Top Stories from the Business pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Monday, December 4, 1995

Publishers Browse The Web for Readers

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - ''Of all the ways of acquiring books,'' Walter Benjamin wrote, ''writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method.'' On the other hand, the German literary critic never surfed the Internet.

A growing number of book publishers are discovering the Net, setting up Web pages, taking part in book discussion groups and doing their marketing electronically, offering readers another, possibly praiseworthy method of acquiring books.

''With the Web, we are not bound by the 'filter' of the review and news media to let readers know when a new book by their favorite author is being published,'' said Robert F. Welsch, who holds the title ''webmaster'' at Putnam Berkley Online Inc. ''Also, we are able to promote 'backlist' books at the same level as a new book.''

Putnam's site will be launched officially later this week, but the pages are already available for viewing at

Putnam considers the Internet a complement to the book-publishing industry, Mr. Welsch said, and that approach appears to be catching on around the world.

Editions Gallimard launched the first Web site by a major French publisher in October. Like the Putnam site, Gallimard's ( offers cover photos of recent titles, backlists and key ordering information.

This new showcase of books allows readers to browse an on-line ''bookstore,'' without ever leaving home. Many sites offer at least a blurb, and sometimes the first chapter of a book, to download for free for browsing. They also include electronic forms for ordering and payment. A compendium of such Web sites is available on-line at:

''We want to give the customer the chance to order books either directly from us, from their favorite bookseller or from any number of on-line bookstores,'' Mr. Welsch said.

While publishers are touting their wares, probably more promotion of books on the Net is done by readers themselves through discussion groups on specialized topics. Writers, readers, publishers and book professionals meet ''virtually'' to discuss the latest releases and classics, in what has become a modern-day version of the literary salon.

Literary agents are also starting to use the Internet to acquire books. ''I am always combing various news groups and forums for new talent,'' said William Clark of William Morris Agency Inc.

Mr. Clark ( also makes his address known to writers in a Web-site list of agents' addresses.

''I receive 10 to 15 queries via E-mail per day,'' said Mr. Clark, who prefers electronic to paper queries. ''I can press 'reply' and respond immediately, advising the writer to either send more material or continue their search for representation.''

While many of the large publishing houses use the Net simply to reproduce their paper-based promotions, some smaller companies are making more original uses of the medium.

Robert Wechsler, publisher of Catbird Press, set up the Ongoing Fiction Editing Project last year on the Online BookStore to open the editing process to the public.

Catbird put a manuscript on the Web for editing and allowed, as Mr. Wechsler put it, ''anyone with access to Internet to participate in the process by asking their own questions and making their own comments and suggestions.''

Catbird completed the editing of the book, but as for the Internet experiment, Mr. Wechsler said, ''The project was a failure in terms of promotion. Only a couple of books were sold, despite the discount offered. And there wasn't a single response to our little contest involving giving the novel a title.''

But the Internet may end up helping book publishers sell books by means outside their marketing efforts, according to a survey by Ken Friedman, a professor at the Norwegian School of Management in Oslo.

''Access to more and better sources of information creates a market for even more information,'' he said.

His survey, released Thursday, was conducted over the Internet. Sixty-five percent of respondents said they had bought at least as many books as they had before using on-line services, Mr. Friedman said, while 29 percent said they had increased purchases. The respondents were 162 faculty members at 136 institutions in 20 countries.

''The survey presents information on a group of people who already buy books at a higher rate than the average population and who also use Internet communication services at a higher rate,'' Mr. Friedman said.

''People learn more about the material that interests them,'' over the Net, he said.

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