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Fiction-Focused Start-Up Wins Big

Fiction-Focused Start-Up Wins Big

Brooklyn-based graphic designer Lisa Maione 05 GD, principal of her own firm Instance, didn’t quite know what she was getting into when she decided to attend the first-ever Book Publishing Hackathon in New York City last March. The 36-hour event challenged computer programmers, graphic designers and other participants to create an online program to help readers search for titles and indirectly provide a boost to the publishing industry.

“I’d been working in editorial design and thinking about where publishing has been and where it’s going,” says Maione, “so the hackathon seemed like the perfect opportunity to learn more.”

After connecting with Jill Axline, a PhD candidate in Communications at Cornell who was attending the hackathon, Maione spent hours discussing what she loves about books. As the two talked, they began focusing on fictional titles geared toward young adults and came up with the idea for Evoke, a website that will allow readers to search for new stories by character type. Once they brought developer Jason Pearson on board, the idea quickly took shape.

“Evoke works through a combination of user-generated information and web-scraping about various books and characters,” says Maione. “The focus is on the relationships readers have with fictional characters.”

Evoke was selected as one of half a dozen projects allowed to proceed to phase 2 of the hackathon less than two weeks later. Each team had five minutes to pitch their idea to publishing executives and tech experts at BookExpo America, one of the leading publishing events in the US. Maione’s team presented a sample character map built around Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist in The Hunger Games, explaining how Evoke would enable each character’s composite to be built by users over time and how one character would connect to others via a weblike structure. Readers interested in strong-willed protagonists with a secret weakness, for example, could use the site to find other books with similar characters.

Team Evoke walked away with the hackathon Grand Prize of $10,000 and a promised breakfast meeting with co-CEO of William Morris Endeavor Ari Emanuel (purportedly the model for the Ari Gold character in the HBO series Entourage). To prepare for that meeting, which is scheduled to take place later this summer, the trio behind Evoke has been polishing up the user interface and fine-tuning the site’s look and feel.

“We’re building a collection of a couple hundred characters to seed the site, so that users have something to respond to,” Maione explains. “After that the users will bring to us the characters they want to discuss. We also want people in the publishing industry to be a part of this conversation.” At the meeting with Emanuel, the team hopes to talk about how to best tie into what publishers are doing and how to get the word out among readers once the site is up and running.

Simone Solondz

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