Why You Should Try Hacking Books

As demand for books rises, one of New York’s oldest industries is waiting for an enterprising group of hackers to come and rebuild the entire thing, piece by piece. Here’s what a book hackathon looks like–and why we need them.

Why You Should Try Hacking Books

A few years ago, publishers were looking at what was happening to the music industry and saw digital in an apocalyptic light–now they’re racing to join the digital content fray. “There are still challenges and the margins are still smaller on the digital side, but publishers are figuring out that it’s not the end and they’ve embraced it much more,” said Steven Rosato, event director of the largest book trade show in North America, Book Expo America, which is happening this week in New York.


But in an industry that has hardly changed in centuries, what is there to hack?

An Industry In Need Of Rebuilding

“All the growth in the publishing industry is coming from digital products and services,” says Rosato. Other industry types have even started to see Amazon’s buyout of Goodreads in a positive light. “It has actually created more excitement,” said Joanna Stone-Herman, CEO of Librify, a digital book club startup. “The big multiple paid makes you realize that this is where great value is being created.”

With thousands of books published every year, getting books noticed in the crowded online environment is one major problem that could be tackled by software. “We like to say that digital is very good for hunters, but not very good for gatherers,” said Steinberger, CEO of Perseus Books Group, a leading independent publisher and publishing service provider. “If you know the book you want, it’s a solved problem.” Book discovery is not confined to comparing authors or genres. There are many different factors that influence your experience of a book, such as where you are geographically (on vacation or at home), your personality, and current events. “I think that a lot of recommendation engines are pretty lame: ‘People who bought this book also bought this,’ is fine. But it doesn’t know much about you,” said Rick Joyce, Perseus’s chief marketing officer. Gift giving is another aspect of discovery that he thinks isn’t nuanced enough. It goes without saying that a gift to your mother and a gift to your best friend are completely different.

There are big data projects lying in wait, too. “The better contextualization, the better data you can derive in terms of how a book is written–the language, and the voice.” said Jacik Grebski, co-founder of Exversion, a platform that turns any public dataset into an API, and one of the mentors at the hackathon. “If you can recommend based on that, it’s very powerful.”

“Digital is part of the publishing DNA now,” Rosato explained. “As much as any other part of publishing. At Book Expo, the digital was a separate piece, siloed in the scope of the event, but I always saw that line blurring. I felt that Book Expo has the same opportunity as South by Southwest–an investment in startup atmosphere but centered around the content of books (instead of music and film).” He just added a direct-to-consumer element to the event and is pushing to make it more accessible to the public.

What else is there for hackers in the book industry? User interface, says Stone-Herman, along with almost every other facet of this well-preserved, if antiquated, industry. “Suddenly everything, including what we define as a book, has changed, and it’s rethinking everything across the entire value chain, from how a book is created, to how a book is published, to how a book is distributed,” he says. “That creates a whole bunch of new opportunities for new tools and companies to lead the next generation of books.”


“We feel we’re at a tipping point,” said David Steinberger, CEO of Perseus. “This is no longer an early adopter market, it’s mainstream for readers. And it’s time to take full advantage of that change.”

Building SXSW For Books

In a packed room in midtown Manhattan, Joyce introduced the publishing hackathon. He suggested guidelines, pointed out the mentors on hand, and called up the API sponsors to present, such as the social reading platform Readmill and the leading book publisher Pearson. The hackers would have 36 hours to complete a project, which would then be judged by a panel of venture capitalists, tech experts, and book industry heads. Six finalists and awards would be chosen at the end. During his introductions, he made an important point: “There are a number of traditional assets that publishers and authors have created that work pretty well and their intent is powerful. But they’re all fair game for reinvention.”

The story of this hackathon starts months ago in a coffee shop where Rosato was meeting with Stone-Herman. They talked about the changes that were happening in book publishing and how they wanted to turn Book Expo into a South by Southwest for books. The tech section of the event had been growing rapidly, but they wanted to do something dramatic to take it to the next level. They decided on a hackathon that would meld two groups, people from the tech world and those in the book industry. The finalists would compete at Book Expo.

Stone-Herman pitched the idea to Joyce and he was impressed. He partnered with her and took hold of the event planning reigns. “There is more money and inventiveness in publishing in the last year or two than in the last 20,” Joyce said. “It seemed like an opportune time. But also, I felt that the answer on discovery is not going to be figured out by industry insiders alone. We need more provocative conversation between publishers and digital minds that don’t spend all their days selling books.”

How To Hack On Books

“As far as I’m concerned, anybody who uses paper is old school, there [are] optimized ways of getting your message out there,” said Jason Saltzman, founder and CEO of the startup coworking space Alley NYC. Developers who are working in a saturated tech marketplace can easily take a side project and have groundbreaking results in a vertical like publishing, in what Saltzman calls the path of least resistance. “The hackathon introduces that vertical in a cool way. They get to meet like-minded people and solve issues around that vertical, and it opens up their eyes to a whole world of possibilities to work in.”

Libraries have historically been on the fore of linking books with data, and in the last 18 months, libraries have made some big moves. The New York Public Library was a sponsor of this hackathon, as well as an API partner. The Digital Collections API (one of the many projects NYPL Labs has been working on) allows developers to work with NYPL’s catalog data and records. “We think of books as books, and we forget that they are containers,” said David Riordan, product manager for NYPL Labs and hackathon mentor. “It’s the thought, ideas, construction, and organization. And finding ways to get into that is what librarians have always done. What does it look like if a library is a big suite of APIs? Not just books, but what about what’s in those books? Our shared cultural history is in these materials, and by finding ways to extract them, we make wholly new resources from which we can do research, tell stories, inspire ourselves, and discover our future.”


Richard Nash, a publishing entrepreneur and hackathon judge, said the hackathon really boiled down to experimentation with metadata. “The goal of this hackathon fundamentally is to take both the chops of New York City’s programmers and the data, feeds, and APIs out there in the world, to break books out of their containers and connect them up to everything that books are about.” Nash currently is the vice president of community and content for Small Demons, an online platform that lets readers navigate from book to book using the subjects mentioned in each book. “Everybody in the industry says word of mouth is the most important thing–metadata is the greatest amplifier of word of mouth.”

What The Hackathon Teams Built

At the end of the hackathon, 30 teams presented at demos. There was Captiv, a recommendation app that analyzes your Twitter feed and trending topics to suggest different types of books at different times. Evoke, a website, connects you with characters based on a desired emotional experience. Book City suggests books that take place in your current location or a location you want to visit. KooBrowser is a plugin that looks for keywords in your browser and gives recommendations based on what you read.

Other projects included Literary Atlas, which sends you notifications when you pass by locations mentioned in a book; Bookluvrs, a cross between Grindr and Goodreads where you see the books people are reading near you; Book Discovery Inside, where an e-book automatically updates recommendations on the last page of the book; and Coverlist, a scrolling list of randomly generated book covers. Most of the final projects seemed well thought out and were able to pare down the congestion of the digital ecosystem.

Out of all the hacks, Evoke, Captiv, Book City, KooBrowser, and Coverlist were chosen to move on to the finals. Each one will work with mentors to refine their product before Book Expo on May 31.

Going forward, Joyce and Stone-Herman are planning to continue the hackathon as a yearly event, one that brings new ideas and innovators into a traditionally insular industry. “I think that the insular nature is going to need to change to keep up with the changes happening,” Stone-Herman said. “This can be a model for the kind of collaboration we need.”

[Image: Flickr user Horia Varlan]