The FutureBook Hackathon: London’s Publishers Brave The Weird

image - iStockphoto / KennethBenjaminReed
image – iStockphoto / KennethBenjaminReed

Those Publishing Fops Convene

Right on schedule, a round of disparaging tweets was launched today by some members of the bookish community, as news broke of The Bookseller’s FutureBook Hack, 14 and 15 June.

I’ll give it to you as a short scene among bewigged swells in Congreve.

The quotes are actual, from Twitter.

Mister Pan-It-All: How many of these hacks lead to products or sustainable companies?

Sir Slick Software: That only happens when the code is created in a context where it will be maintained. So rarely.

Mister Pan-It-All: [I] assume everybody could see the acid dripping from my tweets.

Sir Slick Software: Hahahaha.

Mister Pan-It-All: My major worry is that in some ways it reinforces a view in publishing that software is something that can be done in a weekend.

Lord Hopefort: But hackathons emerged from the hacker community, itself. You can get a surprising amount done in a weekend.

Sir Slick Software: Emphasis on ‘community.’ Publishing doesn’t really have a pre-existing community of coding and open source.

Lord Hopefort: Well, yes. Perhaps this is how we start to create such a community.

Sir Slick Software: You do it by offering valuable platforms/APIs, and by building an ecosystem of open source projects. Then do a hackathon.

Mister Pan-It-All: Publishers doing a hackathon has a very “top down” feel. Like mandarins saying, “Eggheads, give me the solution.”

And so it went. And so it often goes. Publishing is full of such negative voices. Of course, in Congreve’s era, fops competed by showing “the turns of their pretty legs.” I’m not sure we wouldn’t be better off going back to that. We could just get these boys into some tights and let them prance.

As it is, you might be forgiven for thinking some members of the publishing community would rather see failure than success.

It can seem they’d rather be right in condemnation than surprised by progress.

“Healthy, Wealthy, And Wised-Up”

Even as the wags gather to toss their darts at this promising new effort, the voice to listen to is this one:

Publishing needs to recognise that it has come through these early stages of the digital content revolution remarkably well. It is healthy, wealthy and wised-up. This is the moment to take advantage and help shape what comes next. The book business has a remarkable record in publishing innovation, and a terrible reputation for digital inertia.

Philip Jones is not only the editor of London’s magazine-of-record for publishing, The Bookseller. He’s also the man who created its sister entity, The FutureBook. And he and his colleague Alice Ryan have somehow persuaded some of the United Kingdom’s mightiest publishers not only to brave a hackathon but to also do it together.

FutureBook’s hackathon, in 36 hours across 14 and 15 June, will be seated at University College London (UCL). And within minutes of the news being announced in the UK this morning, my colleagues at The Bookseller let me know that they already had developers applying for spots in the weekend.

A site has been launched for the event (brace yourself for a snootful of The FutureBook’s trademark pink), and a prize of £5,000 (approximately $8,400) is being offered. The criterion to win it? — a team of developers must be judged to have done the best job of answering the challenge it chooses, from discoverability to product innovation.

And while hackathons are hardly new — The Bookseller tips its hat in its announcements to Perseus Book Group in the States for a publishing hackathon — this represents the first time the UK publishing community has been pulled, as a whole, into such a salon.

The arrangements represent the pivotal stance that Nigel Roby‘s and Jones’ The Bookseller holds in the London industry: The “partners” roster in this hackathon comprises high-level representatives of Penguin Random House, Pan Macmillan, Simon & Schuster UK, Faber & Faber, and HarperCollinsUK.

Granted, one problem that’s now dawning on all of publishing is that you, dear reader, may not even know all five of those major publishers’ names (let alone their beloved imprints). So imagine that I just wrote General Motors, Chrysler, Ford, Toyota, and Tesla. You’d be pretty clear that such a gathering of power on one project in one place at one time was unusual, right? Exactly. We’re about one pint from a joke about a rabbi, a priest, a minister, a monk, and a swami walking into a bar…this is a most unusual coming-together.

And nobody is working harder than Jones and his staff to get across just what a fine opportunity this could be to move the digital disruption of publishing down the garden a few feet, past commercial divisions that usually see these big players competing first and asking questions later.

“We are an industry of creatives,” Jones writes in Let’s Get Ready To Hack, “sitting on a bank of unrivalled content, fixated on an unyielding supply chain. It is easy to criticise publishers for this, but far better to help effect change.”

Even as the news of the London hackathon moves today, for that matter, another story is riling the US side of the industry: the publisher Hachette is complaining that Amazon in the US is delaying shipments of its books during contract negotiations.

As Laura Hazard Owen has it at GigaOM, “If you search for Hachette print titles on Amazon’s website, you’ll see that many of them are taking several weeks to ship, even though they’re in stock at other sites. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and David Baldacci’s NYPD Red, for instance, are listed as shipping within two to three weeks. Ebooks aren’t affected, and not all Hachette titles are affected: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is shipping right away, for example.”

Now, that’s the kind of hostility and alleged skullduggery that the industry! the industry! enjoys. Complaint comes far more quickly and easily to many in this crowd than does agreement or even a benign wait-and-see.

That “Inbred Community”

It’s interesting, in fact, that our little exchange sans chocolat among these dandies brings up the community question.

The man who called for a hackathon in UK publishing has also, pointedly, called into question the “inbred community” of publishing. Simon Trewin of William Morris Endeavour, spoke in November at the FutureBook Conference in London about the importance of a publishing event of this kind.

Publishing “needs to wake up to the fact that it is a scarier environment” than before,” he now tells The Bookseller’s Sarah Shaffi for its magazine on stands today:

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.

To that end, Matthew Cashmore of Blackwell’s will produce the event with The Bookseller’s FutureBook, partnering with Midas PR and with Trewin’s support.

Cashmore, who ran his first hacking event in 2007, says “When you get a lot of creative people together in a room and lock the doors, amazing things can happen. It’s really about old-school research and development, creating a hot-house atmosphere and allowing for a sustained period of concentration time.”

And, in his role as a counselor of grace to a widening publishing world of new potential, it’s Faber’s Stephen Page whose comment on the new hackathon’s announcement is the most cogent. Page cuts right through the lore of lousy intentions and the lace of louche palaver:

Publishing is often accused of being rather insular. I would say that we haven’t engaged with the technology community as broadly as we might. A hackathon is a good way of sending a signal to say “we are open for business.”


The FutureBook Hack is calling for the participation of publishing partners, sponsors, volunteers, and hackers in the program in central London, 14 and 15 June. Full details and rules are at the event’s site, with many marvelously pink accents. Note that making an application to participate is not a guarantee that you’ll be chosen to join in. The program will be vetting applications to pull together a balance of “top quality coders, designers, and entrepreneurial thinkers,” with skill sets taken well into account. Participants will work solo or in teams of up to five people each. Teams can present themselves as such, or be formed as the event gets started.  TC mark

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