Want music with that book?

by Hugh Gilmore

Remember that column I wrote a little while back where I’d come across a corny LP album called “Music to Read By”? Remember what a hoot I thought that was? Boy, those people back in the 1950s and ‘60s sure were something. Always trying to come up with a way to make a buck.

Gather some tame, prepackaged, light classical or pop strings sounds into an album and call it “Music to Read By.” Really, how un-awesome.
But I guess they don’t read my column in New York, or don’t take it as seriously as I thought – a matter I shall take up with our newspaper’s promotional department. I say that because this week an upstart company named Booktrack announced with great fanfare that they’d be publishing e-books with soundtracks that play all through the book.

The soundtracks will be mostly musical, but don’t be surprised if, for example, in a scene with a clock that you hear a clock ticking – or if a squeaky door creaks during a suspense story. Who knows: wind howling through King Lear’s trees? Dah-dah. How superior to old time radio! I know, I know: the more things change, the more stupider they stay the same.

Not so, says Booktrack’s 35-year-old co-founder and chief executive, Paul Cameron, according to the website Publishers Lunch, (quoting a New York Times interview during the launch party).

“It makes a new and engaging way to read and really enhances the experience and enhances your imagination and keeps you in the story longer,” he said.

As if that weren’t absurd enough, Mr. Cameron went on: “And it makes it fun to read again. If you’re not reading all the time, it might help you rediscover reading.”

What he’s saying, in English-type-talk, is that he’s hoping he can make a lot of money by getting non-readers to buy his e-books because they make sounds while you read them.

I know, you’re thinking, this is what happens when a child is raised on those Push ‘n’ Speak toys that utter things when you push a button or pull a string. Well, let’s read on and get a publishing industry take on the soundtracks for books.

In the Publishers Lunch bulletin, an editorial director for HarperCollins Children’s Books, Tara Weikum, said, “We’re learning that everything is up for grabs in terms of what people are going to respond to or be interested in, and the digital space is ever changing.”

In person-speak that means they have no idea what they can do to enhance sales, so they might try anything – even Booktrack.

Ms. Weikum goes on, “If a reader falls in love with the book, they want more of it. And if we can give it to them in something like an e-book or the Booktrack edition, then it’s pre-emptively anticipating what readers might be looking for.”

That sounds, like, so cool. Anticipate customer demand.

Of course, it’s true that if a reader “falls in love with” a book, they’ll want, like, “more of it.” But what’s “it”? Aha. Sometimes it seems that readers really want another book by that author exactly like the first one, only with different names to the characters. Unless it’s a series. Then they want the same characters, same plots, but different wardrobes.

In the case of children’s and Young Adult series, a number of contemporary syndicates do exactly that: churn out title after title to feed the hunger. That’s nothing new, of course.

By 1930 the Stratemeyer Syndicate had created and then fed the world’s hunger for The Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, among others. This dynasty, through the use of multiple publishers and ghostwriters, functioned like an assembly line throughout most of the 20th century.

Astonishingly, the existence of the syndicate remained a secret until a copyright lawsuit arose in the late 1970s. Simon and Schuster bought the syndicate in the 1980s.

But, if you can’t give the public more books by the same author they love, or you can’t get people to love the author in the first place, maybe you can motivate them to love your author by playing music for them while they read. This works as the equivalent of tying a pork chop around your neck to get the dog to play with you, as the folk wisdom goes.

Actually, the industry calls these bells and whistles books “enriched” e-books. Last summer, Simon and Schuster’s “enhanced e-book” version of Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland” had 27 videos embedded throughout the text. When viewed on an iPad, a simple tap of the screen started the video.
Many of us read non-fiction with YouTube at the ready anyhow, so the concept wasn’t as silly as it might sound to a print-centric Luddite. They sold a lot of copies. Other enhanced titles didn’t do so well.

“Nixonland” was a history book. Would “enhancement” work for a work of fiction? The answer would have to be a qualified “eeh” for now. This summer, The Penguin Group released as an app for the iPad Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road.” (Penguin calls it an “amplified” edition, and it’s only available at the App Store) They’ve sold a lot of copies.

The package includes sound and visual clips of Kerouac himself, a background documentary of life in America in the 1950s, interviews with other Beat personages, jazz soundtracks, and visual comparisons of the finished book with the original rolled typescript.

That’s all nifty, but packaging documentary material with a historically famous novel does not enhance the act of fiction reading itself. And the gimmick won’t work with a first-time novelist, and every classic began as a first edition. Somebody actually has to read it as a novel and not as an auditory sleigh ride.

If I were young, and I did iPads, I’d probably find the Kerouac app irresistible, but I’m not, and I do. I still worry that there’s something lost here. I fear that the sacred, mystical link between author and reader stands in danger of dissolving. Maybe my hesitance arises from something equivalent to a tribesman’s fear of flashlights after a lifelong fascination with the visual and auditory magic of fire.

I don’t know about you, but I think we all need to know how to be alone with a book and let ourselves go where it takes us. I don’t think a New York ad man or publisher’s rep who needs to raise enough money to private school-educate his kid would be the most honest guide for what books I should read or how I should read them.

I have no idea what choice to recommend for a young person. All these enhancements seem so unnecessary to my generation.

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