Sara O'Connor: Why I’m leaving publishing for tech

Sara O'Connor: Why I’m leaving publishing for tech

Editor's note: Having had a lively PorterMeets interview with Sara O'Connor, one of The Bookseller's 2014 Rising Stars, I'm glad that while O'Connor is leaving her work at Hot Key Books, she has agreed to stay in touch with us here at The FutureBook as she segues to a new role in the digital community. You'll easily understand why her perspective is important to us. For one thing, her goal is bookish, even now: "I want to be able to build tools that help readers find great books." And we can do no less than admire the frank stance she takes as she contemplates her move: "I think there still is a fear of digital in publishing." - Porter Anderson


Today I’m leaving behind 13 years of editing over 200 children’s books to become a web developer. I want to be able to build tools that help readers find great books.

Ideally, I’d be able to channel all my years of trying to make books happen into projects that actually make books happen. And I want to help break down the walls of resistance to digital still inside publishing.

I think there is still a fear of digital in publishing -- not of the ebook “revolution” or some mass-destruction mass-disruption drama, but of the actual process of code and digital development: a general “I can’t do that” or “it’s too hard” or “it’s not really necessary”.

Coding isn’t easy, but it’s not hard either. You just need to give yourself some time to try it. Last year, I built 11 web apps in 10 days, during two week-long coding courses at Steer. It felt like magic, but it really wasn’t. It showed me conclusively that anyone can learn to code.

Publishing’s competitors -- not to mention our young readers -- are mastering it, so we need to master it, too. Jeff Bezos, founder and c.e.o. of Amazon, can code. How long will it take for a big publisher to have a c.e.o. who understands code?

In 2014, the bestselling picture book was not “traditionally” published. It was the beautiful physical-meets-digital personalised Lost My Name, at £18.99 a pop (for a paperback!). It’s a seamless collaboration between an author, an illustrator and very clever tech people. I’ve bought five myself as gifts. It is so much more sophisticated than anything publishing has offered before.

Last year, at the Futurebook Hack, I counted one - just one - other person employed by a traditional publisher actually participating. Yet at the FutureBook Conference, the presentation of the winning pitches was among the most highly rated sessions.

The hacks were a great demonstration of how people with different expertise can collaborate to create new ideas, finding ways to deliver content and choice to readers. Why is publishing not obsessed with upgrading its workforce with these skills, skills that the government now requires for our children?

As my goodbye (for now), I propose a Big Idea. Why don’t you send half of your company on a Steer course? Or a day course like Try Programming?

The people who protest that they could never do it will see that they are wrong. People who are too busy will learn about or even make tools that can make them less busy. Chief executives would be amazed to see with their own eyes what’s possible to build in a day.

And then, send the people who love it the most on an intensive course, like Makers Academy, where I’m going, so they can combine all their years of knowledge of the industry with the easily-acquirable skills to build whatever tools they can imagine to make this crazy business of publishing more efficient and better able to reach new audiences. 

Publishers should consider whether it is more cost effective to train existing staff to develop concepts and deliver them. No doubt, the industry would benefit from core development considerations like true customer-focus, concrete problem-solving, and fast-moving iteration.

Can a kids’ book editor really build software that makes a difference to an author’s success? I guess I’ll find out. And you’ll get to watch as, after I finish my four-month course, I’ll be a regular contributor to The FutureBook.


Sara O’Connor is an American settled in England, has worked in children’s books and IP for 13 years, and will soon be a full stack Web developer. Her favourite recent project is the community writing site for kids www.thestoryadventure.com and, ever with the goal in mind of “making books happen”, the book you should go and read right now is Clockwise to Titan by Elon Dann. 

Main image - Shutterstock: ronstik