Ana Maria Allessi is somewhat of an oddity, for someone who’s worked at a publishing house for almost 13 years. While publishing is rife with employees who lament the death of print, having only accepted the digital revolution grudgingly, Allessi has no reason to be similarly sentimental. She joined HarperCollins to work in audio books, and in 2004 began to add e-books to her specialty. "I didn’t have to give up the print book process because I never lived it," she says.
Allessi is HarperCollins’s VP of Innovation, a title that seems more at home at a technology company than a publisher. But increasingly, say Allessi and her colleagues, publishers need to be thinking like technology companies, or at least like broader media companies. A book is no longer just a book, of course. It’s consumed on e-readers, on tablets, on smartphones, or as mp3 files. And it’s one of Allessi’s tasks to marshal the innovation of the tech world to transform yet further the ways books are consumed.
To that end, HarperCollins recently launched something called the BookSmash Challenge, a contest whose very name is more evocative of a hackathon than the sort of highbrow literary event more commonly associated with the New York media elite. The BookSmash Challenge dares developers to take the data in HarperCollins’s OpenBookAPI—a database of book data, author data, covers, text excerpts, and the like—and to create "excellent, functioning software and proof of concept apps" designed to transform the way people read and discover books. A grand prize winner will win $15,000, with $8,000 doled out to a runner-up and $2,000 to a "popular choice."
How can a book be made into something more—or other? The whole point is we don’t quite know yet; a contest like this is meant to spark the imagination. But HarperCollins points to a few book, app, and reading experiences that already point in interesting directions. The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore, The Waste Land (TouchPress), and NY Times Snow Fall are just a few that they single out for the ways they bring an app-like or even quasi-gamified experience to a book. (The full list of "current out-of-the-box reading apps" is here). HarperCollins says it’s interested both in apps that would transform how books are discovered—an app to better suggest books you like based on what you’re reading, say, or an app that might recommend a book based on word frequencies—as well as in apps that would transform the book-reading experience itself—an app that might let readers directly pose questions that an author could answer or an app that might even "weave different books together based on some common thread."
"We’re interested in nonlinear reading. We’re interested in the incorporation of location-based elements. We’re interested in incorporating a community element," says Allessi.
To hear Allessi tell it, the BookSmash Challenge is as much an effort to get authors themselves on board with the idea of developers helping make their books more sexy to a changing readership. While the BookSmash Challenge makes snippets of all HC books available to developers, 19 of their more adventurous authors—HC calls them "author innovators"—have volunteered to make the full text of some 200 of their books available. The process has taught Allessi which of the publisher’s authors are more developer-friendly than others. Truthfully, though, she was pleased by how "fewer and fewer" authors are resistant to the idea of their works being consumed in innovative ways. "I was so encouraged, when we put the call out, by how many not only said ‘Yes’ but "Yes, thank you,’ " she says. "More and more, they want to figure this out. They know this is where it’s going."
Over the years, some authors have certainly turned up their nose at the idea that their literary output somehow needed to be "innovated." "I’ve had those conversations," recalls Allessi. "I’ll say, ‘Very good. I’m going to keep you informed and call you again, and see what happens next. And some come back around" to the idea of experimenting with their texts. "That’s a fun day when that happens."
There’s another way of reading HarperCollins’s challenge, of course: as an effort on the part of a major publisher to assure its own authors of its enduring relevance in an era in which a writer can easily choose to self-publish. David Mamet and other confessed "curmudgeons" are doing just that. This has undoubtedly provoked some soul-searching within the major houses, and it’s not uncommon to hear talk at HarperCollins of how the publisher is really an "author-services company." Selecting and publishing the best books are only a few of an increasing array of services, which extend to marketing, analytical tools, audience development, dynamic pricing—and soon, if the challenge goes well, novel ways of reading books themselves.
For authors who cling to the idea that the only true book is with black ink printed on white paper, they might consider the literary precedent of novelist William Faulker, who wanted sections of The Sound and the Fury printed in differently colored ink but lamented that publishing technology simply hadn’t caught up to his vision.
More to the point, though, they ought simply to look around themselves—at the surging sales of e-books, at the fondness people have for their tablets, at the fact that even the newly retired Philip Roth is . "We’re in the midst of a revolution," Allessi says. "They’re a part of that," she says of authors, "and they like that, and they want to be a part of that."