A couple of days ago, I previewed the Shortcovers ebook service from Canadian bookseller Indigo. The service is now live and worth taking a look at.
I checked Shortcovers out using its iPhone/iPod Touch reader app which works pretty well. Part of the Shortcovers proposition is its emphasis on lots of short content – under 5000 words – that you can easily read on your mobile phone. Most prominent among this is a great selection of first chapters that you can read for free so even if you don’t buy anything online it’s likely to be a worthwhile resource just for browsers.
You’ll need to be online to access them. These chapters are not downloadable as far as I can tell. [Update/correction*: they’re not downloadable but the are cached so you can access them later offline.] A nice feature is that Smartcovers, like the online ebook reader Bookworm, keeps track of your place in the book even when you access it from a different device. You can start reading on your phone and pick up later from your PC’s web browser with Smartcovers remembering where you were in your book.
I signed up for my Shortcovers account from New Zealand via my iPod Touch. First thing to do was go to the iPhone’s App store, search for “shortcovers” to find their special reader app and download it to the iPod. Once the Shortcovers reader app was started, I had to sign up for an account. It was simple and you’ll be very grateful that only minimal information was required, a nod to the fact that most people will get frustrated with lengthy typing if they’re using mobile devices. I was up and running inside five minutes.
After logging in (first time use only), the Shortcovers store came up including featured and popular titles and a search box. At launch, Shortcovers claims to have 200,000 free chapters with 50,000 linking to the full, paid titles. Click on a book’s free first chapter and it takes you straight into it. I’d prefer to also get a blurb on the book to give me a general idea of what it’s about but this doesn’t appear to be available anywhere on the site. [Update/correction*: When you open a chapter, there’s an ‘i’ for ‘information’ button on the top right corner. This will lead to a blurb, if available. Apparently, there’s also a blue ‘detail disclosure’ button on the browse screen that leads to the same extra info but I haven’t been able to find one, I’d guess because most entries at this stage don’t have much extra info. I’m sure this will all be fleshed out in due course.]
You can’t buy most (possibly any) titles online if you’re accessing the site from New Zealand due to rights issues. One niggle: the iPhone version just comes up with a generic error message when you try to buy. It was only because I’d also used the website, with its clearer error message, that I knew it was a rights issue rather than a technical problem. Another thing: when I accessed the website via a PC, there were a lot more “no access” titles, in fact a very high proportion.
The reading experience on the iPhone was OK but it wasn’t a match for Stanza or eReader. The main annoyance was its requirement to scroll down as you read, eventually getting to the bottom of the “page” when you’d flip to the next page. With Stanza and eReader, you don’t scroll, you just tap the right edge of the screen to move forward or left to go back. I’m not sure why Smartcovers has done this unless it’s too keep the concept of a “page” in sync with the printed edition or to accommodate larger screens that might show all the text on one screen. Certainly it’s not very smartphone-friendly.
Another thing that I’ve heard isn’t very friendly is the painful process publishers are being asked to go through in order to get their content on to Smartcovers. The apparent need to break down ebooks into their component chapters is causing some grief. This seems like an unneccessary impost, other than for the few titles that Smartcovers plans to offer on a pieceworks basis (99 cents a chapter). Hopefully, this will addressed smartly by Indigo so that its service can efficiently expand its list.
For the creative types, and probably for businesses looking to distribute product information for instance, you can upload your own content, provided it’s under 5000 words. It’s an easy and free way to get your content out there.
Check out this Teleread item for another impression of the Smartcovers experience.[*UPDATE 3 March 2009 – thanks to Mark Pavlidis for pointing out some errors in my initial review of this system:
” These chapters are not downloadable as far as I can tell. ”
– They are cached locally on the device for offline viewing.
“Click on a book’s free first chapter and it takes you straight into it. I’d prefer to also get a blurb on the book to give me a general idea of what it’s about but this doesn’t appear to be available anywhere on the site.”
– Hit the blue detail disclosure button from list or the “i” from the reading view to see more about the item. If there is description provided, you will see it there.
“You can’t buy most (possibly any) titles online if you’re accessing the site from New Zealand due to rights issues. One niggle: the iPhone version just comes up with a generic error message when you try to buy. ”
– Has been improved in the pending update.]