Irishwoman turning a new page in the future of books

11 Jul 2014

Alice Ryan, conference and community manager with The Bookseller in London

Publishing needs a shot in the arm and digital technology can provide the needle, according to Alice Ryan, who organised a recent ‘future book’ hack in London.

Ryan keeps two paperbacks in her handbag, and she reads in any spare moment during her day. Why two? “Just in case I finish one of them,” she explains. “You know you have a reading addiction when you hope the queue in the post office will be long so that you can get through a few extra pages.”

Yet despite her affinity for the traditional paperback, Ryan is passionate about the need for publishing to harness the potential that digital technology has to offer.

As conference and community manager with The Bookseller in London, she is encouraging publishers to engage with digital technology and with people from other industries who can make it happen.

“For a long time, digital has been seen as a side event in publishing,” she says. “But now digital needs to be mainstream, it needs to be integrated in publishing.”

Book to the future

Ryan’s role with The Bookseller sees her co-ordinating major events to bring people together and foment new ideas about the future of books.

They include The Bookseller’s aptly named FutureBook Conference, which is Europe’s biggest publishing conference, and she recently organised a spin-off FutureBook Hack in London that came up with new ideas for engaging with published content.

For the weekend-long hackathon, Ryan and the other organisers got major publishers in the UK on board, but they also had to entice developers if it was going to work, she recalls.

“If they don’t show up, you don’t have a hack,” she says. “It was a pretty terrifying prospect, so we put the word out among networks of developers and coders in London.”

It worked. More than 100 hackers from the worlds of publishing and digital technology turned up for the weekend at University College London last month. They split into small teams and cooked up a range of concepts and prototypes.

New hacks

Several of the ideas generated at the hackathon looked to personalise the reading experience. They included Bespoken, a website that lets you add your own sounds to a book; a digital ‘pop-up’ book called Black Book, where the reader can click on parts of images to steer their own way through a story, and The Responsive Book, which updates digital text in a book based on your location and the date.

Others aimed to help readers find new titles, such as Literograph, which displays relevant books alongside online content (such as next to a newspaper article) and lets readers click to buy them, and My Book is Bigger than Yours, which displays best-sellers, such that the covers of the higher-ranking ones appear larger. Another, Six Degrees, shows readers the favourite books of their favourite authors, thus hopefully leading them to interesting titles.

The overall winner of the hack is Voices, an online forum for discovering new readers of audiobooks: readers could record and upload their clips and the public could rate the ones they like.

Women invent future publishing

Ryan was particularly delighted to see that many of the hackers at the FutureBook hack were women.

“Around 40pc of the people who took part in the event were female,” she says. “We were glad about that because we had made it a priority to get women innovators involved.”

The participation of females received a boost through the help of women’s coding networks that the hackathon organisers had approached, she explains.

Women were also well represented at The Bookseller Marketing and Publicity Conference earlier this week, again organised by Ryan.

Speakers included Jessica Elvidge, who led a session on bringing books to YouTube, where Elvidge is creative strategist.

“I think publishing has a lot to learn from the media and social media,” says Ryan. “In all cases, technology is transforming the way we consume content.”

From books to tech – and then both

Ryan’s path to her current role has included literature, languages and history, with a later awakening in technology.

She is the granddaughter of Irish author Mary Lavin and the daughter of author and University College Dublin lecturer James Ryan and Caroline Walsh, who was literary editor in The Irish Times, so there were plenty of books around as Ryan grew up.

She studied business and French at Trinity College Dublin before moving to London to get a master’s degree in economic history and her interest in technology ignited when, while working in communications with Habitat for Humanity, she got a call from a college friend to work with the Dublin Web Summit (now known as The Summit).

There, Ryan started to get a new view of technology and how it enables.

“It made me see that technology was about connecting people and making it easier to build your ideas,” she says. “And I started to become more aware of the creativity involved.”

Another master’s degree later, this time in cultural management from University College Dublin, Ryan moved to London last year to take up her current post with The Bookseller, where she enjoys mixing the literary and the technical and looking to change mindsets around the future of publishing.

Lose the fear

“I would love to see a reduction in the fear of digital technology in publishing,” Ryan says. “I think it’s improving, people are starting to see that digital and traditional publishing can co-exist happily and even benefit each other, there is a time and place for both. So we have to keep working out ways without being fearful that by innovating we are going to completely replace the book.

“The book can live – and maybe even thrive – alongside digital.”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication