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Booksellers seek higher net profits by boosting their sales on Internet

SHARE Booksellers seek higher net profits by boosting their sales on Internet

The book business online is getting crowded, with huge national chains setting up shop as independent booksellers struggle to compete. Not that it's a big moneymaker - yet.

Amazon.com of Seattle cornered the online market two years ago when it started selling books through the computer. It wasn't too long before smaller, independent bookstores like Powell's in Portland, Ore., put up their own Web sites.Then came Book Stacks Unlimited, known online as books.com, which started a war by knocking 40 percent off the prices of best sellers of The New York Times. Ex-press-books.com of Granada Hills, Calif., matched that discount and offered 33 percent off all other hardbacks and 22 percent off paperbacks.

This month, Barnes & Noble waded in with a one-two punch. It sued Amazon over its claim to be the largest online bookseller, then launched its own Web site the next day.

If that weren't enough, another industry giant, Borders Books, plans to go online within the next year.

Not that anyone's making money in cyberspace yet.

Despite a showy public stock offering two weeks ago, Amazon spent about $20 million last year to sell $15 million worth of books, said Bill Bass, a senior analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.

"Barnes & Noble is a $2.4 billion bookseller. The biggest Internet book-selling site is a gnat compared to them or to Borders," said Bass.

While online booksellers are clamoring for market share, there are many benefits for customers willing to shop over the Internet. Price is a major advantage of buying online, with booksellers often offering cheaper rates despite shipping costs.

"If you don't want to pay for the fireplace and the Starbucks' Barnes & Noble blend coffee, you can get books for 40 percent off. But you don't get to touch the books and you don't get the comfy chair," said Jamey Bennett of BookWire, a New York-based publishing industry Web site.

Online book selling provides a wider selection to the reader, something that many feared was lost as the chains tend to concentrate on best sellers. It is also giving publishers large and small a way to reach readers directly.

Take China Books, a small, family-owned publisher based in San Francisco. Its advertising budget is minuscule. The Web helps customers find China Books - even though they didn't know the company or its books existed.

"If you type in China and tea, or even tea, our book `All the Tea in China' shows up," said sales manager Greg Jones. "Customers would never see it in their local bookstore, but when they find it online, they buy it."