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Wednesday, August 4, 1999 Published at 17:34 GMT 18:34 UK


New chapter for online bookstores

Internet retailers are fighting fiercely for market share

The fight for market share between online bookstores have been stepped up a gear with books being given away free.

Net-based UK book retailer,, handed out 20,000 books during a "happy hour" between 1530 and 1730 BST. However, the stunt was troubled by the difficulty of accessing the site.

From 1530 onwards, the majority of attempts to post the form claiming the free book failed. Even though the site had its own dedicated server and technical support team it was at times overwhelmed.

Doubly oversubscribed

Spokesperson Steven Blackburn told BBC News Online that were "stunned" by the number of hits they received. Over 40,000 people filled in the form. The last of the 20,000 books was claimed in the final 30 minutes.

[ image: Only two percent of books are currently sold online]
Only two percent of books are currently sold online
The give-away is the latest move by in a tit-for-tat war with Amazon - despite the fact that neither company is yet making money. It cost in the region of £100,000.

Online book sales currently make up less than two percent of the UK book market, but by 2003 the sector is expected to be profitable with a market share of at least 10 to 20%, according to analyst Graham Wrigley of Schroder Ventures.

"In the early days it's all about market share," he told News Online. "The more money goes in, the more peoples' behaviour will change and accelerate the use of online retailing."

Best sellers

The first 20,000 visitors to's site during Wednesday's promotion chose one of five bestsellers:

  • The Tesseract by Alex Garland
  • Rogue Trader by Nick Leeson
  • Driving Over Lemons by Chris Stewart
  • Rat Pack Confidential by Shawn Levy
  • Charlotte's Web by E.B. White.

"It's important to make profits, but the first thing is to build up a customer base," Mr Blackburn, told BBC News Online.

"We don't expect to make money in the short to medium term," he said. "We're looking to be profitable in the next couple of years."

No gloating

Rivals Amazon did not want to gloat over the Net congestion experienced by those trying for a free book, but said "Fulfilment is the key to good customer service."

They also said the move by was good for customers. "There are exciting times ahead for consumers", said Amazon spokesperson Judith Catton.

"And who knows how far we're prepared to go!"

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