When

Amazon.com

(AMZN) - Get Report

went public in May 1997, it was the only online bookseller around. It took two years before main rival

barnesandnoble.com

(BNBN)

finally dipped its toes into the public markets this past May.

Today it's different. Every online sector is swarming with me-too companies. Which means few of them can win enough of a market share to make their optimistic revenue projections possible.

HotJobs.com

(HOTJ)

, a job-hunting site, came out of the gate Tuesday to lukewarm reception and closed at 7 5/8, down from its offering price of 8.

Go ahead and blame the market's general disenchantment with Net IPOs. "A lot of the offerings are becoming somewhat hackneyed," says

Renaissance Capital

analyst Randall Roth. But the online jobs market is getting saturated and few among the new crop can stand out. HotJobs followed the April IPO of

topjobs.net

(TJOB)

and

CareerBuilder

's

(CBDR)

May debut. And it's not the last one. This month expect to see an offering by

Headhunter.net

. And of course, there is

Monster.com

, owned by

TMP Worldwide

(TMPW)

.

"It's like a land grab," says

internet.com

(INTM)

analyst Tom Taulli. "That's why all these companies are trying to get to the markets and build their position quickly."

HotJobs.com CEO Richard Johnson is just grateful that he made it out of the door despite dismal market conditions. "We got out and it's back to business instead of having to spend the next three months wondering how we're going to raise money," he says.

Now HotJobs.com has the cash to start advertising, build a brand and perhaps earn a profit -- in other words, it's ready to take on the competition.

"Before

the Internet, there were real competitive barriers to entry," says Michael J. Wolf, senior partner with

Booz Allen & Hamilton

. "But in the Internet there are no walls."

This is the downside of having no walls. The employment category isn't the only one bursting with players. Health-related sites, Web grocers, auctions, car sellers, downloadable music and family or female interests are all niches with too many player and not enough leaders.

Now that the market has turned sour, companies are finding that getting on the Net is easier than going public.

Women.com

, the much-hyped network poised to take on

iVillage

(IVIL)

, postponed its offering indefinitely due to market conditions, despite strong backing from media powerhouses

Hearst

and

Rodale

, plus an impressive list of relationships --

AOL

(AOL)

,

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

and

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

.

"Too many people are judging this by the success of their IPOs," says Booz Allen's Wolf. "But being first doesn't always mean that you win." Just look at how

CDNow

(CDNW)

and

N2K

burst out of the gate. Even though both raised tons of cash, they lost market share to Amazon.com when it began offering music CDs online. Eventually, CDNow bought N2K, but it still lags Amazon.

Among online grocers,

Webvan

, which is backed by

Borders Books

(BGP)

founder Louis Borders, recently unveiled a $1 billion deal to construct automated warehouses in 26 U.S. regions. It's a hugely anticipated IPO; top competitor

Peapod

(PPOD)

has been public for two years, but analysts expect Webvan to become the leader.

For some sectors, like infrastructure and business-to-business, the competition is just starting to heat up.

Juniper Networks

(JNPR) - Get Report

, a company that makes high-speed routers and could challenge

Cisco

(CSCO) - Get Report

, had a successful IPO in June. Also entering the fray in June was

Ariba

(ARBA)

, a manager of e-commerce transactions.

Gadzoox

(ZOOX)

, which makes storage hardware, debuted in July. But the categories are quickly filling up: Three companies,

Cerent

, which provides fiber-optic technology, and

Breakaway Solutions

and

NaviSite

, which both provide e-commerce software, recently filed to go public.

In the end, it may not be a matter of winning. These days, it seems a start-up just needs to raise enough cash to sustain it until it's bought up by a bigger company.

In 1996, four portal or search companies --

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

,

Excite

,

Infoseek

(SEEK)

,

Lycos

(LCOS)

came out to duke it out, as

America Online

(AOL)

kept an eye from the sidelines.

Today, Excite is now part of

Excite@Home

(ATHM) - Get Report

, Lycos is seeking buyers and Infoseek has been absorbed into the

Disney

(DIS) - Get Report

kingdom.

Glover Ferguson, co-director of

Andersen Consulting's

global e-commerce practice, likens it to a party. "Two people can throw a party where they're serving the same hors d'oeuvres, but what's the difference? It's going to be fascinating to see who masters the art of party-giving."