The Bookseller launches first FutureBook Hack

The Bookseller is to bring together major publishers for the UK’s first publishing hackathon. FutureBook Hack, being held on 14th and 15th June, will challenge teams to come up with a solution to challenges facing the industry in just 36 hours.

Hackathons have been used as brainstorming platforms to find solutions to problems facing the media, music, health and even emergency sectors, but never has something like this been undertaken on such a scale in the publishing sector in the UK.

Pan Macmillan, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House and Faber & Faber are the founding partners of the hack, which is being run in collaboration with William Morris Endeavor (WME) with support from the Centre for Publishing at the Department of Information Studies, University College London, Blackwell’s and Midas PR. The initiative for the hackathon came from WME’s Simon Trewin, who proposed the idea at the 2013 FutureBook Conference.

He told The Bookseller that publishing needed to “wake up to the fact that it is a scarier environment”, adding that it needed to stop being an “inbred community”. He said: “We need to get out there and make ourselves vulnerable and find people who can help us get to where the market is going. What we need to do is find people who come from other worlds and are coming to publishing like they’re strangers walking into a strange land and have something to offer us. A hackathon offers [publishing] a fresh perspective.”

Blackwell’s digital director Matthew Cashmore, who will produce the hack, said: “ It’s really about old-school research and development, creating a hot-house atmosphere and allowing for a sustained period of concentration time.”

Nick Perrett, group director of strategy and digital, HarperCollins, said: “The FutureBook Hack is a great initiative and HarperCollins is delighted to be involved. The aims of the event fit very closely with what we’re doing at HarperCollins; using digital to create exciting products, rethink models, deliver more books into more hands and drive the transformation of our industry. We are excited by the possible outcomes of the Hack, plus it’ll be great fun.”

Stephen Page, c.e.o. of Faber, said: “Publishing is often accused of being rather insular. I would say we haven’t engaged with the technology community as broadly as we might. A hackathon is a good way of saying ‘we are open for business’.”

Nathan Hull, digital product development director at PRH UK, echoed the view, adding that publishing needed to look for “new talent in different places”. He said: “Setting challenges to a wide group of people who don’t think the way publishing thinks and can visit them with a new mindset and come at them from a way publishers can’t . . . that’s important. I think it’s really key that this hackathon looks for innovators from outside the book industry.”

Sara Lloyd, communications and digital director at Pan Macmillan, said: “Hackathons are a regular feature in other industries such as music, fashion and media, and this moment for books to tap into the vibrant start-up sector in the UK is long overdue.”

Leftfield solutions

FutureBook Hack will challenge teams to solve problems facing the publishing industry, from discoverability to analytics to new reading formats.

Teams can be made up of developers, designers, engineers, programmers and entrepreneurs; together, they will be asked to make prototypes, build apps or design new software. Last year’s Perseus-run Publishing Hackathon focused on discoverability. It was won by a team called “Evoke”, whose idea was to build a discovery engine based around fictional characters.

Penguin Random House’s digital product development manager Nathan Hull suggested that the challenges set by UK publishers could be around certain authors or projects, or around the “topics of analytics, discoverability, shopping cart solutions, deep data mining, etc through to the super-creative of new audiobook formats, new reading formats, video, near-field communication technology (NFC), wearables, technology in the home, cars or appliances.”

Faber’s c.e.o. Stephen Page said the hack “might be to do with convenience solutions for consumers to purchase, or how fans can share content”. He added: “I think the proximity of the things we make and how people consume them is the really rich turf.”

Matthew Cashmore, Blackwell’s digital director, said: “The mistake would be to go into this too boundaried. The beauty of the hack is the ideas that you get that come out of leftfield.”

Digital consultant Anna Rafferty suggested a hack could be a good way to focus on discoverability. While there are algorithms and ways readers can recommend books to each other, the “serendipitous moment of browse” is not as readily available digitally, she said.

“It is a publisher and author problem and it hasn’t been cracked. The best way to find the answer is by talking to readers and finding out what how they enjoy finding things,” Rafferty said.

Find out more about the Hack here.