparing a title so it can be available on your platform?
First of all, anybody can add a soundtrack to their story. You have to own the rights to the story, so you can’t bring in a story that you don’t have the copyright for. But anybody can bring that story in and add a soundtrack to the platform. We’ve got a big library that’s over 25,000 audio files. You can bring your own audio if you have your own, but again you must own the copyright. To create a 70,000-word novel, which is an average length novel, if you were the author I would say it would take you maybe two weeks. And that’s just working in the evenings. If you do full-time, it might only take you three to four days and you’d be done. We have a lot of studios that do the work for us. So a lot of authors and publishers come to us and say, “Hey, I’d really like to have this book done.” And we say, “No problem” and hand it off to the studio and it costs about a $1,000 for a 70,000-word novel. Which is an extraordinary value when you think about a good audiobook of that file. Those go for $5,000-$7,000. So to have a complete soundtrack done of your book is pretty cool. And I think the main thing is that it’s intuitive—it’s pretty sophisticated and easy to use, but if you don’t want to do it, there are other options.
Do publishers take the book through the process on their own or do they let you guys take care of it?
Generally, we control that for them and work with them on it. If it’s a big enough title, then we’ll cover the cost of the production because we know what we could get on the other side. If it’s a lesser known author, then we’ll say, “Hey, look, we won’t cover it, but we’ll work with you on it and help you do it, but you have to pay for it.” So we’re signing deals with a lot of publishers at the moment. We’re working with some of the bigger publishers, as well. So far, that’s going really well.
What demographics make up the bulk of your audience and why do you think that is?
It’s interesting—we actually just had an independent market research firm do quite a big sample size of the existing audience but also of an audience that hadn’t heard about Booktrack. And we put them through it. It was a very large study. And what we learned from it all was that it is actually liked by young and older. But it definitely skews younger. So they came back and said that 35 and younger tend to accept it easier and enjoy it more and read for longer. But that doesn’t mean that people above that age group don’t go for it. But it definitely does skew. The way we kind of think about it is that you can’t go too young because you’ve got to know how to read properly, so we kind of see teens as the starting point. But even if you go from teen to 35, that’s quite a big population. So we think about it more in genres. So YA is the big genre for that age. So the YA genre fits very very well for us. It’s also generally a lot about fantasy or science fiction.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work with genres like, say, romance. We’re working with some of the biggest romance writers in the world actually. Because if you think about romance—you think about movies or a romantic scene—it’s the music that actually generates the emotion of the scene. And it’s the same when you do that to a story, and so we try not to pigeonhole ourselves too much.
Some of the things that came out of the research, from the top of my head, is that 98 percent of the people who were surveyed said they would recommend Booktrack to a friend. Which is huge, and it just shows that the experience is one that once people have tried it, they struggle to get it out of their mind.
If you think about it, reading is 2,000 years old. We still read the same way today as we did 2,000 years ago. Now we swipe to turn the page. The distribution of books has changed amazingly. You can carry a library around in your pocket now. And so distribution has changed; the way we read just hasn’t changed at all. In the last 50 years, think about what has happened to entertainment. It has completely changed. So that’s what everyone’s competing against. With books being digital, people tried to bring these other entertainment experiences into reading and bring it back to the mainstream. But the thing that everyone forgot—the most powerful thing about reading—is getting lost in the story. You know, you build up this great imagined world and you forget what’s happening around you and the words melt on the page. The second you interrupt that with a video or video game or interactive map or something, you’ve lost people because they have to get back into their state of mind again. And it’s very, very disruptive.
I read some figures that said Booktrack users comprehend information 17 percent better than regular readers, retain information 30 percent better and enjoy the overall experience 35 percent better more. I can understand enjoying the experience more for many readers, but why do you think this form of reading allows someone to understand the information better and actually retain it?
So if you engage in more than one sense, you’re more likely to remember something, right? It’s a bit like some people being visual learners or auditory learners. The way a New York University professor explained it to me was that we were actually never built to read as a species. If you go back 10,000 years sitting around the fire, we used to tell stories to each other. We would tell stories, not read them. We would tell and talk about them and make our own sound effects. We used to tell stories so when we read what we have to do is put something on our aural tract in our brain. We have to take those words and turn them into spoken words in our brain. People say they skim read, but the reality is you have to do that or your brain can’t digest information and comprehend the words. He explains it to me that if you had a soundtrack at the same time that matches what you’re reading in context, your brain’s wired to combine them and process them on the same tract the same way as if you were to watch a video or movie and someone fires a gun and you see the flash and you notice that right away. Your brain is wired to pick that up. So it’s the same while you read: our brains are actually wired to operate this way. Just no one’s done it to date.
And so what has the response been like from educators? I read the platform has been used in something like 12,000 classrooms?
