What the Hell Happens at a Publishing Hackathon?

In Digital by Edward Nawotka

CODEX Hackathon

More than 20 publishing and reading-related technology demos were developed in a caffeine-fueled 48-hour frenzy at this past weekend’s CODEX Hackathon.

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

Last week I described a “hackathon” as the book world’s equivalent of a sporting event…well, having attended the CODEX Hackathon organized by Plympton to coincide with the American Library Association annual conference in San Francisco this past weekend — I can tell you that was far from the truth. For starters, it is very quiet. If I were to try and belabor the analogy, I would say that is is probably like the LeMans 24-hour road race, albeit without the roar of engines…Nascar, Indy or Formula 1 this is not, unless your hearing is sensitive enough to hear hard drives spinning up and reading and writing relentlessly.

So then, drivers, start up your hard drives…

Nah, even that analogy is belabored: isn’t everyone operating on the cloud these days? Hard drives, be damned.

So yes, it is quiet. Also, for a group of digital true-believers, coders, developers, disruptors, etc. — you know, people who promise a digital revolution to end book publishing as we know it — there were a surprisingly large number of Post-it notes in use. Sharpies, too. And whiteboards.

“I love paper,” confessed Seth Wolfwood, co-founder of the Free Ebook Foundation. “Once I became a developer, I started using more paper than ever,” he added, flashing a quick ironic smile.

Irony…yes, it turns out tech developers do have a sense of humor. I promise: they do. Wolfwood also produces amusing literary-themed temporary tattoos: Litographs.

And in a nod to traditional books, Hackathoners were asked to write their favorite books on their name tags, and these ranged from Pride and Prejudice to La Peste. Say what you will, but with several Stanford students on hand and numerous graduates of many of America and Europe’s finest universities, this was an educated crowd, one dedicated enough to book culture to want to “disrupt” it — or rather, in the eyes of most, “improve” it.

More than 100-plus people participated in the event, working in small groups gathered at tables or on sofas to try and conceive, develop, and deliver a functioning demo of a piece of software over two days. To accomplish this, collaboration is key — and for the majority of the time, people were bent over their keyboards, earbuds in place, bashing away at what could only be described as digital hieroglyphics (otherwise known to those in the know as “code”).

And, it should be noted, there were numerous people from traditional publishing companies participated as well, including CODEX organizer Jennifer 8. Lee, publisher of Plympton; Adina Talve-Goodman, managing editor of One Story; and Nellie McKesson, Senior Management for Content Workflows at Macmillan; Katheryn Jaller, Senior Community Manager for Chronicle Books.

Codex Hackathon

So, what was accomplished? Plenty. More than twenty projects were developed in a caffeine-fueled 48-hour frenzy:

Closereader: a platform to connect writers working on manuscript with other writers to solicit feedback and develop a community, emulating the offline experience of a writing group. It is what they are calling a “matchmaking platform and a placemaking platform” for writers.

Atlas, a platform that uses BitLit’s Shelfi API to scan your bookshelf and recommend your next vacation destination based on what your like to read — functions a bit like the old Small Demons platform to give you additional book-related information on where you might travel.

Goodshelf, which creates Goodreads shelves from your real shelves by submitting a photo of your shelf (also using the Shelfi API).

Boustrophedon: From the Greek, for an “Ox turn,” a reading platform which tries to retain the eyes as they drift from left to right and offers a “mirror script” below each line to help speed up reading.


Bookturtle: An app that reminds you if you’re taking too long to read a book and encourages you to speed up!

Streaq: An app that strives to build better reading habits through gamification by motivating you to maintain a “streaq” of reading a chapter of a book a day.

Glance: A pre-exisiting app for speed reading, which added free public domain ebooks.

Mailbook: A way to allow authors to progressively post chapters of serialized books.

You can check them all out here.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.