Code your way to freedom – BookMachine Unplugged 2019: Talking Tech Literacy

Tech in Publishing

Paraphrasing the famous Chinese curse, may we not live in interesting – that is, difficult and uncertain – times. Unfortunately, though, those are exactly the times we are facing at the moment. Thankfully, people who work in the publishing industry are among the many who strive to add a positive influence to this battered world and planet, but nevertheless, we can and must do better on several fronts.

The (very) big questions

For example, how can publishers finally stop doing repetitive, boring administrative tasks every single day and start devoting more of their time to fulfilling, inspirational projects? How can we tackle tech giants and claim back choice, agency and revenue power? How can we better amplify the motivating voices that we publish? How can we more coherently meet customers’ needs? In short, how can we change our industry for the better in these challenging times?

The (not quick, but easier than we think) answer: code

BookMachine Unplugged 2019: Talking Tech Literacy event was a fun and fascinating call to arms. Emma Barnes, coder and publisher, founder and CEO of Consonance, MD of Snowbooks and founder of Make Our Book and of #SideProjectSummer (and also a member of BookMachine’s Editorial Team), introduced the panel with a passionate and uplifting opening. Everyone in publishing has the power to become a maker, to make an impact, futureproofing their career and helping authors have their voices heard. Emma is on a mission to get everyone to code, as tech literacy “is a fantastic tool to arm yourself in this fight against Gilead. We need to be able to provide impact to make a dent in the world. We all need to and can develop deep-rooted skills that will be part of this armoury.”

From the power of coding…

Emma’s panel of tech champions exemplified these inclusive, enlightening ethics with talks that were both technical and highly accessible. All the speakers made a point of highlighting how tech literacy is incredibly valuable: everyone coming from any professional path can get started, for example by breaking down everyday problems into actionable steps and trying to find a solution to automate them. Also, it’s never too late to start.

Nadia Odunayo, founder and CEO of avid readers website The StoryGraph, started by focusing on the huge past and present aggressive threat of big tech controlling the publishing world, and how it is nevertheless still possible to reclaim the publishing pie if publishers get the right tools to fight back. She stressed how readers and their questions and needs are often underserved, and how the key is to own more of the data and use that to improve the industry as well as the readers’ experience. To do this, publishers need to wholeheartedly embrace and invest in tech, which does not just mean learning to code and programming (the free Codeacademy is a great place to start), but also for example becoming a tech product manager, a designer, a data analyst, a development evangelist or a technical writer. Nadia’s comparison of coding and writing, refactoring and editing, an alpha test and a manuscript, launching and publishing was very straightforward.

…to the wonders of CSS, and to Harry Potter and the magic of coding

CTO and co-founder of digital publisher Canelo, Nick Barreto, explained with practical examples the joys and differences of HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language), markup and most of all CSS language (Cascading Style Sheets), which he passionately defined “an incredible and enjoyable way of doing art”, as it’s all about fonts, colour, design and visuals. Sara O’Connor, Consonance’s Full Stack Developer and Ruby programming language devotee, spent 13 years in children’s publishing and used her background to show the audience how people who love stories can love coding too, by creating characters from Harry Potter’s books in Ruby and making them speak (not Aunt Petunia though!). Nick and Sara opened doors into two coding languages with fascinating examples to stir the audience to try and start, also offering two specially created playgrounds ( and Both also suggested two websites providing tutorials ( and

As Sara pointed out, “coding is the magic that keeps you from rotting away in [Harry Potter’s prison of] Azkaban”: humans can devote more time to creating, interacting and celebrating if they use computers to do automated jobs, setting ourselves free from repetitive, mechanical tasks. May we all not live in interesting times anymore. But as long as they stay as interesting as they unfortunately are right now, may we all be inspired and start learning to code to help ourselves, the world and the planet to be freer and happier.

Francesca Zunino Harper is a linguist, translator, and publishing professional. She worked in the British and international academia researching on comparative literatures,  translation, and women’s and environmental humanities for several years. She now works in the Humanities and Social Sciences area of publishing. You can follow her @ZuninoFrancesca.


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