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Get me Tolstoy. On my cell. Right now! Add to ...

lmclaren@globeandmail.com

Just the other morning, I found myself with nothing to read, so what did I do? I picked up an old novel I had been meaning to get to for ages but hadn't yet managed to buy. The great thing was, I didn't even have to get out of bed. If only Jane Austen could see Mansfield Park as it appears on my iPhone.

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Welcome to the brave new world of digital books. I'm sure you've heard the rumours, but the ebook is finally a mass-market reality. Amazon has the Kindle, Sony has the e-Reader and now Canada has its very own digital bookseller: Shortcovers.com - owned by Indigo.

Earlier this week, I strolled down to check out the opening day of the London Book Fair. As usual, Earls Court was a hive of anxiety. Publishers and agents huddled in booths, clutching at cardigans, sipping tea and negotiating deals that will determine the future of publishing. The air was thick with tension - the result of a business model in flux.

Surveying the scene, Mike Serbinis, chief information officer for Indigo and the brains behind Shortcovers, was unruffled. "It's still early," he said, "but I think the publishing industry stands a good chance of not screwing this up."

By "this" he means the Internet.

Book publishing, a notably conservative - some would say backward - industry, can no longer hide from the reality of the digital age.

In an era that has seen the birth of Twitter and the decline of newspapers, it's safe to say that no one knows for sure what the future of print media - be it The Times or Harry Potter - will be. What everyone wants to know is this: How can we sell digital books (or anything else, for that matter) on the Internet?

Serbinis is one of the few people in this convention centre with a credible answer. And how surprised would you be if I told you his background is in software, not publishing?

After cutting his teeth in Silicone Valley in the 1990s (first at Microsoft and later with his own start-up, which he sold to software provider Critical Path), Serbinis, now 35, ended up at Indigo, where he has been for the past three years.

His brainchild, Shortcovers, is a site that allows users to download the world of digital literature to their laptops, eReaders, iPhones, BlackBerrys or even (theoretically) their televisions. Apart from some initial search-engine kinks, the site is relatively user-friendly. There are promotions (free books!) and bestseller lists, options to e-mail or tweet chapters to friends, and, as in a real bookstore, you are encouraged to hang around and browse. The first chapters of most books are offered free - after that you pay. (Prices are generally discounted and hover around $14.)

Unlike the much-buzzed-about Kindle or the Sony e-Reader, Shortcovers does not come with its own tech device, but focuses on the dissemination of information - i.e. the content, rather than the form. "We took a strong position that people will read books on various technologies," Serbinis said.

In his view, once books go digital, there will be an evolution in the way we understand and encounter the product we call a "book." The novel or the recipe collection will change organically to fit the shifting technology, rather than the other way around.

Seen through this lens, Kindle and other e-readers are missing the point. "It's like when they first invented television they hired actors to read soap-opera scripts on camera," he explained. "Sometimes it takes a while for people's imaginations to catch up with the possibilities that technology has to offer."

The response to Shortcovers has been positive, with customers from 160 countries in its first 45 days online. Serbinis is now in London trying to negotiate digital rights deals with the big international publishers, a process he says is going well.

And the possibilities don't stop with books. In Serbinis's mind, Shortcovers has the potential to become a massive international newsstand, selling all variety of print media, not unlike an online version of Indigo itself. "I think there's going to end up being a few global brands that will sell books, magazines and newspapers online," he says. Sony, Amazon and Barnes and Noble, are also, he says, "in the game."

Unlike the music industry, which nearly bankrupted itself by refusing to adapt to digital culture, the world of book publishing is relatively in sync with the stodgy ways of its consumers. When it comes to piracy (always an issue when dealing with easily replicated digital material), book publishing at least has demographics in its favour. Margaret Atwood readers are less likely to file-share than Nickelback fans for reasons of age, gender, education and income. And unlike newspapers, book publishers never gave stuff away for free in the first place. Having not tasted the sweet nectar of free content, book buyers, unlike newspaper subscribers, are still willing to pay for what they read. So the theory goes.

Of course, none of this solves the issue of comfort. It's just not very cozy climbing into bed with a good novel on your iPhone. Because of this, the only people I know who regularly consume digital books are my literary agent and friends who work in publishing.

But as with newspapers, this, too, will change. The only question now is who will profit and who will screw it up. In the meantime, I'll try to get used to reading Jane Austen on my iPhone.

 

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