Inside Publishing’s First Hackathon

Strategic Design for Digital & Print

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Inside Publishing’s First Hackathon

Evoke, map view

Character map from Evoke by Jill Axline, Lisa Maione and Jason Pearson

As readers increasingly find their books online rather than in brick-and-mortar bookstores, publishers are looking for digital strategies to introduce people to the books they’ll want to read. The first “Publishing Hackathon” recently brought together innovators from the worlds of publishing, design and technology to conceptualize new ways to connect readers and books—without the bookshelves.

Hackathons have become a tried-and-true approach for the collaborative development of apps and websites, but the Publishing Hackathon was the first time the book industry has officially hosted one of the competitive matchups. Publishing has yet to find the “killer app” that recreates the pleasant surprise of coming across an interesting, unexpected title when browsing a bookstore. Buying anything is now as easy as pushing a button, but with the staggering choice of over 200,000 books published every year, how do readers decide which book is right for them?

David Steinberger, CEO of The Perseus Group, which helped conceive the hackathon, put it this way: “If you know what you want it’s very easy to find it. That’s a solved problem. How do you solve the problem for the person who doesn’t know what they want to read next? That’s what we’re here working on.”

To find the answer, over 250 designers, developers and entrepreneurs came together the weekend of May 18 and 19 at AlleyNYC, a collaborative space for startups. Participants formed into 30 teams—in true hackathon fashion, many attendees were meeting each other for the first time—and for the next 32 hours set about brainstorming new ideas and coding their solutions. Six finalists were invited back on May 31 to BookExpo America, the publishing industry’s annual convention in New York City, to present their projects to a jury of leaders in publishing and technology. The final winner received a prize of $10,000 and a meeting with Ari Emanuel, the Co-CEO of William Morris Endeavor, one of the sponsors of the competition.

We followed the competition online—the six finalist pitches were webcast at Book Expo Live—and found ourselves inspired by concepts that inventively integrate the book-browsing experience into readers’ lives.

Most readers love reading because they have a strong emotional connection to the characters in a book. The hackathon’s winning project, Evoke, brilliantly translates this level of engagement into the first social network for characters. Developed by Jill Axline, Lisa Maione and Jason Pearson, the platform “humanizes” the book discovery process, helping readers find books that reflect their own mood or state of mind, or books with a similar perspective, so a user’s reading reflects their own view of the world. Users can identify with indelible protagonists like Katniss Everdeen, Jay Gatsby, Laura Ingalls or Oliver Twist, and a character map links the figure to other characters, making suggestions for characters readers may want to get to know.

“Evoke empowers readers and characters to find each other, “ says Axline.

Evoke, landing page

Evoke by Jill Axline, Lisa Maione and Jason Pearson

Evoke’s design presents a literal “mood” board for book characters, a gallery of emotional responses that convey a character’s state of being: amused, challenged, romantic, mysterious, proactive, brave and compassionate, to name just a few. Users generate their own character profiles with passages or snippets of text, images, video and audio, allowing them to show exactly how they connect with their favorite characters. (In addition to helping readers discover new books, the platform helps users engage with and express their fandom.) Evoke is initially intended for young adult fiction, because of the strong connection adolescent readers have with characters—and the continuing boom in the YA genre—but the format can be easily adapted to adult readers and fiction, or to include profiles of different settings and genres. An educational aspect is also built into the platform, with the reading level of suggested books advancing as the young reader gets older, helping them to grow with books.

“It is a joy to be surprised by connections made between two never-together-before pieces of information,” says Maione. “Evoke seeks to be a space to kindle that spark, as well as experience new ones.”

An impromptu second-place prize was given to Captiv, a platform that co-opts the immediacy of Twitter to make real-time recommendations based on what users are sharing about their personal lives or current events. Conceived by Christina Zou, Lucas Lemanowicz, Russell Huang, Dmitry Pyatin, Wei Yin and Kane Hsieh, the application responds to users’ social media posts with a carefully selected quote from a book and author, suggesting books “at the speed of life,” in the words of its creators. From the quote, users can click through to an individually generated website to check out an extended excerpt from the book and potentially buy a copy. The concept is ideal for Twitter, where many of the most popular tweets tend to be inspirational quotes or affirmations, and the simple interface can be implemented across multiple platforms, from browser plugin to mobile app.

KooBrowser meets readers where they increasingly read: in their web browsers. Developed by a team that includes Sage Wohns, Ahmed El Kholy, Marmina Abdelmalek, Tarek El-Elaimy, and Mohamed Altantawy, the plugin harvests the browser histories of users to finely tune its recommendations. Read a lot of music sites, or sports? The platform will choose accordingly. KooBrowser pays attention to what readers are really reading, not just what they’re buying, and its attentive algorithms make a spectrum of suggestions, from the obvious to the unexpected.

Another finalist focused on the enduring appeal of physical books to make a connection with readers. The graphic designer in us can’t help loving Coverlist, an approach that recognizes that readers do indeed still judge books by their covers. Developed by Dani Frankhauser and Chris Ciabarro, the platform presents a rotating, curated list of 100 covers, each posted with “reading notes” suggesting why the featured book is a good read. People love to look at images online—think Pinterest and Tumblr—and here users can vote on their favorites with “kudos.” Coverlist also has a commercial application: Publishers can pay to have various covers featured, or to focus-group potential cover designs.

Finally, two location-based solutions made the finalist cut. Library Atlas is a geolocated book and quote discovery app created by Michael del Castillo, Monica Katz, David Lau, Andrew Leung, Peter Rood, Aaron Siewert and Gabriel Troia that helps users check out different authors, books, cities, and genres, based on where they are. The app sends users passages from books when they’re near a location where the quote occurs, and can also help readers find local bookstores. Similarly, BookCity, developed by Vincent Trivett, Charlie Gaines and Nathan Gao, is a way of discovering the world through books, making suggestions for what to read based on where the reader is located, or for the spots they will be visiting. Both platforms create a way to view the world through literature, and should be embraced by the travel industry. Literary vacation, anyone?

However feasible or far-fetched, the ideas generated at the Publishing Hackathon will help move book discovery forward in the digital space, connecting readers and books in new and exciting ways.

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