What You Haven’t Been Waiting For: Soundtracks For E-Books

A few of the items on many e-book readers’ wish lists: Proper formatting. Accurate page numbers. Low prices. Sharing. Library lending. “Better music” probably isn’t on that list, but today a new company, Booktrack, launches with the goal to add soundtracks to e-books. Peter Thiel, the co-founder of Facebook and a member of Facebook’s board of directors, is an investor. Booktrack’s first book is the young adult science fiction novel The Power of Six, by Pittacus Lore (also known as James Frey, the author who gained notoriety for fabricating large parts of his bestselling memoir A Million Little Pieces). Is Booktrack really providing something that readers want?

Booktrack, which describes itself as “a new genre of entertainment,” matches “synchronized music, sound effects and ambient sound” to the text of e-books. The soundtrack is paced to match a user’s reading speed. Sony/ATV Music Publishing and Park Road Post Production, which produced the soundtrack for The Lord of the Rings, worked on the soundtrack for The Power of Six.

The company’s first title is the second book in HarperCollins’ young adult Lorien Legacies series, The Power of Six by Pittacus Lore, a pseudonym for James Frey (along with his writing partner, Jobie Hughes). The company is also releasing some public domain titles like Sherlock Holmes: The Adventures of the Speckled Band and Hansel and Gretel. Beginning in September, Booktrack will publish a “specially-curated compendium of short stories” each month for a year, starting with “In the South” by Salman Rushdie and Jay McInerney’s “Solace” in October.

Booktrack titles are currently only available through iTunes, to read on iOS devices. The Booktrack version of The Power of Six is $12.99 on the iTunes store, compared to $9.99 for the regular e-book. Booktrack CEO Paul Cameron told me that Booktrack will launch on Android in “the next couple of months.” I asked about Kindle and Nook. “Android is the future of all those devices,” Cameron said. “Nook is already an Android device and Kindle is heading toward it. That means that automatically we’ll be compatible with those mainstream platforms. We’ve spoken with all of those people about what we’re doing, and it’s not lost on them.” It is rumored that Kindle will release an Android-based tablet this fall.

Cameron also said that Booktrack is in conversations with “the top ten publishers in the world” and has “various deals going on with all of those publishers and a lot of interest.” However, he did not name any publishers participating besides HarperCollins.

“It’s all about monetization angles,” Cameron said. “When we take this to publishers, they instantly say, ‘It can help us stand out in the market place and sell more books.’ It rejuvenates back catalogs. Imagine bringing back Stephen King with a soundtrack.” (The company does not currently have a deal with Stephen King.)

Booktrack has completed seed and angel rounds of funding and plans to launch another round in the next six months. Cameron did not reveal how much money has been raised so far. In addition to Thiel, “initial investors in and advisors to” Booktrack include Mark D’Arcy, director of global creative solutions at Facebook, and Derek Handley, ceo and co-founder mobile marketing company The Hyperfactory, which was acquired by the Meredith (NYSE: MDP) Corporation in 2010. Brooke Geahan, the socialite founder of the now-defunct Accompanied Literary Society, is VP of publishing.

“We’re hoping this will bring reading to a whole new generation of readers and make it mainstream and popular again,” Cameron said.

For now, Twitter reaction to the new company tended toward mockery. “Next trend: ultramedia books, whereby actual actors are hired to portray all the characters, and then filmed while doing so,” tweeted David Moldawer, an editor at McGraw-Hill (NYSE: MHP) Business. Some were simply upset that the New York Times (NYSE: NYT) chose to devote a long piece to the company’s launch: “With all that going on in book publishing, this is what the NY Times thinks is interesting enough for an article???” tweeted Evan Schnittman, a managing director at Bloomsbury. And over at Wired, Charlie Sorrel calls the experience “incredibly jarring. The beauty of a book is that the whole world is as real as you can imagine it to be. Adding tawdry effects doesn’t enhance the experience — it just makes the whole thing seem fake. You know how a bad visual effect can pull you right out of a movie? This is the same, only worse.”

For my part, I’m finding this launch reminiscent of that of Vook in 2009. Vook’s original gimmick was to release “hybrid,” or enhanced, e-books incorporating video into fiction. Simon & Schuster (NYSE: CBS) was an early Vook proponent, but the titles never gained much traction and many users found the video cheesy and distracting. (Booktrack’s answer to the enhanced e-book question is that soundtracks keep readers engaged rather than distracting them.) Since 2009, Vook has refocused its efforts on textbooks and nonfiction titles. “Our business has evolved dramatically,” Vook’s marketing manager, Mike Arnot, told me in June. “Video doesn’t really matter to us [anymore]. What we’ve tried to spend time [since Vook’s original launch] on is what consumers want and what is useful.”