Readers in bygone days might have described me as a cad and a bounder. My misdemeanour – having fallen out of love, I have decided to reveal all. My infatuation was not with a person but with what I saw as an altruistic ideal. Discovering otherwise came as a horrible surprise and while we remain good friends, the romance, perhaps more realistically an episode of unrequited love, is over and needs explanation.

The affair, which was with the French company ‘shortédition’, started last June at the beginning of my summer in Brittany. In London, my French lessons are with Thierry; in France they are with Marie, who delights in presenting new challenges. At the end of my first lesson she gave me three rolls of paper, on each was printed a short story to be read for homework. Over the summer I would be getting three more each week which would make around fifty by October and my return to London. With a twinkle, she added that, were I French, reading the shortest story would take me one minute; the longest five minutes and the middle one, three.

The stories were printed on scrolls of narrow paper similar to the receipts at supermarket check outs. Marie’s supply of stories came free from the railway station at Quimper. There, a dispenser in the form of a metre-high, orange-topped bollard, prints out stories at the press of any one of three buttons; appropriately labelled 1min, 3min and 5min.

Stories varied enormously; some were historical, some biographical, some more akin to children’s tales, some whodunits, some unclear, some profound, some touching and so on. One in particular, a poem telling of the last wishes of a dying man, still haunts me. Each story took me around five times longer to read than the time designated – clearly I still have some way to go!

The pleasure of reading the stories was enhanced by my discovery that the project was based on altruism. My investigation on the web had revealed an idea of genius. ‘Shortédition’ was launched in Grenoble in 2011. With the help of start-up funds, four entrepreneurs ‘passionate about literature and technology’ devised a scheme to provide the public with stories free of charge. The group was bent on ‘saving the art of reading’, of ‘opening up literature to everybody’, of ‘converting dead time to reading time’, and all for free. In its first seven years the company had established around 150 bollards, most of them are in France and placed in sites such as railway stations, public libraries and universities.

The technology is clever – through the internet the Grenoble headquarters loads each distributor with a bank of 500-1000 stories and, from these, stories are randomly selected and then printed at the press of the relevant button. In all, the company has a collection of  75,000 vetted stories ready for distribution. The stories stored in the bollards are regularly changed with updates sometimes having a particular theme – in December, it was Christmas.

The discovery of such an altruistic and ingenious charity was thrilling. Imagine, in modern-day France there was a group of philanthropic donors willing to spend their money simply to promote reading. That was the dream I fell for, but then came a rude awakening.

When I was preparing this blog, with plans to extol the wonders of the shortédition project, I realised that I needed to know more than the picture painted on their website. Of particular importance were the underlying technology and the financial arrangements. Three phone calls later the story became clear.

The company told me how it is responsible for installing the bollards and for the maintenance of its internal workings and content. External maintenance of the site and the provision of electricity etc. is the responsibility of the site’s owner, who rents its bollard from Shortédition for the sum 350-460€ per month. Then came a crucial statement; a senior member of staff told me with some pride that “this year, for the first time, the company is set to make money”. There it was; while shortédition was a new kind of publishing house, the profit motive had always been part of its portfolio. With this revelation, the altruistic ideal that their website had helped me weave, collapsed.

Providing short stories on demand for those waiting for a train or dreaming at a library (or studying French), is ingenious and has given me enormous pleasure. However, in keeping with any publishing house, the primary motive of this provider is profit rather than altruism – with literature an ingenious, not to say cynical, means to an end. I felt tricked and with that my infatuation dimmed.

I worry that in telling my story and loading all the blame on shortédition, I am being disingenuous. But isn’t that what cads and bounders traditionally do?

14 thoughts on “Short Changed

  1. Dear Joe,

    Having had the pleasure of reading the short story at the Quimper train station I was very interested in your story, but now I am curious! The stories don’t seem to promote products, so I’m baffled as to how the owners make a profit!

    Your puzzled friend



    1. Dear Robin, Others have contacted me asking the same question. At the bottom of each story is, printed in large format, the logo of the SNCF followed by a message. One such message reads ‘Quimper station offers you stories to read … without waiting’. In this way the printed stories give an opportunity for the renter to display its name just as companies often. do when placing an abridged advertisement. Moreover, here the publicity is immediately linked with an admirable cause, not a bad link when the SNCF often attracts bad publicity. Being able to claim that it is involved in good causes generally will also help the SNCF cause. Finally, I imagine that the SNCF can claim tax rebates for expenditure on good causes. Well, this is how I account for the SNCF renting the bollards. Yours, Joe


    1. Dear Dianne, Thankyou for your note. There is something very satisfying about putting in place the last piece of a puzzle. After weeks of trying to understand the finincial arrangements underpinnng shortedition, discovering the profit motive gave me the same sort of feeling as placing the last piece. For me it was not a chortle, more a feeling of ‘mission accomplished’. Yours, Joe


  2. Bonsoir Joe
    Je viens de lire, dans une traduction Google ( !!!) le récit de ta déconvenue avec Short édition. Il est évident que je partage ta déception et que je vais boycotter les bornes sncf de Quimper et de la gare du Nord à Paris.
    Un seul problème subsiste. Quel défi vais-je te trouver lors de ton prochain séjour en Bretagne ?


  3. Dear Joe,
    I have just read one of your earlier blogs “A case of nostalgia”. My grandfather was also called Paul Ritcher and I had an aunt, Patience Collier, did you have an uncle Geoffrey?


    1. Dear Geoffritcher, How extraordinary! I did have a grandfather called Paul Ritcher, whose initials PR were on the case referred to in ‘A Case of Nostalgia’, What’s more, your face looks a bit like the face in his portrait that used to hang in our dining room as a child. And, my mother was Patience Collier and my uncle, her brother, was called Geoffrey. Does this make us cousins? Please tell me more. Yours, Joe


  4. I think that we are indeed cousins. Geoffrey was my father and Patience was my famous aunt. This is extremely exciting. Did you know Geoffrey? I would love to know more. I shall send my email details and perhaps we can catch up in more detail, do you live in the UK?


  5. Dear Joe. Not a cad or a bounder but praps a bit narrow minded. It still does all the things you admire. If it does not make a profit it will close I would think. If you opposed all the things which made a profit your choices would be very narrow? Ian


    1. Dear Ian, The thrust of my article recounts my disappointment when a dream of my making collapsed. Of course, the profit motive is standard and, in this day and age, ever present, but we don’t expect The Red Cross, Médecines sans Frontière or the Royal National Institute for the Blind, for example, to be making a profit. They, as I had hoped was the case for ‘shortedtion’, run on donor altruism. Does having my dream make me narrow minded? All the best. Joe


  6. I am a bit puzzled by your reaction, or expectation. I see charities like the Red Cross as being for people in need. You can afford to buy books and stories, so why should you get them for nothing, No free lunch remember! On the other hand, organisations like ‘public’ schools in England have charitable status, which doesn’t seem right. It’s all mixed. I see nothing wrong with someone wanting to make a business out of supplying stories. They’ve chosen a business model that means someone else is paying for it. rather than the end user. But I think it says something (complimentary) about the French. Can you imagine anyone attempting something similar here?


    1. Dear Andrea, My position arose because, as I say, the system was portrayed as a project to get people reading again. In fact it was designed, ultimately, to make money. It was my disappointment at learning of the cynical use of stories for profit that upset me. Yours, Joe


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.