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Where's the bookstore battle?

Although independent booksellers have yet to launch a superstore online, they have spearheaded a lobbying campaign to fight e-tail titans Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.

    Although independent booksellers have yet to launch a superstore online, they have spearheaded a lobbying campaign to fight e-tail titans Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.

    After two delays, the American Booksellers Association, a group of independent bookstores, planned to launch its BookSense.com Web site at the start of this month. But blaming technical problems, the ABA has delayed the launch of the site and does not expect to begin selling books through it until next year--missing this all-important holiday season.

    "I know that people are frustrated that they can't get up online the way they would like to be and be competing with Amazon," said ABA president Richard Howorth. "That was the promise of BookSense.com and remains the promise."

    In lieu of an e-commerce site, the ABA has launched a war of words against the "dot com" competition.

    The group has joined the e-Fairness coalition, which is pushing for online e-tailers to have to collect tax on all sales transactions. And a group of independent booksellers in California is pressing the state government to investigate its allegations that Amazon, Barnesandnoble.com and other e-tailers are avoiding taxes in the state.

    The independent booksellers are fighting over a booming segment of the book market. Forrester Research, for example, forecasts that online book sales will grow from $1.2 billion this year to $3.3 billion in 2004. That latter figure represents some 16 percent of the total book market.

    Jupiter Communications estimates that most online sales are being made at the expense of bookstore purchases. The losses are exacerbated because the book market has been stagnant in recent years.

    Amid this pressure on sales, Click or miss independent booksellers are bristling at what they see as unfair competition by the e-tailers. Customers of Amazon, Barnesandnoble.com and Borders.com do not pay sales tax on the goods they purchase except in states where these companies have a physical presence.

    Howorth said that many ABA member stores had expressed concern about the sales tax issue and pressed the organization to take a stand.

    The ABA's response was to join the e-Fairness coalition, which is pressing Congress to require remote sellers such as Amazon to collect sales tax on all their transactions. The e-Fairness coalition, along with state and local governments, have raised concerns that governments may have to cut services if online sales cut into their revenues.

    "We are all business people and don't like to be put in the position of seeming to advocate taxes," Howorth said. "But we are tied to community institutions, which are supported by tax revenues."

    Andy Ross, owner of Cody's Bookstore in Berkeley, Calif., has filed a complaint with the California Board of Equalization, asking them to investigate Amazon, Barnesandnoble.com and other e-tailers. Ross argues that whether through retail stores or through affiliate programs, the e-tailers have achieved physical presence in California and should be paying state sales taxes.

    "These are corporations that are taking advantage of the existing confusion and violating California law," Ross said.

    Although Ross said that sales at his two stores are up this year, he believes that the Internet is having a negative effect on independent booksellers, with customers coming in the door saying that they will buy books on Amazon--often because they don't have to pay the sales tax. But Ross said he is motivated by a concern for the community and not by competitive concerns.

    "This has nothing to do with sour grapes," Ross said. "The Internet sales tax exemption is bad policy. It's hurting states and communities. It's just bad, it's just wrong."

    Outside of lobbying, the independent booksellers' answer to Amazon and Barnesandnoble.com has been BookSense.com. The site plans to be an umbrella for independent booksellers. It calls for customers to order books online and collect them in their local stores.

    But the site has seen repeated delays. The site was supposed to launch in the fall but hasn't yet, largely because an outside contractor still is completing work on the site.

    "We don't have a definite delivery date for the site," said BookSense.com director Len Vlahos.