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Canada’s largest book retailer takes on the Kindle

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Not long after Amazon releases the new version of its Kindle e-book reader late this month, a Canadian counterpart of Barnes & Noble is slated to launch a competing digital book platform. Called Shortcovers, it aims for a much faster-growing group of consumers than Amazon, whose $359 price tag for the Kindle is a deal-breaker for many. The Shortcovers crew is targeting people with smartphones, starting with BlackBerrys, iPhones and G1s, then Windows Mobile devices. (Insert your joke about Windows Mobile here.) Shortcovers will work on laptops and Netbooks as well.

Amazon hasn’t said how many Kindles have been sold; analysts estimate a up to half a million. That number is dwarfed by the amount of iPhones, BlackBerrys and G1s in circulation. So the market opportunity for Shortcovers is huge; the question is whether the owners of those devices will be comfortable reading books, magazines, newspapers and other items sold by Shortcovers on their comparatively small screens.

Other companies recognize the potential too -- Google, for instance, just released a mobile version of Google Book Search, enabling people with iPhones and G1s to download public-domain texts from the company’s online library. And Amazon hinted in its announcement today and a New York Times interview last week that its selection of e-book titles will be available on other mobile devices, although there’s no indication when that might happen....

Indigo Books & Music, the Toronto-based retailer behind Shortcovers, is trying to differentiate itself in at least a couple of ways. The ‘overarching’ message from surveys was that consumers like to sample things before deciding whether to buy, said Mike Serbinis, executive vice president of Shortcovers. So Shortcovers will let customers read, free of charge, the first chapter of the downloadable books it sells; additional chapters will cost 99 cents each, and books will sell for the same price as their physical counterparts. Other items distributed through the platform will also come with free tastes.

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A second important element of Shortcovers is, as Serbinis put it, ‘finding your next great read.’ The service tries to do that through a combination of staff picks, algorithm-driven recommendations and social-media tools. For example, it allows people to share the free samples they download, as well as to upload content for others to read (with filters to deter piracy). Users will also be able to compile and share lists of books, articles and other items in the Shortcovers catalog.

The goal, Serbinis said, is to give people the chance to act on an impulse to buy a book or an article as soon as the impulse strikes. That’s why Shortcovers is starting with popular smartphones instead of dedicated e-book displays, although he said the company was talking to a number of manufacturers developing such devices. ‘We’re not just for the avid reader, but for anybody that wants that convenience,’ he said. ‘I think special-purpose devices have their place in the market, but they’re just not going to serve the customer that has an impulse and wants to get access to some content and make a purchase.’

Personally, I can’t see reading hundreds of pages of a book on a screen the size of a credit card, but I could see getting news and magazine articles that way. But I may not be the target market; I don’t have a smartphone. Those of you who do, tell us what you think of Shortcover’s prospects.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times’ Opinion Manufacturing Division.


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