Big Data, Small Apps: Infinite Opportunity

I love browsing in independent bookstores, and close to my home on the south coast of England is an outstanding example. The Hayling Island Bookshop is run by Marie Telford. She is also a member of the advisory panel for the U.K.'s Independent Booksellers Forum, regularly meeting other independent booksellers to share experiences and ideas. She recently found herself being lauded for her possible "quote of the year" when she was asked by The Bookseller for her predictions for 2014. Her forecast? Independent bookshops "will invest in small, roof-mounted, surface-to-air missile defence systems to defend themselves from passing airborne book delivery drones."

Marie's tongue-in-cheek response to the PR coup of Amazon's drone story appealed to many. But it also neatly set out the parameters of the challenges being faced by the publishing industry. On the one hand, many successful small businesses will recognize the granularity of effort needed to cultivate customers, whether at a local level or via social media. In contrast, for large organizations, such as Amazon, Big Data offers opportunities at massive scale.

Big Data at the scale ingested by the likes of Google or Facebook may simply seem too vast to be relevant to many publishers. However, for the STM sector at least, the evolution of data-driven science and new ways of collaborative working present real opportunities. As Richard Padley, managing director of the U.K.-based digital publishing solutions provider Semantico Ltd., puts it in a blog post, "eScience is increasingly becoming the norm; scientists are working with ... huge data sets and needing to publish them alongside a conventional narrative as an integral part of their research outputs."

But the big/small conundrum isn't just a stereotypical David and Goliath faceoff. Increasingly, organizations are seeking to replicate the personal touch of social media in their large-scale activities. The BBC's coverage of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, for example, was notable for offering more than 650 hours of live action via six high-definition streams, available across all devices and via the BBC Sport app. A live text commentary was prominently integrated into the coverage. This was deliberately designed to feel chatty and personal-it was written by named individuals with specific "office hours" and pulled in news, results, comments, and social media updates from British athletes and members of the public.

Multidevice content isn't just of interest to the BBC. As digital book sales level off in the U.K., many in the publishing industry are hailing mobile content as the next great opportunity.

And if mobile devices are key then it follows that the elephant in the room is the publishing opportunities that may-or may not-be offered by apps. Best-selling children's author Julia Donaldson, well-known for titles such as The Gruffalo and (my personal favorite) Stick Man, famously said in 2011 that she opposed ebook and app versions of her titles. She worried that interactivity would distract young readers. At the end of 2013, however, an app based on Donaldson's best-selling Room on the Broom was released. Crucially, it's not an e-version of the printed text, but it complements the print version in a way designed to engage children aged 3 to 7.

Speaking at a recent Tech Tuesday event organized under the auspices of The London Book Fair, app expert Stuart Dredge discussed the opportunities he saw for experimentation the nascent app market. The question, he said, is not, "How can we take a book and turn it into an app?" but, "How do we tell a story in a new way?"

This sort of creativity is key. A report released by the U.K.'s Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) at the beginning of this year estimates that the publishing industry contributed £9.7 (about $11,559,019,596) billion to the U.K. economy in 2012. According to DCMS, the "creative industries" as a whole-which include architecture, design, fashion, film, TV, music, visual arts, and publishing-contribute £71 billion (about $84,607,256,837) a year to the U.K. economy. Not surprisingly, secretary of state for DCMS, Maria Miller, praises the "energy, innovation, skills and talent existing in this dynamic sector." Continued innovation-much of it probably coming from left field and starting off small in scale-is what will drive publishing success.