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


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.

“In a bookshop you would go and ask the bookseller to help, but this can help you find it online.”

And if you are reading to your child at bedtime, the ‘Moodnights’ hack makes it easy to tweak the story, letting you decide whether the upcoming chapter is to be cute, scary or funny.

“We had it in mind to do a children’s app for quite some time, but never had a chance to seriously sit and think about the idea in practical terms,” explains Stefano Marrone, who worked at the hackathon with Ginevra Bernabo, Matteo Dogliotti and Tom Mulvaney.

“We are certainly going to bring the project further. We have already a working prototype and various publishers demonstrated a lot of interest.”

Fresh eyes

“For us this was always about getting fresh eyes on the problem,” says Alice Ryan, conference and community manager with the Bookseller and organiser of FutureBook Hack.

“Start-ups in publishing are well established, but we wanted to bring in people from other industries, in particular developers who may have worked in sectors such as music, gaming or app development but had never considered publishing.

“We worked really hard with the publishers to bring content that was never available to hack with before and I think it worked, I was blown away by the creativity we saw when people got hacking.”

Awards are given out to the marathon hackers (all teams interviewed here win or are highly commended in their categories) and Trewin reckons something big may have just happened. “There might be an idea created in this room that is going to change how the publishing world interacts with the consumer,” he says. “And if that is not incredibly exciting, then I don’t know what is.” Hack attack: The future of books? How will we engage with books in the future?

The FutureBook Hack in London earlier this month threw up some interesting ideas and prototypes. 6 Degrees If you are an avid reader you are probably always on the lookout for new and interesting books to devour.

This online tool leads you to hopefully interesting titles by tracing the books that the authors you like choose to read, and mapping the links between them.

Tinder for Books With reference to the social-media dating app, this offers snippets of text to tempt you before showing you the book jacket, so that you ‘judge it on its inside merits rather than its superficial good looks’.

Mood Nights An app that allows a children’s story to be read in different ways because you can choose the mood of each chapter

Voices This hack is to crowdsource ‘golden voices’ for audiobook narration. It encourages readers to record themselves reading aloud, the idea being that the public could vote for the voices they like best

The Responsive Book This customises aspects of the text-based on time and location

Book Signal This software lets people read books together or to one another online

Book Monster This lets you search for a book online based on remembered information about the cover or plot. Think of it as an online version of the well informed human book seller you could ask in a book shop

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