When the addition of sound turned movies into talkies, late-1920s audiences were so astounded and confused that many people walked out of theaters. (Things worked out fine for the film industry.) More than 85 years later, Booktrack, a company founded in New Zealand that adds custom soundtracks to e-books, is confident readers won't respond in similar fashion.
"Music brings emotion to a story," says cofounder Paul Cameron. "We've created an experience in which text and music are synchronized through a whole book." At the heart of the process is an ear for intricate sound design that rivals Hollywoodian efforts. In the Salman Rushdie short story, "In the South," readers hear ambient street noise—food sellers, cars, and distant music—that corresponds to the environment of the protagonists. The cues then fade as the story unfolds and a bed of traditional Indian music begins. There are no words, just melody, with individual sound effects that are pegged to specific actions.
Booktrack isn't the first outfit to give reading a multimedia flavor: "Enhanced" e-books have been around since 2008, offering a multimedia reading experience with links, video, and suggested playlists. What sets Booktrack apart is the precise alignment of the text and score. To keep things synced, Booktrack's technology uses the rate of page turns to gauge a reader's speed and adjusts the pace of the score accordingly. And, should the sound elements become more grating than great, they can be silenced. Admits Cameron: "For people who aren't used to reading with sound, it can take getting used to."
That's what people said about e-book reading itself earlier this decade. The concern is gone. According to the Association of American Publishers, e-book revenue grew 620% between 2008 and 2010. Net revenue for e-books in 2010 was $441.3 million. Booktrack—which prices short stories at $0.99 and novels at $2 to $4 above the standard e-book sticker—is angling to get a seat on that comet, with A-list writers like Jay McInerney and Sam Lipsyte expressing interest in joining the ride. Though Cameron tapped the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Park Road Post Production (sound designers for Peter Jackson's films) for Rushdie's story, he hopes Booktrack will become a platform for up-and-coming sound designers. To that end, the company will be releasing its creator software for free so independent sound designers and authors can collaborate, with Booktrack selling the final product for a cut. Hard to imagine anyone not liking the sound of that.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.