Book Publishers have noticed that the Internet, with 37 million users, has a circulation considerably larger than that of The New York Times Book Review. Book lovers have discovered troves of online information about what's hot in the bookstores, the secrets of contemporary authors and how to find almost any book ever written. Whether you are looking for the Central Source Yellow Pages (with 10 million telephone numbers) or the poems of Dorothy Parker, it's out there on the Internet. It may turn out that the supposed electronic threat to pages and print will become the best friend the reader ever had.
Obviously, that's what the creators of the Bantam-Doubleday-Dell Web page think. They offer catalogs of their newest books, itineraries for touring authors and news of the literary world in a lively, well-illustrated format. Here, readers can e-mail John Grisham, Pat Conroy, Sara Paretsky or Elmore Leonard. More significantly, Internet cruisers are invited to read excerpts from the latest bestsellers. The hope is that you will read enough to become hooked and buy the book. Of course, it's possible that a sample may be enough for you to sound knowledgeable over cocktails.
These new Internet sites can be fun. At the Random House site you can click on a map to the island in Michael Crichton's Lost World, and you will be taken to the appropriate section of the novel for a bit of the action. There is even a good reference section full of scientific sites about dinosaurs. You can pick up aphorisms from General Colin Powell and then read fuller explanations of the same ideas. Readers can sit in on an interview with Norman Mailer, listen to an audio of A.S. Byatt or find a useful guide to Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses for their book group.
Not every publisher is online yet, though more than 600 publishers are represented. HarperCollins features John Gray's continuing best-seller, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, as well as Newt Gingrich's diatribe To Renew America. Putnam Berkley has a colorful, dramatically produced site with sections for its major authors, such as Amy Tan, Dick Francis and Patricia Cornwell. Over at the Warner Books Home Page, you can discover sections for Robert James Waller (author of The Bridges of Madison County), Ed McBain (with excerpts from several of his 87th Precinct novels) and a seductive feature called Joan Elizabeth Lloyd Goes Wild (with highlights from her book Nice Couples Do). Penguin USA has enticing samples from its CD-ROMs, such as the Jack Kerouac ROMnibus and Leonard Maltin's electronic edition Movie & Video Guide 1996.
One of the earliest electronic publishers to develop innovative literary CD-Roms, Voyager, has a great Web site. Here you can sample from dozens of multimedia packages, such as the Beatles' Hard Day's Night, The Complete Maus, Macbeth and This Is Spinal Tap. You can listen to some of the original Mercury Theater productions with Orson Welles, or hear Garrison Keillor read from Walt Whitman. Browse through Voyager's musical criticism section, which is keyed to music CDs you can put in your own CD-Rom player. Or check out the latest issue of The Paris Review.
The corporate sites are only a small part of what is available. There are fan pages and discussion groups for almost every major author and form of reading. Most of them are designed and maintained by unpaid individuals. There are fan pages for Jane Austen, Edgar Rice Burroughs, David Eddings, Harlan Ellison, James Joyce, Dean Koontz, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Pynchon and Tom Robbins. (Henry Miller's home page opens with a wonderful photograph of the author grinning puckishly behind a nude woman.) Stephen King and Kerouac have many different sites devoted to their works. Anne Rice may even outrank Charles Dickens on the Net.
Areas of special interest, such as mysteries and crime fiction, have attracted international audiences. The Mysterious Home Page from Scandinavia is an exhaustive survey of Web sites about mysteries and mystery writers. The Magnifying Glass Mystery Newsletter carries news of mystery publishing as well as original stories. The place to explore the novels of Robert Parker is Of Bullets and Beer: The Spenser Page, where each novel in the Spenser series is lovingly analyzed and appreciated. There is even an online glossary of hard-boiled prose to help the uninitiated.
Most book-related Internet sites are supplementary, meaning they refer readers to the printed texts. But there are also more than 1800 electronic books you can download or read online. Most are classics in the public domain, such as D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, H.G. Wells' Time Machine, Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi and Thuvia, Maid of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. But you can also find recent books, such as Bruce Sterling's Hacker Crackdown, The Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project and Zen and the Art of the Internet. There are even books being written online, such as Delirium and Shadowlands.
Just because the Iliad and the works of Shakespeare are available online doesn't mean anyone would actually want to read them on a computer screen. But add in critical notes and audio and video dramatizations, and computer texts can be useful for students.
For readers who live far away from large libraries or metropolitan bookstores, the Net provides rich access to catalogs and virtual bookshelves that offer an enormous diversity of books. The Internet can take you into the stacks of the National Library of Estonia or the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Dozens of bookstores offer online catalogs, from Barnes & Noble to small specialized shops. Bookfinders International will eventually locate a copy of almost any title ever in print -- for a price.
An excellent starting point for literary Web explorers is the Bookwire site (http://www.bookwire.com/), which focuses on contemporary publishing. Here you will find the latest news of the book business, including detailed reports from major industry events such as the American Booksellers Association convention. This site also provides links to all of the publishers online and to 70 multimedia companies that create book-related interactive materials. Critiques of recent books from several book reviews may also be accessed.
Any discussion of literary Web sites, of course, would be incomplete without a mention of Playboy's Web site (www.playboy.com).
Is the Net a threat to books? Not yet -- but there's fascinating stuff to explore.