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Will indy booksellers beat the book chains?

As book-selling chains prepare to open shop online, a small company is getting ready to launch a service that may help independent bookstores compete in cyberspace.

As book-selling behemoths such as Barnes and Noble and Borders prepare to open shop online, a small company is getting ready to launch a service in October that may help independent bookstores compete in cyberspace.

On October 1, BookSite will introduce Nautilus, a service and software package that contains all of the back-end electronic commerce software necessary to sell books online.

Far from being the death knell of print, the Internet and online services have provided small companies a new venue for selling books. Pioneering booksellers such as Amazon.com have already established a significant presence on the Net, but smaller companies have been prohibited from selling books online by high start-up costs. The inevitable entry of chain bookstores such as Barnes and Noble on to the Net will make it even more difficult for small companies to compete, just like in the real world, according to BookSite President Dick Harte.

Although Harte's service won't buy a bookseller the name recognition of a chain store, he said Nautilus dramatically reduces start-up costs and time to market for doing electronic commerce over the Net. While independent development efforts might cost a bookstore $200,000 and 12 months in development time, Harte said Nautilus will allow a bookstore to set up shop in a week for a one-time fee of $2,500, plus $1,000 a month and 2 percent of book sales over $20,000.

With Nautilus, bookstores will design their own Web sites, but will link into BookSite's back-end electronic commerce applications, which includes a national database of books and a "shopping cart" for collecting a user's online purchases. Nautilus subscribers will also receive a CD-ROM with custom applications for tracking customer service, accounting data, and order fulfillment.

"The Internet gives the independents an opportunity to compete on a level playing field with the chains that the physical environment doesn't provide," said Harte.

Harte added his company has stress-tested the commerce applications on its own online site although applications were originally developed for Harte's real-world bookstore, called Rutherford's, Delaware, Ohio.

"Most of these processes were developed before we went on the Internet," said Harte. "We've been doing this now for two years."