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.