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Booksellers set up shop on Internet


If you're crawling the web, you've probably noticed. If you've looked at a book jacket or two recently, you've seen it, too: The World Wide Web is fast becoming a place for both publishers and bookstores to showcase their wares.

Just dial up your Internet server from a home or office computer and there you are, browsing virtual bookshelves. Fall titles and covers are displayed, plus you can get the price, check out a new catalog, order a book and have it shipped direct.

Publishers are even using book jackets to advertise their Web address. Log on and you can download a review, hear the author read a chapter or two from a new book, or see what else they have written. And, of course, you can check out what else that particular bookseller might be peddling.

The American Booksellers Association, which boasts 4,500 bookstores as members, has its own Web site, Bookweb. There, on-line browsers will find news and information about books, sellers and the book industry.

And from the Bookweb, shoppers can link -- by simply clicking onto a booksellers name or icon -- into an ABA member's home page. And, for cerebral book chatter, Putnam Berkley On-line features a "virtual cafe."

Although mainstream book sales currently are low in cyberspace, booksellers see the potential for promotion and eventual in-store purchases.

Borders, for example, has been testing a Web page created by a Dallas store employee. But Nancy Levi, who oversees data base marketing from the company's Ann Arbor headquarters, says it is selling about 10 books a month this way. "There's not a lot of selling going on the net," she says. "The primary purpose of the site now is information about Borders and Borders' products. In the long run, it's to sell books."

A key stumbling block to sales is that consumers don't feel safe transferring their credit card numbers by computer.

As an alternative, most vendors list a telephone and fax number for orders. And, of course, not everyone is on-line or even knows what a home page is (an electronic bulletin board).

Smaller, niche booksellers and mail-order shops have seen the biggest benefit from going on-line, where they can extend their reach to an international audience.

Scott Huffines, owner of Atomic Books in Baltimore, has struggled since opening his shop in 1992. When he put the Atomic catalog on the Web 18 months ago, he says his sales tripled. With a $125-a-month fee to his local Internet server, Mr. Huffines markets "fringe publications" like the "Anarchist Cookbook" and "Crackpot" by John Waters, to his generally young and computer-savvy clientele.

The Web, though, is reaching more than the hackers and slackers of the world.

Fifty-three-year-old Bette Feinstein of Newton, Mass., has been selling "Hard to Find Needlework Books" by mail order for 18 years. In April, she went digital, putting part of her catalog on-line.

"I have gotten calls from Singapore, the Philippines, France," Mrs. Feinstein says. "I'm delighted to ship them, it's not a problem."

Although sales are slow, she says the Web site does get people chattering about her books.

Both Mr. Huffines and Mrs. Feinstein say the possibility of competing directly on-line for sales with big publishing houses is a bit unnerving.

Publishers typically sell titles to bookstores for 40 percent to 60 .. percent off the cover price. By direct marketing books on-line, publishers increase their profits by eliminating the middle man and charging customers the full cover price.

But, like in the real world, competition between publishers and book stores on the net is not direct. That's because bookstores carry titles from many publishers for a specialized clientele, while a publisher sells only one list.

Bookstores generally are in favor of publishers at least advertising on-line. "Ultimately it will help me in my store by sending in customers," says Steve Baum, president of Greetings & Readings Bookstore in Towson. "I don't think people will buy books on the Web because shopping is still a social experience, you need the touch and feel."

Right now, publishers are focusing heavily on computer title sales. These are a natural on-line where there's a ready market. And, because the computer software industry changes so fast, publishers are selling supplementary materials that can be downloaded.

Mainstream titles have yet to approach their on-line potential. That, say publishers, is still in the future.

"There's not a lot of commerce [on-line] right now," concedes Dan Gold of Macmillian publishers' on-line division. "But in a few years, there will be. And as a retailer, you've got to figure out a way to be there, because if that's where people are, then that's where you have to be."

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