Hacking the Book Publishing Industry
Written by Joy Beachy
The task seemed simple enough: bring truly innovative ideas to the typical challenges of an established industry by bringing in fresh perspectives. But isn’t this exactly what the book industry has been looking to do since the disruption of digital? The true challenge was to come up with a new way to find these ideas, and FutureBook in the UK came up with a solution: hold a hackathon.
For 30 hours, 100 developers, designers and entrepreneurs huddled in teams to brainstorm groundbreaking ideas facing book publishers today. They focused on 5 key areas challenging the industry: Using data, using audio, automated content creation, discoverability, and reimagining print assets. (You’ll notice a lack of references to digital publishing. The focus for this event was on the print industry – avoiding topics like ebooks or Kindles or iPads – though most of the winning solutions used digital technology.) So for one weekend, 100 fresh minds plied themselves to answering questions like “What happens if we play with this creative content and use it in a way that was never intended?” and “What happens when Google can’t find the book you’re after and you can’t remember the title?” and “How can we get old assets to speak to a new audience?”
The results are pretty inspiring. A judging panel selected winners from each category and published the winners here. In short, here are the results:
Using data – “My Book Is Better Than Yours” – Covers of books appearing in a best sellers list would grow based on number of sales, providing an easy way to visualize the popularity of one book over another.
Using audio – “Voices” – In a “Britain’s Got Talent” format (the hackathon was held in the UK, after all), readers could perform in mini online competitions, reading text and getting voted on by their peers.
Automated content creation – “Literograph” – A web-based service that would host book lists, the widget of which could be attached to news stories and could connect news readers to books on the same topic as the articles they’re reading.
Discoverability – “Book Monster” – a search engine for the explicit purpose of helping readers find the books they want based on unusual search terms, like an advertisement they saw for a book, but couldn’t remember the title or author from it.
(Note: Automated content creation and Discoverability were reported in the published winners list as one category with two winners.)
Reimagining print assets – “Black Book” – would make pop-up books for adults (rather than just children’s books) to add another layer to the physical benefit of print.
Other ideas sought to connect readers with the books their favorite authors read, software that had you read a snippet of the book before showing you the cover, or a solution that enabled you to select a children’s story based on the mood of your child. You can read more about it here.
The ideas coming out of FutureBook’s hackathon are refreshing: they haven’t been done before, and many of them can be easily implemented by any publisher. The hackathon is worth noting, however, for the spirit of the event even more than the outcomes. It’s the collaborative effort toward finding new ideas that is most striking. Oftentimes publishers are searching for solutions in silos: they’re strike out on their own with an idea they think might work – like bundling content, playing with social, or beefing up their multimedia efforts – and the rest of the publishing world sits back to watch the fallout. If it’s successful, they get a story in an industry mag talking about how it was successful for them because of their special circumstances. If it flops, it’s another failed attempt by a legacy industry.
Considering a hackathon changes the posture of how one attacks challenges. While a hackathon may not be the way to go (maybe it is!), the concept of bringing together a variety of creative people with varied expertise and perspectives is a good one. That might mean looking outside the publishing industry for ideas. It might mean talking to other industry leaders or attending developers conferences. It might include holding your own collaborative effort between business leaders, entrepreneurs, developers, designers, and lovers of the published word. Or it might actually look like a hackathon. The goal is to look for creative solutions to the challenges entrenched in your industry through collaboration and sharing of ideas.