Booktrack: Just A Horrible Idea. Really Horrible

I was going to leave this one alone. In the interests of light and shade, I wanted my next column to be something fun and positive. Whiskers on kittens and warm woolen mittens — all that good stuff. To say, damn it, let’s take our minds off the drama with something unequivocally great.

I wanted to do all of those things. And then Robin Wauters asked for my thoughts on Booktrack.

In case you didn’t catch Robin’s review, Booktrack is an iPad app that add soundtracks to ebooks. As you work your way down the page, following a little animated arrow — not unlike a karaoke bouncy ball — to keep pace, the app matches music and sound effects to the text. Instead of relying on Arthur Conan Doyle’s prose to conjure up an image of Victorian London in The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Booktrack users can just sit back and listen as the ebook’s background music builds to its dramatic crescendo. The other title bundled with my demo edition — The Power of Six, by Pittacus Lore — takes the don’t-imagine-just-listen concept even further: providing assistance to any reader who might struggle to imagine the sound a police siren makes.

It, hopefully, goes without saying (not least because so many people have already said it) that Booktrack is a laughably stupid idea. The whole point of reading fiction is to remove the reader from reality — for the physical book to drop away and the sights, sounds and smells of the story to play out in the mind. As such, soundtracks and animated arrows urging you to read at a fixed (“it’s adjustable!” the PR will be yelling at this point) pace are an unnecessary and unwelcome distraction. In fact, they’re so at odds with the way that people read books that one has to wonder whether the company’s founders have ever done so.

Certainly the founders’ public statements strongly hint towards a troubled relationship with literacy.

“It’s difficult to imagine a movie with no soundtrack,” Paul Cameron, Booktrack’s co-founder and CEO told Business Insider, “Yet, until today, the technology did not exist to synchronize music and sound within an e-book”.

My God, he’s right. Similarly it’s hard to imagine an owl without wings — yet, until today, no-one has thought to graft a beak on to a cow.

To the New York Times, Cameron went further: “[Booktrack] makes a new and engaging way to read and really enhances the experience and enhances your imagination and keeps you in the story longer. And it makes it fun to read again. If you’re not reading all the time, it might help you rediscover reading.”

Again, Cameron nails it: reading hasn’t been fun since kindergarten. Why don’t they make pop-up books for grown ups? Why can’t books be more like movies? Hell, while we’re at it, what’s wrong with moving your lips while you read, or with eating soap? Hopefully Cameron’s next start-up will help us do those things too.

Seriously, is this the week all good things die?

I have to say, though, Cameron and his terrible app are not the real problem here. Entrepreneurs pitch terrible technology ideas all the time — confusing the universe’s unwillingness to allow something to exist with “a gap in the market”. In most cases, those terrible ideas die a well-deserved death, unable to raise the money, or attract the press required for success. Occasionally an idea makes it as far as the Disrupt Startup Battlefield, but that’s precisely why we installed the trap-door and flame pit.

Booktrack, however, has attracted way more attention — and money — than the typical shockingly bad idea. From the New York Times to, uh, TechCrunch, everyone is asking in all seriousness whether the time has come for books with soundtracks.

There are two reasons for all this undeserved attention: the first is that Booktrack has been insanely proactive in its approach to PR. In the past two weeks, I’ve had several friends forward me introductions to the company, apparently at the behest of the founders. The company’s PR representative has been shameless in namedropping mutual pals in the hope of providing social proof, and she even admitted (really) to having spent ten minutes on the phone pitching a totally different Paul Carr in the UK before realizing her error. Helps to take a breath, love.

Really, though, the interest in Booktrack comes from the fact that Peter Thiel is one of the company’s first investors. Peter Thiel! The Paypal guy! If he likes Booktrack, it must be the future!

There’s no doubt that Peter Thiel is a genius. A plays-chess-in-his-head between founding and investing in technology companies -level genius. But he’s also this: a Silicon Valley genius. And the blunt truth is that, as a rule, Silicon Valley geniuses don’t understand — or particularly care for — old media.

What they do know, for absolutely sure, is that the publishing industry is ripe for disruption. They know this because it’s happening already: ebooks are out-selling paperbacks, authors are self-publishing, new digital-only publishing houses are gaining traction. The iPad has lead to a surge in interactive books, and the Kindle makes it possible to share notes and extracts with friends. Surely we’ve only scratched the surface of what books are capable of.

Certainly, technology is doing amazing things to how we produce and purchase books: millions of titles available at 2am in the middle of a desert; true democratization of the publishing process; plummeting prices for new releases; I’ve argued before that this is a new golden era of books. But the key to all of these innovations is that they were made by people who understand books, and how people read them.

It’s no coincidence that the Kindle was developed by a bookseller rather than a technology company. The Kindle is a reader’s device — for all the bells and whistles, the reason why it has blown competitors out of the water is that it goes as near to replicating the traditional feel of reading as is currently possible on an electronic device. Interactive books on the iPad are fun and all that, but we shouldn’t pretend that they’re books, any more than CDROM encyclopedias were books. The companies who enjoy the most success in revolutionizing the book industry (as opposed to simply creating a totally new medium) will be those that disrupt the publishing process, the writing process, the distribution process — but leave the actual reading process the hell alone.

Sadly though, the bizarre message peddled by Booktrack — that storytelling through the written word is somehow lacking — is finding an audience outside of the Valley. Harper Collins is said to be “on board” with the idea — and authors James Frey and Salman Rushdie were at the app’s launch party.

After a decade of being told that they don’t understand how technology will fundamentally change their business, old-media types have become conditioned to publicly embrace even the most ridiculous media-tech startup, lest they be assumed not to “get it”. It was true with music, it was true with movies, and it’ll be true with books. Soundtrack on books are coming, whether you like it or not! Either get with the program or die!

Ugh. I bet version 2.0 has badges.