One of the biggest questions hanging over all booksellers is how they will remain relevant as more reading material moves to digital delivery. Indigo Books & Music, Canada's largest bookstore chain, is addressing the issue with Shortcovers, a digital platform that it plans to launch later this month. Indigo is making Shortcovers available as an iPhone app as well as for many other smart phones and at launch it will offer books, articles, blogs and essays to consumers both through their mobile phones and online through the Shortcovers Web site. Shortcovers will make 200,000 chapters and free excerpts available, with 50,000 of them available for purchase as full digital titles. In addition, Indigo is taking steps to make Shortcovers part of its physical stores. This past holiday season, Indigo deployed new customer kiosks for all its stores, and a spokesperson said Shortcovers will be integrated with these kiosks and parts of the store—both physical and online—in the coming year. Shortcovers is also exploring similar integration with other retail partners.

Shortcovers executive v-p Michael Serbinis said Indigo created the platform in response to consumers' changing habits: “People are reading differently—in shorter, more frequent sessions,” he said. A wide variety of books are available through Shortcovers. Between 15,000 and 20,000 of them are older books that are in the public domain; the rest are newer fiction and nonfiction books from Canadian and U.S. publishers. Prices for digital downloads (i.e., “shortcovers”) start at $.99 for most chapters and excerpts and go up to between $10 and $20 for full e-books. If a customer downloads an excerpt from a book and wishes to purchase the full digital edition and it isn't available, Shortcovers will direct him or her to Indigo's Web site, where the customer can purchase the physical book. In addition to the sale of digital products, Indigo expects to generate revenue from ads.

The Shortcover software currently supports such smart phones as the iPhone, iPod Touch, the T-Mobile G1 and Blackberrys, and Serbinis said that down the road, Shortcovers will also support various e-readers. Additionally, consumers can use a laptop computer to access Shortcovers through the Web.

The company began contacting Canadian and U.S. publishers last summer, and Serbinis said their response has been positive: “They subscribe to the idea that you can have this instant gratification and convenience for consumers. Plus, the idea of an open platform is really powerful.”

Serbinis seemed less concerned about making sure Shortcovers delivers on some of the frequent e-reader gripes like lack of annotation or not allowing highlighting or looking up words, and more focused on the ease of use and convenience of Shortcovers. “Ultimately, the service is about discovery,” he said. It emphasizes community features, like rating, tagging and sharing, and people can create lists of favorite books and even upload their own writing.

Is B&N Next?

In several of Barnes & Noble's most recent quarterly analyst calls, questions were raised about B&N's plans for the digital space. Executives usually deflected the question by saying they are working on various projects, none of which could be discussed. Rumors are now circulating, however, that the nation's largest bookstore chain may deploy a new digital bookstore before spring. A B&N spokesperson declined to comment on the report. B&N has moved cautiously in the digital world ever since it closed its e-bookstore several years ago.