Battle of the Bookstores

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By Andrew Morse
Staff Reporter

Slay those myths.

The Internet, like television before it, will kill the printed word. At least that's what the new-media pundits have been saying. After all, with music, sounds, graphics, pictures -- both moving and still -- as well as plain ol' text, the Internet was going to crush attention spans like the

NBA

slammed the

New York Knicks'

championship prospects when it suspended all their key players. No one will make it through a book, far too long. Might as well just torch 'em.

Well, put away the matches, Sparky. If the stock market is a referendum on expectations, it's telling us the Internet's first truly viable company is going to be selling the oldest of the old media (if you don't count stone tablets) -- books.

Amazon.com

(AMZN:Nasdaq), the self-proclaimed largest bookstore in the world, rocketed on its first day of trading. And why not? Only a couple of years old and the company is already logging sales of $16 million to readers in more than 100 countries last year alone. Not bad by the benchmark of most start-ups.

Success, of course, breeds, imitation. So it's no surprise competition has cropped up in the form of an assault from

Barnes & Noble

(BKS) - Get Report

. The mall-lurking megastore claims to be the world's largest online bookseller. (Since Amazon.com is only available on the Internet, one of them has to be lying.)

In an effort to help potential consumers (think about

Hamlet

on the Net: "Whether 'tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous server failures") to review the relative merits of the two companies, we offer a comparison of both sites.

Bookstores are for ideas. The more titles available, the more concepts a reader has access to. By that measure, Amazon.com is the hands-down champion, claiming to have access to 1.5 million books still in print and a million titles publishers have decided to discontinue. Barnes & Noble, by comparison, has a paltry 400,000 titles in stock and keeps tabs on another 600,000.

Of course, access to ideas is only one of many functions a bookstore provides. After all, if all you do is read, you're merely a consumer of ideas. Good bookstores offer an opportunity for the informed, the outspoken, even the misguided to proffer their opinions on the weighty issues of the day. The Net, with interactivity as its hallmark, is a perfect forum for such give and take.

Both Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble offer consumers the opportunity to weigh in on the tomes they've scoured. Amazon allows readers to comment on specific titles. Look at a synopsis of a book, and you'll find reviews from other literature aficionados. The Barnes & Noble site takes the process several steps further. Books buffs can comment on the works of an individual author, offer their insight on a genre, make useful suggestions concerning the world of publishing, as well as a host of other topics. And unlike the Amazon.com site, Barnes & Noble encourages dialogue, the healthy thrust and parry of informed intellectuals honing their rapier-like wits. They also offer

Dilbert

cartoons.

Enough about the reader. What about the writer, who wrestles with personal demons, duels with writer's block and dares RSI? Amazon.com queries writers and then transcribes the interviews. The results, like old-media interviews, are good as far as they go. Barnes & Noble takes the process the next logical step, offering forums with the authors. Upcoming participants: American Bandstander

Dick Clark

and

Dilbert

creator Scott Adams. (They just love that guy.)

Down to the brass tacks, how do the two sites size up on the most important consideration -- price? Barnes & Noble sells in-stock hardcovers at a 30% discount and paperbacks at a 20% discount. Amazon.com sells 400 of its most popular titles at a 40% discount. The rest appear to go at a 10% discount.

By the way, plenty of other vendors use the Internet, fast becoming an online catalog store, to hawk books. Some even make the same claims to titanic size, though we're not sure what measure any of them are using.

Among them: U.K.-based

Internet Book Shop

. And like its American brethren, the U.K.-based company offers all the standard features for a cyberseller of such allegedly gargantuan size. The site also links to a sister entity,

Internet Music & Video Shop

, which makes the more modest claim of being Europe's largest music and video seller.

There are plenty of other booksellers online. Links can be found at

Bookwire

. Some of the sites even don't stake size-related claims.

Now if only we could do something about the Knicks.