Who says computers spell the end of the printed word? Bookworms will soon be browsing through the first on-line bookshop, writes Tim Jackson, while plans are afoot in Norfolk to set up a virtual library
Conventional wisdom has it that electronic media and books are in competition, and that on-line services, CD-roms and other ways of storing and distributing information in digital form are a threat to the old-fashioned hard-cover book.

The opening today of the Internet Book Shop (IBS) may help to overturn that prejudice. The new service, which claims to offer the widest selection of books available on the global network of computers, demonstrates that the traditional book trade and the new media can in fact go hand in hand. For customers, an on-line bookshop can be a quick and easy way of getting hold of books; for businesses, the Internet can bring in new customers from outside a normal retail catchment area.

One feature that may surprise visitors to an opening ceremony for the IBS - to be held this afternoon at the Cyberia Cafe in central London - is that it is not, in fact, a bookshop at all. Rather, it is a combination of catalogue and clearing house. It allows computer-owners who have the software needed to use the World Wide Web (http://www.bookshop.co. uk/) to look up any one of the 750,000 books listed by Whitakers by author, title or publisher.

They can also browse books by subject, or look at newly published thrillers or bestsellers. Once a book has been chosen, the IBS produces a list of bookshops and publishers offering it for sale, with details of the speed and cost of delivery for each vendor. Users can also ask to be sent electronic junk mail on books in their area of interest that come out in future.

Anyone who has ever tried to track down an obscure book will see the advantages immediately. Using the Web is a surer way to find books than calling publishers and bookshops. It is also quicker: for a regular user of the Web, finding and ordering a book can take only a minute.

But the system has drawbacks. Because of the risk that a credit card number sent by electronic mail might be discovered by a hacker, the IBS asks customers to register by phone before they buy anything. For the same reason, it forwards order details to bookshops and publishers not by e-mail, but by faxing them printouts at the end of each day. If the book is out of stock, therefore, it may be the next day or even the day after before the customer finds out.

Some of these inconveniences may disappear over the coming months and years. Once secure methods of encrypting e-mail messages become common, the IBS will be able to forward orders immediately to shops. And when bookshops can share information on their inventories by electronic data interchange, customers will be able to tell who has the book in stock when they make their orders.

It is unlikely to be until the demise of the Net Book Agreement, however, that anyone offers to deliver books for free. So those who want the latest Jeffrey Archer will still find it cheaper to nip around to the nearest branch of WH Smith.

These drawbacks have not stood in the way of the Internet Book Shop's success, however. The venture is the brainchild of Darryl Mattocks, a 30-year-old software consultant who wrote computer games when he was a teenager. Mr Mattocks hit on the idea early last year, when he was casting around for an Internet-related business to start. He had decided on on- line shopping; but his girlfriend, who was working for Blackwells, the Oxford-based publishing and bookselling group, persuaded him to concentrate on good coverage of a narrow range of goods rather than the opposite.

The IBS is by no means the only bookshop on the Internet; among its competitors is Future Fantasy, an American mail-order specialist that has been selling sci-fi and mysteries over the Web for a year. But Mattocks claims that his deal with Whitakers allows the Internet Book Shop to offer a wider range of titles than any of its competitors.

Financially, the service works very simply. The IBS receives a 5 per cent commission on the price of every book bought through its Web pages. But it also makes money in three other ways. Bookshops have to pay a £247 signing-on fee - although this may be waived temporarily if few prove willing to do so. Publishers can register more detailed information on their books, including colour pictures of the front cover and an entire sample chapter if they wish, for a fee of £3 per title.

And the IBS is even planning advertisements. Publishers who are particularly keen to promote a book can pay extra to place a line of text or a small picture on the IBS home page, which will transport readers at the click a mouse to a new page of advertising information. (Although it may sound implausible to those who have not used the Web, advertisement sites on frequently accessed Web pages are accepted as a valuable commodity in the United States.)

The business began six months ago on a shoestring, when Mr Mattocks rented some space on a Demon Internet computer. Now it is on a grander scale; the IBS has its own high-specification computers, and an expensive leased line to allow thousands of customers at once to access its Web page. Funding for future growth has been made easier by an investment of several hundred thousand pounds by Julian Blackwell, chairman of the Oxfordshire group, for half the firm's equity.

So far, about 1,000 potential customers are browsing the bookshop's Web pages every week, though only 20 or so actually buy a book. But Mr Mattocks has high hopes of covering his costs in his second year of operation, and he draws comfort from almost universal predictions of continued growth in use of the Web.

Only one cloud looms on the horizon. Although there may be no conflict between electronic and traditional media in principle, the practice is a little different. So far, users of the Internet are split between academics, who tend to be heavy book buyers, and nerds, who prefer computer games to poetry and programming languages to Russian novels. The future success of the Internet Book Shop may depend on the preservation of this delicate balance.