Buzzing London hackathon brings the future to book

A weekend-long workshop event in London generated new ideas about using digital technology in new ways for publishing

Alice Ryan, organiser of the FutureBook Hack at the event in UCL. Photograph: Porter Anderson

Alice Ryan, organiser of the FutureBook Hack at the event in UCL. Photograph: Porter Anderson

Mon, Jun 23, 2014, 01:15

On the train into London, I glance around. There isn’t a paperback in sight but e-readers abound, and many of my fellow passengers are clicking, rather than flicking, through their reading matter.

Apt, then, that I’m headed to the FutureBook Hack, a weekend-long ‘hackathon’ where publishers, programmers, designers and developers are putting their heads together to come up with new ways of using digital technology to innovate with published content.

It’s not the first time publishers and web folk have hacked together, but for this event, organised by the Bookseller magazine, most of the major UK publishers have signed up to provide data and other information for hackers to use as they form teams and come up with ideas.

By Sunday morning, some impressive prototypes are taking shape.

Among them are a search tool that lets you find books online based on aspects of a plot or cover, a digital ‘pop-up’ book that lets you steer your own path through the story and a data visualisation tool called ‘My Book is Bigger than Yours’, which displays different-sized book covers online according to their sales rank.

Changes in publishing

The hackathon comes at an “exciting and extraordinary” time for publishing, according to Simon Trewin, a partner at the global entertainment group WME.

“In the last 10 years in publishing it feels like we have gone from the 18th century to the present day,” he says, but adds that traditional publishing is now facing some major issues, such as high-street sales diminishing as selling moves online and young people not being attracted in to the industry.

Trewin raised the idea of staging a London event after his US colleagues had partnered with Perseus in organising a hackathon in the United States last year, and had been impressed with how developers were keen to apply their skills to issues in publishing.

“So the FutureBook Hack event was to unite the technology community with the publishing community in London and use tech skills to try and help us solve problems like how to help consumers discover books online more easily, and how to allow the industry to use data about books more effectively,” he says.

New ways to find and read

Hackers taking part the event at University College London include Philip Connor, who is on a Faber & Faber Scholarship to study the MA in Publishing at UCL.

He met team-mates Sarah Braybrooke and Matteo Cocco (also in publishing) for the first time at the hack and together they came up with Literograph, which helps readers to discover interesting books online by placing relevant lists with media articles.

“Instead of putting more books in more places, it’s putting the right books in the right places,” explains Connor, who is originally from Athlone.

“What we tried to do was meet the reader at a pre-existing point of interest – an article on perhaps the Guardian or The Irish Times about a topic – and provide a service that would recommend books based on this article.”

Another hack, Book Monster, also helps you find the book you want – even if you only have a sliver of information about it.

“Search engines like Google are great if you know the name of the book, but this is for when you maybe have just seen the book on an ad or you have seen someone reading it and you can’t remember all the details,” explains product manager André Avorio, who built the prototype with developer Ivan Fraixedes and publishers Lumière Chieh and Ekaete Inyang.

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