“Shouldn’t we have told them more?”
As the mists rise off the beanbags here at the Roberts Building on the campus of University College London, the FutureBook Hack has about 19 hacker-participants at work. FutureBook-pink blankets still cover some shoulders. The smell of breakfast being set up is encouraging.
It’s early morning. More teammates will join these.
The message goes out: By 1 p.m. today, London time, we must have the hackers’ entry forms. On them, they will proclaim what they’ve worked on for the better part of 30 hours. We’re asking each team what it would like us to call its entry…which personnel have collaborated to produce it…which APIs offered by publishers did they use to prompt and/or develop it…which technologies have they used to build their idea?
Because the big question is, of course, what are they working on?
No, wait, the big question is, of course, what will they render up when done?
No, actually, there’s another. And it comes from an interesting ring of power that was quickly on view Saturday as The Bookseller’s first-ever UK publishing hackathon convened. Industry figures stood in small groups of two and three, clusters of conversation forming, reforming, chatting, comparing notes.
The question: did we tell them enough?
Now, as one veteran hackathon observer noted, there would be recruiting here, if not blood. Representatives of publishing houses and vendor-sponsors were, after all, looking at a strong turnout of energetic and keen-eyed group of coders – gratifyingly as much as 40 percent of them women.
But what had the organizers and opening-morning speakers given this cohort to work with, let alone on? Not the APIs, not the “assets,” but the problem, the need, the, um, crisis.
Publishing, as Faber’s Henry Volans and I agreed, after all, is taking its digital disruption rather hard. Many other industries have been disrupted by the digital dynamic; maybe most other industries either have been or will be disrupted to some degree when the floor suddenly turns plastic, glows blue, and drops out from under them, once-tightly held supply chains and production secrets dropping into the hands of newcomers, opportunists, amateurs.
Clean-slate? Or hobbling ignorance?
“Shouldn’t we have told them more?” That was the question, as posed to me by Sheil Land Associates agent Piers Blofeld, subject of a recent #PorterMeets interview and currently representing the success of the Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshir, Nadine Dorries, in The Four Streets from Head of Zeus.
Blofeld’s question was hardly an idle one. Somewhere between the coffee stand and the registration desk, he was bringing up the right worry: when you engage close to 100 developers, programmers, designers, engineers, and illustrators in your problems without telling them those problems…are you getting a fresh read on the issues? Or are you installing more ignorance of those issues than will be productive?
We can euphemise “problems” as “challenges,” of course. Certainly, the five recommended focal points of this hackathon – data, audio, curation, discoverability, children’s content – are positioned for the hacker-participants as “challenges,” and that’s appropriate.
Still, those of us standing in our clatches around them won’t escape the fact that established, traditional publishing houses are urgently looking for ways to develop our understanding of digital and what it can mean to reading. That’s what #FutureBookHack, as we’re hashtagging it, is about.
Is there something out there that we don’t know yet is a book?
Is there a way of storytelling we’re missing, something native to the dynamic, something digital is offering that we’re not yet clever enough to recognise?
Isn’t there much more to be done than merely replicating our print technologies in digital formats?
As we talked about the question of how much the hackers were told here about publishing’s situation – was it enough? – we flagged down Rick Joyce of Perseus Books Group, which last year produced the first publishing hackathon in conjunction with BookExpo America director Steven Rosato. (Our interview with Joyce is here.)
Joyce is hackathon purist of sorts. The less a group of inquisitive, sharp-eyed band of code wranglers like these are told, the better the chance that publishing will reap something fresh, surprising, out-of-left-field helpful.
And it was an interesting talk. Blofeld, for example, wondered if the hackers shouldn’t have been told that publishing has, um, issues around the question of DRM?
Too long, Joyce countered, it would have taken too long to fill them in on the walled-garden-variety debates that have held the industry! the industry! in their thrall for years without consensus.
And Alice Ryan, Iron Woman of The Bookseller who has led the creation of FutureBook Hack, said she’d been told by a couple of hackers that they found Saturday morning’s round of quick, lively talks from stakeholders to be a bit more than they wanted. “Some of them found it overwhelming,” she said to me, while most of us from those knots of publishing conversation in the room found these quick comments exhilarating and surface-skimming.
So as we await the registrations of the entries – there are three hours left, as I write this, in which our hackers can declare their intentions – the question really may be did we tell them enough? too much? too little?
Joyce made the point that there are many kinds of hackathons. Some are a search for business plans, for example. Ours is closer to blue-sky product research. Is he right that the less we encumber them with publishing’s issues the better? Or is Blofeld right that they needed more guidance to understand what we’re up against?
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The FutureBook, Porter Anderson: Gearing up for #FutureBookHack
The FutureBook, Porter Anderson: #PorterMeets Alice Ryan
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The FutureBook, Porter Anderson: Perseus' Rick Joyce on the FutureBook Hack: "What's possible"
Image by Porter Anderson: FutureBook Hack participants early Sunday morning, 15 June, at University College London