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LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles--At the American Booksellers Association's annual convention here, you can watch the Beatles' movie "A Hard Day's Night" on a computer screen, reading along with the script if desired. Or listen to Jack Kerouac read from his classic beatnik work "Dharma Bums," or hear Art Spiegelman discourse on his "Maus" and "Maus II" Holocaust books.

You could even help Bill Gates write his new book.

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Mr. Gates, the reclusive, fabulously wealthy founder of Microsoft, is writing his memoirs for Viking. So his publisher put in a computer at its booth, and passers-by were encouraged to give Mr. Gates any advice, ask any question.

"I'm sorry I can't be at the ABA personally," Mr. Gates' talking head says on the computer screen. "But you can communicate with me. I'm eager to hear your questions."

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You type in a question, and Mr. Gates' voice responds: "Thanks for your input. I will keep it in my mind while I write my book."

Tolstoy didn't exactly write "Anna Karenina" this way, but that's how Mr. Gates, a legendary figure in the computer world, is composing "Embracing the Future," which will be published this fall -- provided, perhaps, that he doesn't get a lot of respondents who urge him not to write it.

"Embracing the future" could be the theme of this convention as well. This annual gathering of publishers, booksellers (bookstores), distributors, authors and agents has seen a growth in computer-related products over the past few years. But this year they're ubiquitous.

In particular, CD-ROMs have been the talk of the convention, which began Friday and continues through today.

CD-ROMs are the magical little discs that, once inserted into a computer, allow the user to break away from the text to explore subthemes, or listen to music or watch video. Once you've spent five minutes checking out Voyager Press' CD-ROM of "A Hard Day's Night," holding a book by the covers seems positively quaint.

"People are just fascinated by what CD-ROMs can do," said Sheri Malman, sales director for Largely Literary Designs, the Chapel Hill, N.C., company that is bringing out "A Jack Kerouac Romnibus" in November. "You can really get to know a writer and his work. You've got the text, the audio and the video."

Most of the major publishers here, from Random House to Viking to Warner Books, had separate exhibits for their "interactive" divisions. And one company, Devine Multi-Media Publishing of St. Paul, Minn., is going for the grand slam. The titles in its LibraryLand children's series each include a videotape, an audio tape, a CD-ROM and, it should be noted, a book.

But if the 1994 ABA convention represents a stronger entry by the book business onto the Information Highway, there still have been plenty of the old-fashioned activities that have characterized it in the past.

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Publishers set up elaborate booths that tout their fall offerings. Bookstore representatives drop by to peruse catalogs, order books, or lobby to have a name author come to their store for a book-signing.

Talent scouts from radio and television shows wander through, lining up touring authors for "Geraldo!" or "The Today Show." Foreign publishers inquire about rights to newbooks. Representatives of TV and movie development companies, always looking for new material, inquire about the status of a forthcoming thriller.

It's a time for publishers to show off their talent as well. Random House brought in John Irving, whose "A Son of the Circus" will be released in the fall. Alfred A. Knopf, the prestigious literary publisher that in recent years has also sought more commercial authors, showed off horrormeister Dean Koontz. He autographed reader's copies of his new book "Dark River of the Heart."

Doubleday brought in Pat Conroy, the author of "The Prince of Tides," whose upcoming "Beach Music" is guaranteed to be a huge seller. That is, if he finishes it.

It seems that although Doubleday is promoting "Beach Music" as a December book, Mr. Conroy figures he's still got about 100 pages to go.

"After the convention, I've got to go right home [to San Francisco] and finish the book," Mr. Conroy said cheerfully. "And I know it will be the toughest part, because it will be about the death of my mother."

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But doesn't he feel a little under the gun?

"I guess I should," he conceded, "but Doubleday says they've got this new technology and they can just drop the ending right in."

At a frequently hilarious, sometimes moving breakfast with booksellers, Mr. Conroy reminisced about his now-famous dysfunctional family, which has provided much of the material for his fiction. "There were seven kids in my family and six miscarriages," Mr. Conroy told the crowd. "My sister used to say they were the lucky ones."

Another hit at the authors' breakfasts was the husband-and-wife team of Mary Matalin and James Carville, whose tale of dueling campaigns in the 1992 presidential race -- titled "All's Fair" -- is being jointly published by Random House and Simon & Schuster.

"Our publishers first touted our book as a Hepburn-Tracy tete-a- tete," Ms. Matalin said drily. "Now that they've seen it, they're calling it an Amy Fisher-Joey Buttafuoco face-off."

Besides real-life authors, there were a number of celebrities milling about with a book to push: two former first ladies, Rosalynn Carter and Barbara Bush; a South African leader (Desmond Tutu); and Hollywood types, such as Steve Allen, Kirk Douglas and Audrey Meadows.

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There was also the usual fluff to offset any outbreak of computer nerdism. Convention-goers quickly learned to ignore anyone walking around in goofy costumes, whether Madonna or Elvis look-alikes or members of the animal kingdom (whales, chickens, ducks, etc.).

Cheesecake is also an honored tradition at the ABA, and while there were no sightings of strippers, as there were a few years ago at a convention in New Orleans, there was still plenty of skin. Female body-builders autographed their poster; wearing skimpy tops and G-strings that looked more like shoestrings. Anna Nicole Smith, the impossibly buxom 1993 Playmate of the Year, caused a sensation when she arrived to autograph her calendar.

Steve Sandalis, the equally chesty "Topaz Man" who graces the covers of many paperback romances, posed for pictures with eager booksellers.

Still, amid the frivolity and publicity-seeking nonsense that is a staple of the ABA convention, there is no question that the 1994 gathering marks a time of transition. The rise of electronic publishing was the major indicator, but there were other signs -- coffee, for instance.

As any regular book buyer knows, bookstores increasingly have turned to opening coffee bars in an attempt to lure patrons. And so, at this convention, there were at least a half-dozen exhibitors hawking their exotic blends of coffee. Booksellers could even attend a seminar titled "A Cafe in Your Bookstore?"

Maybe even a book in a bookstore. Now there's a thought.


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