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Online Rivals Force Bestseller Prices Down

May 19, 1999|PAUL D. COLFORD | NEWSDAY

The climate for book buyers turned balmier this week, as the three leading online booksellers further slashed what they charge for New York Times bestsellers to half the list price.

Been wanting to treat yourself to Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster's "The Century" (Doubleday), but hung up on the cost? The coffee-table history lesson is yours now for $30 (plus shipping costs).

Amazon.com was first on Monday to mark bestsellers down to 50% (from an original discount of 40% or less). It was followed the same day by Barnesandnoble.com and Borders.com, the online extensions of the Barnes & Noble and Borders Group bookstore chains. (One noteworthy detail is that the price cut that Barnes & Noble and Borders now offer online is steeper than the 30% discount the two chains will keep in place on bestsellers at their mall outlets and superstores.)

Sure, the price war is big news, especially as the growth of e-commerce and the dizzying number of business alliances in cyberspace command an increasing amount of media attention. But how big is online bookselling anyway?

A new study indicates that the number of adult books sold by online stores rose dramatically last year but still represents a tiny piece of overall sales--1.9% of all books purchased.

Still, that's a bright spot. Overall, the number of adult books sold declined 3% in 1998, to nearly 1.04 billion, according to the study prepared by NPD Group Inc., a market-research organization, for the American Booksellers Assn. and the Book Industry Study Group. This was the first drop detected by NPD Group since it started gathering information on book buying in 1990.

The evidence suggests to some industry observers that online bookselling by Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble and dozens of smaller Internet concerns has not necessarily expanded the market for books or cannibalized sales from traditional stores.

"Online bookselling is an important element, but it has not revolutionized the industry," said Robert E. Baensch, director of New York University's Center for Publishing and a director of the Book Industry Study Group.

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Bob Woodward's Latest: Bob Woodward, an assistant managing editor and investigative reporter with the Washington Post, typically writes the kind of hardcovers with revelations that make news as copies go on sale. His next book, "Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate," which is scheduled for release next month, may be no exception.

Simon & Schuster says the book draws on fresh interviews with insiders from each of the past five administrations. It "takes the reader behind the scenes and offers an unsettling examination of these five presidents under pressure--often of their own making." The book shows "how Watergate has changed the presidency."

An excerpt from the book will run in the Washington Post on June 13. Copies will go on sale two days later.

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Ted Kennedy's Biographers: Spotted in William Morrow's fall catalog: a new biography of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

The author of the book, scheduled for November publication, is Adam Clymer, Washington editor of the New York Times, who obtained interviews with Kennedy and members of his inner circle.

Which reminds us of perhaps the best-remembered bio of Kennedy--Joe McGinniss' "The Last Brother." The unflattering book stirred heaps of controversy six years ago because, among other things, the author attributed thoughts to people whom he had not interviewed.

McGinniss later went to Italy. Next month, Little, Brown will publish "The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro," McGinniss' account of a small Abruzzi town's soccer team and its rise from the bottom to the top of its game.

Publishers Weekly recently gave the book a rare starred review, praising it for capturing the tension and fanaticism of the sport.

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Targeting Women Over 35: If the June issue of your favorite Conde Nast magazine feels heavier than usual when it comes in the mail, the added weight will appear in the form of Persona. The latter is an extra magazine on finance and technology being bagged with Vogue, the New Yorker (an issue at month's end) and other company magazines and sent to more than 1 million women subscribers who are 35 and older. Persona is a one-shot vehicle, a so-called "onsert," designed by Conde Nast Publications to serve tech and financial advertisers.

Paul Colford's e-mail address is paul.colford@)newsday.com

For more reviews, read Book Review

* This Sunday: David Rieff on Thomas Friedman's "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," Benjamin R. Barber on the Information Age, John Gray on Russell Jacoby's "The End of Utopia," and Kenneth Silverman on "The Victorian Internet."

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