As soon as we launched our platform to allow anyone to add a soundtrack, a whole bunch of educators started using it right away. So we started a separate product called Booktrack Classroom. And on that, educators can control everything and create the account and invite the students in. Each class has its own private bookshelf. They get to curate the Booktrack titles they want in there. They can pick it by title or rating, by age rating or whatever they want to do. But then when the students pick their books, they goes into their own private bookshelf as well. Kids love that. The biggest thing, as a teacher explained it to me, is that it’s really, really hard to get kids excited about reading and writing today. Because of all these other experiences, right? They were using it in a way where they can come in and read Huckleberry Finn with a soundtrack. The kids were using it and saying, “Wow, this is great” because they love this whole music thing. The area that they we’re really excited about is that a teacher can go into a classroom and say, “Hey, we are going to write a short story today,” and it’s pretty painful to ask from most kids. Even for adults. And now the students respond, “Are we going to add a soundtrack to it?” The level of engagement has gone through the roof because we are bringing the one element of reading and writing that really really motivates them, and that’s music.
Think about when you’re a teenager: music played a massive part of your life. All the kids sit there trying to create the coolest soundtrack to out-cool each other. Even when they study works like Shakespeare or Huckleberry Finn, they divide up a book and say, “You do chapter one, you do chapter two and add your own soundtrack.” The kids are actually going home and reading them because they want to see what their friends and classmates have done around that.
We’ve kind of hit this hard-to-do thing in school, and that’s get engagement around reading and writing. That’s why the Google for Education team has gotten behind it in a big way and it’s why teachers all around the world are using this in their classrooms. It’s a free tool. It has a lot of free books that we have on our main platform and it makes it available for anyone, anywhere to use. It’s used in almost every country around the world.
There certainly has been a lot of praise for Booktrack. As I’m sure you’ve seen, though, there has been some criticism, as well, mainly that adding sound to the reading experience runs counter to the idea of reading alone and using one’s imagination. What do you say to critics of your service?
I think it’s a very good question. So as I said before, if you go back to 1928 when sound was added to film, it wasn’t accepted widely. There was a bit of skepticism. Some people walked out of movie theaters. The point is, you can’t make everyone happy. It’s going to take time. The heart of what we are doing is—you still have to build up the story in your own mind, right? And so just because we play some audio—which might be some music that sets the mood, it might be the sound of the waves crashing on the beach—we are not painting those pictures of those waves in your mind or telling you what the scene looks like. You still have to bring that about and paint all of that as you go. What we are doing is adding an extra element to help you get into the experience quicker and then keep you there longer. And I think that any new thing does take time to get used to. It is a new experience, but you still have to use your own imagination. You still have to build up the scene in your mind, you still have to read the text—it’s not like watching a movie—and you still have to get yourself into this state of mind. We are just going to give you a little bit of help along the way.
Booktrack has 2.5 million active users around the world. 16,000 titles with 30 languages. How do you see this service evolving or expanding going forward? Is it as simple as trying to expand the catalogue?
Yes, I think there’s a couple of things. One is we’ve kind of had this progression where we’ve worked a little bit with publishers and we’ve worked a lot with self-publishers, and now we are really expanding the catalogue, working with bigger publishers, as well. We are working across the entire ecosystem. We are also starting to look at audiobooks because if you already added a soundtrack to an ebook, to take it to an audiobook is a trivial task for us yet it makes a massive difference. A lot of people remember what it was like back in the old radio days. It really enhances that experience, as well. I think, yeah, we’re looking at more of the same, but expanding the product offering to meet a lot more people’s needs and wants.
Some people refer to the state of e-reading as “print under glass,” meaning that there’s so little that’s innovative as to truly separate an ebook from its physical counterpart. Booktrack, however, has been able to carve out its own niche and do things a bit differently. Do you see more companies evolving in a similar fashion—not necessarily doing what you’re doing, but just evolving similarly in this space? Put another way, do you think “print under glass” will soon be a thing of the past and that even the most basic of ebooks will have somewhat novel features to them?
Yeah, I love that phrase: “print under glass.” I think that’s exactly what’s happened. First of all, it’s a very hard thing to do, I really believe if you’re going to do this, then you’ve got to hold true to the reading experience. The powerful thing about reading is getting lost in that story. If you’re trying to add extra content, like I mentioned before, then you stop people from reading and it can become a distraction. Now you aren’t actually reading anymore.
So I hope so—I hope a bunch more companies do innovate, because I think reading really needs it. You know, we really need to engage this audience around it. It’s hard to do because you’ve got to keep it at the heart of the experience—the reading experience. And the more you add, the more it takes away from it, and then you’re making it more of a video game or a TV experience, so I think it’s hard to do.
Another thing you’ve got to do is have a business model that sustains it, and so a big aspect for us is that everyone wins. The publisher wins and the author wins. The final piece is that everything has got to be consistent. You have to build a brand, because when someone comes to see your enhanced version you’re going to help people read, they want to know what they are going to get. At the moment, other than Booktrack, when somebody buys an enhanced version of Sherlock Holmes, they don’t know if they’re getting 50 videos or 20 interactive maps. It’s really an unknown until they do it. It’s a leap for a user to take. So companies have to build strong brands around experiences that are familiar enough that the audience will take that leap without having to read it all first before they pay for it.
So yes, I think it’s a combination of, we need it, it’s got to be a consistent experience, your business model has got to sustain it, and they have to keep reading at the heart of the experience. Because otherwise, you’re going to be stuck in an area where we are still reading like we did 2,000 years ago, just behind glass.