Tech Desk

From the Tech Desk

Publishing Startup Applies the Structure of Hackathons to the Book Creation Process

Have you ever heard of a "hackathon"? If not, the main reason is probably that this type of intensive event is usually sequestered to the tech industry and very rarely bleeds over into other fields—publishing included. The basic idea of a hackathon is to bring together a group of computer programmers and other software development experts for purposes of collaboration. Contrary to what their name might suggest, hackathons aren't promotions of cybercrime, but instead encourage tech industry figures to work together in pursuit of developing new and innovative software.

Sometimes, what hackathons come up with is gimmicky and fun. In 2012, a hackathon hosted at MIT resulted in "the Infinite Jukebox," an online app that could create "a never-ending and ever changing version of any song." Unsurprisingly, that app went viral when it was first released to the world, but the novelty behind it faded rather quickly. Other times, though, hackathons introduce technologies that become culturally ubiquitous for the long haul. The Facebook "Like" button, for instance, supposedly came to be as a result of one of these events.

Now, a tech startup is seeking to bring the basic spirit behind hackathons and apply it to the publishing industry. The company, Book Sprints, has been around for a few years now and has, according to the official website, already produced 100+ books. The concept of a "book sprint," meanwhile, dates back even further, to mid-2000s London. The first "book sprint" was commissioned by a Tomas Krag, a network technology expert, and resulted in the book Wireless Networking in the Developing World. Since then, the idea of book sprints has become more popular, but has still remained a relatively niche practice. The idea—of bringing together multi-disciplinary experts and having them collaborate on research, writing, and editing—is meant to produce books more quickly than one person would ever be able to on their own. Book Sprints the company, for instance, claims that they can go "From Zero to Book in Five Days."

The major question here is one of quality. If a book sprint is meant to get a book ready for distribution in just five days, how much quality control can really be in place? Writers, I invite you here to think about the most writing you've ever done in the space of five days. Working intensively, you could probably knock out the majority of a novel in a week (if you had an outline), and briefer articles, papers, or short stories would be no problem. But a full book? Not to mention an instructional or academic document that would, presumably, require plenty of research and fact checking? Can you imagine launching a project in that realm and being ready to send it out into the world in less than a week?

For most of us, the answer is probably a firm "no," and for good reason. On average, the timeline for a book publication, from conception through to print, is about a two-year process. Of course, this timetable can vary dramatically, but publishing moves slowly most of the time because there are so many factors to consider. Idea brainstorming for creative works; research and fact-checking for non-fiction; the writing itself; the editing process; cover design; promotion and pre-release campaigning; digital and print formatting; printing and distribution. All of these steps take time, and the idea of a "book sprint" that consolidates it all into five days is quite nearly ludicrous.

In an ideal world, this expedited collaborative process would do just what Book Sprints claims it does: "Capture the knowledge of a group of subject-matter experts in a manner that would be nearly impossible using traditional methods." The secret to success, in other words, is essentially a "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" concept. Perhaps that idea does work brilliantly for the types of texts that Books Sprints has produced over the years, such as a troubleshooting guide for Cisco's ACI (Application Centric Infrastructure), or a textbook about British Columbia.

However, when a website like Tech Republic suggests that publishing companies adopt the hackathon approach of Book Sprints to become more agile and effective in the modern marketplace, it's easy to take their proposal with a grain of salt. Many books rely very heavily on authorial voice and vision. By de-emphasizing the idea of a singular author and stressing collaboration above all else, the Book Sprints model arguably jettisons the artistry that made most of us fall in love with books in the first place. Are any of us willing to lose that human touch in order to compete more effectively in a world of technological advancement? And if we are, then how far are we from computers just going ahead and writing books for us?

At From the Tech Desk, we want to hear from readers, writers, and publishing industry figures on this subject. Do you think book sprints could be a useful trend to help publishers get books to the marketplace more quickly? Or would the speed come at the cost of quality? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at