If You Can't Beat Them, Join Them: Publishing Gets Its Own Hackathon

Translating word-of-mouth book sales to the digital world
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Charles Platiau

What was billed as the first-ever Publishing Hackathon took place over the May 18-19 weekend at Alley NYC, a crowded co-working space in midtown Manhattan. Digital designers, programmers, engineers, and assorted techies gathered to devise the means to improve book discovery. About two hundred people -- working in teams as small as a single individual to a group of seven -- came up with thirty submissions with a simple, common objective: how to help readers find books that will appeal to them based on a variety of criteria, including their social media and browsing histories. Enabling readers of all ages with a cross-section of interests to connect with publishers is a major challenge for the book industry as it evolves ever more deeply into a digital universe.

It may seem surprising that hackathons -- which have become a standard, competitive means for the development of apps, websites, and widgets -- are a new concept to publishing. But for publishers as well as readers, traditional bookselling is increasingly dependent on the digital equivalent of word-of-mouth, the myriad ways to find books that are most likely to attract an audience. Rick Joyce, the creative chief marketing officer of the Perseus Books Group  conceived of the hackathon earlier this spring. Perseus is the parent company of PublicAffairs, an imprint I founded in 1997. Joyce recruited a dozen or so co-sponsors, including such impressive partners as William Morris Endeavor, a pre-eminent literary agency; the New York Public Library; and Challenge Post, a platform for technology competitions.

On the second afternoon, the teams were each given two minutes to make their presentation (a formidable test of their ability to frame what could be complex notions cogently), and an additional minute to respond to comments from the judges. The ideas ranged widely, and even some of those destined to never make it past it the initial display had clever elements intended to link reader preferences -- a list of movie favorites, for example -- with book recommendations. Alphabetically, the presentations went from Banned Books in America to Vookstore, a virtual bookseller with shelves curated according to the interests and specialties of the readers. The judges conferred and chose a list of finalists, each of which will now get support from mentors and other industry experts before they are presented center-stage to a stellar array of judges at Book Expo, publishing's annual convention at New York's Javits Center on the afternoon of May 31. The finalists are:

1. Evoke 

2. Book City 

3. Captiv 

4. Library Atlas 

5. Koo Browser 

6. Cover List

The grand prize winner will receive $10,000 and breakfast with Ari Emanuel, co-CEO of William Morris Endeavor. The working assumption is that Emanuel will be sufficiently impressed with the winning app or website to support a fundraising plan from investors that will provide the resources to make what began as an idea on a laptop in a start-up loft into a viable business.

With so much to choose from in today's world of information and entertainment, finding new ways to bring books to the forefront of popular attention is a crucial component of publishing's future. Book discovery is the operative term for what publishers and authors are seeking to accomplish in reaching their readers. This first Publishing Hackathon achieved an important initial goal by showing how many different approaches there can be to highlighting books. The making of book communities of all kinds is an essential element in the evolution of the marketplace for publishing in the digital age.


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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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