Thursday, February 26, 2009


Yesterday, Chapters & Indigo Books, Canada's largest bookseller, launched a new service called "Shortcovers" an eBook delivery system designed to rival Amazon's Kindle reader by transmitting books, magazines, blogs, poems, speeches and even (God, help us) Fan fiction to your iPhone, Blackberry and other electronic devices.

No word yet on whether the CRTC will regulate the amount of Canadian content available for download or if that wide access to Fan Fiction finally made DMc's head asplode.

Like a lot of new media technology, Shortcovers is pretty stunning stuff. I create an account and from there on, with the simple push of a button, the book I used to have to drive around looking for is on my iTouch, ready to be consumed -- and usually at a fraction of the price of the hardcover version.

The service includes a lot of added perks like the chance to read sample chapters of the book you're interested in buying for free and recommendations for or samples from other material related to the title you're already reading.

What the Shortcovers website, Chapters and the glowing reviews in most of today's papers don't tell you, however, is that there's a dark side to this technology. A lot of the writers you're accessing on Shortcovers won't be benefiting from the money it makes from selling their work to you.

A year ago, television writers, members of the WGA (like myself) fought the major media conglomerates for a fair share of the money they were making by distributing our work online. The arguments the networks and studios made were all the things they said when the last new delivery format arrived, "We don't know if people will want this." "Nobody really knows if there's any money here." and "Give us a free ride until it catches on."

We knew they were lying and the immediate explosion in new media profits that followed the new contract made it clear that so did they.

But now that same argument is being used by Canadian publishers negotiating eBook rates with Canadian writers.

Chapters began planning Shortcovers about a year ago and simultaneously Canadian authors got calls from their publishers. Although the costs of creating an eBook are a fraction of the normal expenses for publishing a novel -- no paper, no printing, no warehousing, no shipping or stocking -- many of those writers were told that the costs were "comparable" and what's more "Nobody is sure there's any money to be made in the first place".

Canadian writers, long familiar with a system that has never seemed able to fully reward them for their intellectual property, and being eternally hopeful types eager to help out their (usually Government subsidized) publisher if it might bring that day a little closer -- agreed to terms that gave them a small percentage of the new earnings. Many were even pressured to hand their electronic rights over for free.

What these writers weren't told was that the publishing industry had lots of data showing that eBooks were a massive source of new revenue.

In the United States, in a market primary serving the then still problematic Amazon Kindle, eBook sales had doubled from $8 to 16 Million during 2008. In some Asian countries, 300% increases in book sales were now coming from eBook downloads to cell phones alone.

Indeed, an entire new art form called keitai shosetsu has emerged in Japan. These are novels written specifically for and often on cellular phones. One website that specializes in them is visited 3.5 Billion times -- per month.

Three and a half Billion visits per month!!! I know at least one blogger who read that and just came in his pants. I could hear it from here...

But Canadian publishers -- they weren't really sure there was any money to be made.

And once again, Canadian creatives, those supplying the raw material the publishing industry (and Chapters) rely on for their own corporate livelihoods, are getting it in the shorts from Shortcovers.

This is more than a familiar story for anybody writing for Canadian movies or television (industries also receiving substantial government funding). And we're not alone in finally having had enough of being screwed around by people who go to the public trough with their "I support culture" pin prominently displayed, while sharing so little of the largess they receive with the artists they pretend to support.

But Canadian novelists, magazine writers and those who will otherwise be available on Shortcovers, still have a chance to receive their rightful share of this new revenue stream. Sarah Sheard, published novelist, former editor and currently the chair of the Contracts Committee of The Writers’ Union has started a blog to inform writers of their rights in this new media and how to negotiate a fair return for their work.

If you're a Canadian Writer whose material may be destined for Shortcovers, check out Ms. heard's blog before you sign anything.

And if you're thinking of buying something from the site, you might want to ask Chapters if the author is receiving what he rightfully deserves for the work.

And maybe all of us should start asking our MPs how come so much of our tax money never gets to the people we're told we're assisting, but instead gets eaten up along the way by those who exercise the term "exploit" in its less palatable form.

We really have arrived at a place in time where the distribution systems we have in place no longer serve the purposes for which they were created and it's almost easier for artists to deal directly with their audiences. What's the point in continuing to throw public money at publishers, TV networks and the like if their top-heavy structures and outmoded technologies under serve both the creator of a product and its end users?

Let's move on, people. It's a whole new world where no writer and no reader needs to be short-changed anymore.


Trevor B. Cunningham said...

What a helpful and timely post! I have sold a short story ( will post more about it down the road) and have been investigating the publishing world and the new tech and opportunties, including self-publishing.

One can see how this is related to the film and TV world. The world is changing and it's no longer a pyramid that benefits those who are falling behind but are determined to prostate themselves at the top.

Bricks and mortar institutions are slowly (but surely) dying and they know it. That's why Publishers, Broadcasters and Distributors continue to give creators a skillful handjob about recouping payment.

Thanks again for the info.

wcdixon said...

Hear hear...yes, thanks for the heads up and timely info.

And for the record, I came in my hands...just saying.

mhp said...

"And once again, Canadian creatives, those supplying the raw material the publishing industry (and Chapters) rely on for their own corporate livelihoods, are getting it in the shorts from Shortcovers."

Actually, authors can skip the publishers altogether and publish directly to Shortcovers, taking a 70% cut of revenue with them instead of the tiny fraction the publishers pass along.

Anonymous said...

If you post your content directly to Shortcovers, they will pay you 70% of the sales price. Skip the middle man.

jimhenshaw said...

You're correct about the 70% share, "Anonymous" and "mhp". Unfortunately that option wasn't relayed to most of the authors and isn't available to those who have already assigned e-publishing rights to their imprint.

deborah Nathan said...

Would the time be right for creatives in this country to launch their own e-site? I am aware of writers in Asia who have done this for graphic novels and comics and are making money. For some, it has also launched their novels into mobisodes - making direct deals with the providers for original material over cell phones. Are we there yet? Just asking as I'm a dinosaur and Luddite.

jimhenshaw said...

Watch this space, Deb! More news on exactly this in the coming weeks.