x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Booktrack apps' sound effects proving popular in the Gulf

The Speckled Band has hit the top 50 free iPad apps in the UAE, while in Kuwait and Qatar it broke into the top five free books apps.

"The wind was howling outside, and the rain was beating and splashing against the windows. Suddenly amid all the hubbub of the gale, there burst forth the wild scream of a terrified woman …" Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's words are gripping unadorned, but in a digital version of the book published by Booktrack, they are accompanied by the sounds of lashing rain and an eerie cry. Elsewhere, we get crackling fires, ominous cello music and a gunshot.

Avid readers of e-books in the UAE will already be aware of this soundtracked version of the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Speckled Band, which was the first free download made available by Booktrack in August along with The Power of Six by Pittacus Lore, which is US$12.99 (Dh47.71). Since then, the Speckled Band has hit the top 50 free iPad apps in the UAE, while in Kuwait and Qatar it broke into the top five free books apps.

For the uninitiated, Booktrack provides books as iPhone and iPad apps, with specially commissioned scores and sound effects that accompany the text. The pace at which the soundtrack unfolds depends on each user's reading speed and can be manually adjusted. Since the company's launch (bankrolled in part by the PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel), Booktrack has released nine fairy tales and out-of-copyright stories, which have racked up 100,000 downloads already, and stories by Jay McInerney are coming soon. Those without Apple products won't have too long to wait to get in on the action either: the company's chief executive Paul Cameron promises that Booktrack editions for Android tablets, Macs and PCs will be available within the year.

E-books with extras are nothing new: everyone from JK Rowling to Stephen King is selling enhanced digital books for a bumped-up price, but Cameron argues that while most of these "take you away from the reading experience by adding videos or games", Booktrack is "the only lean-back-and-read" model, which is "focused entirely on enhancing the age-old practice of reading words".

A short promotional video shows a user with headphones using Booktrack's sounds to drown out the hubbub of commuting, and press materials have focused on putting the "fun" back in reading, suggesting a target market that needs a little coaxing to pick up a book.

If Booktrack finds a loyal readership, big bucks are there for the taking. Digital books are a booming industry at the moment, with Kindle e-book sales overtaking paperback sales at Amazon in January of this year and global e-book revenue growing by 50 per cent annually. It's clear that we're all going to be reading on screens before long, but the question remains how and what we will be reading; there are many competitors to Booktrack in the marketplace. Penguin UK's Digital Publisher, Nathan Hull, says that enhanced e-books are "still a very nascent market. We're continually asking ourselves how much consumers value these enhancements, and how much they're willing to pay for them".

Experts agree that non-fiction and children's literature are areas in which "enhanced e-books" are likely to take off - in the UAE, the Arabic publisher Kalimat is already releasing apps for its children's' book Al Dajaja Bak Beek - but there's more scepticism about enhancing adult fiction. Joshua Tallent is the founder and chief executive of eBook Architects, a company that converts books into e-books, and he's admirably honest about the limitations of the field: "In general, I don't think enhanced e-books are going to catch on extremely quickly with the general reading populace," he says. "Most e-book purchasers right now just want to read the book, and are not being swayed by flashy functionality." He lists exceptions to this rule as children's fiction and non-fiction.

Laura Goold, a sales executive at Penguin in the UK, agrees. She says that books work best as iPad apps when they are aimed at young children and for picture-heavy reference books. "Literature apps," she says, "will be a much bigger leap and not something readers are likely to take to as easily." Goold also says that biographies work well as enhanced e-books when the author is closely involved, but that "there's no point adding bells and whistles for the sake of it". As an avid Kindle user, she has yet to use Booktrack herself, saying that "part of the fun of reading is using your imagination to interpret the world the author is describing".

According to Cameron, Booktrack is working with its authors to ensure that its soundtracks are in line with their "vision", but there's a difference between a writer giving the nod to an orchestral score and crafting the soundtrack himself. The enhanced digital edition of Nick Cave's novel The Death of Bunny Munro features a soundtrack written and performed by Cave: it's clear that this would give a heightened experience to fans.

Until Booktrack integrates content and audio to a comparable degree, it might limit its appeal to children who have trouble concentrating and commuters who want to drown out the chatter of the outside world.