Q&A with Emma Barnes (Snowbooks/Bibliocloud)

By   Natasha 3 min read

We asked Emma Barnes, Founder & CEO of Bibliocloud and MD of Snowbooks, some questions on Bibliocloud, programming and entrepreneurship in publishing.

1. What was the journey of creating Bibliocloud? How did you connect the capabilities of programming to designing something that was useful for publishing?

It was the other way around. I didn’t know how to program, but I did know what tools my publishing company needed. See, I co-founded Snowbooks, a tiny indie publisher, in 2003, after working for big companies which had systems and processes. I wanted to run Snowbooks efficiently, obviously — I wanted to spend time on the fun stuff, not on entering the same data into countless spreadsheets and web forms. So over about 8 years I learned to code — not because I wanted to code, but because I needed to be able to get computers to do my bidding, to serve my business aims.

Anyone can learn to code. But not everyone knows a business domain inside out. If you know publishing, you’ve got a huge head start on any non-industry programmer. That’s certainly been my experience.

2. Is there anything that’s surprised you about traditional publishing’s response to Bibliocloud? What has been the biggest challenge?

I sort of come from traditional publishing, albeit with code-y leanings, so there haven’t really been any surprises. Bibliocloud was built because we needed it. I’ve not yet had to pitch the idea of Bibliocloud to any publisher — people immediately get it. The appeal of back-office efficiency is self-evident.

Challenges, though, aplenty. I suppose the biggest has been writing the library of code required to migrate our clients’ legacy data. If you don’t have a system which validates your data — if you have a home-grown Filemaker database, for example — it’s near-impossible to keep your data in good order. Let the years pass, and you’ve got a pickle. We had some address-book data the other day in which an author’s name had been spelled 17 different ways! It was something like Professor JD Evans. The variations included Prof JD Evans, Prof Evans, J.D., JD Evans, Professor and so on. We use an excellent open-source tool called OpenRefine to cleanse data like that. It took us 1200 bulk edits but we got there…

3. There’s always talk surrounding the future of publishing, but in what areas do you see new opportunities for entrepreneurship?

I have this thing about scale. Companies grow and grow, without stopping to think about whether bigger is better. Certainly, companies who have shareholders are obliged to march towards more people, more costs, more bloat. As an industry we get excited about small new start ups, but there’s little celebration when companies remain small and feisty. There’s nothing wrong with a company being small, true to its founding principles, with a few happy staff, a lean approach to overheads and a focus on the books.

I’d like to see a greater number of smaller companies, with their diversity making the world a richer place. And to enable that I’d like to see collaboration, helped along by technology. Pooling resources, helping each other, considering the common good: there are some notable organisations such as Inpress Books and the IPG who excel but I think there’s scope for collaborative initiatives and technological innovations to help that along even more.

4. You’ve been a vocal proponent of learning to code, do you have any recommendations on where to start?

Yup. I can’t recommend enough Michael Hartl’s Rails Tutorial. Follow it and by the end you’ll have actually coded your own version of Twitter. Can you imagine how proud you’ll feel of yourself! My Bibliocloud colleagues and I also run a one-day course called Try Programming for Publishers. The next one’s in September: come along!

No course, though, can replace just jolly well sitting down and practising writing code. You’ll know that you’re getting somewhere when you look up from a delicious, impossible programming problem and find that five hours have passed. Like playing the piano, finding a meditative exercise or being immersed in a story, programming is one of those rare things in life where you can lose track of time — it’s like a drug and I’m so glad to have discovered it. I never thought I’d be an indie publisher, with my archaeology degree and corporate early career. I’m even more surprised to find I’ve morphed into a professional programmer.

About Emma Barnes
Emma Barnes has spent twelve years and counting at the helm of Snowbooks, the award-winning, innovative independent trade publisher. Now she’s using her deep understanding of the realities of modern publishing to make Bibliocloud, a FutureBook award-winning, all-in-one publishing solution.