With the zeal of small publishers, large houses are marketing on the Web as never before.

This fall, Warner Books' catalogue looked a little different from catalogues of seasons past. Alongside the blurbs, the jacket photos and the author bios sat small yet noticeable type, not dissimilar to the movement it represented: "Web Marketing," read the copy, hinting at author chats and cyber-placements.

Greg Voynow, the new director of online marketing at Time-Warner Electronic Publishing, understood its importance. "I think it reflected the mindset that is beginning to infiltrate this company," he says. "The Internet is an efficient way to get the word out about books."

As 1999 begins, online marketing has arrived at most medium-size and large trade publishers, who have, until recently, lagged behind micropublishers and self-published authors in this department. When small publishers discovered the Web (some as long ago as 1995, an eternity in cyber-years), large houses were either cautiously waiting to gauge the Net's value, shrugging it off as so much geek-inspired hysteria, or both. (The Putnam half of Penguin-Putnam installed company-wide e-mail only this past summer, nearly two years after self-published author Jim Donovan marketed and sold 75,000 copies of his Handbook to a Happier Life primarily through the Net.)

Today, a different picture has emerged. Online-marketing departments are growing, jazzy author sites are proliferating, links are flourishing and direct-marketing to newsgroups has become de rigueur. "I felt a switch this past summer where it became very important to have a Web component for the books on the fall lists," says Fauzia Burke, a freelance designer of author Web sites, with such clients as Grove/Atlantic and Farrar, Straus &Giroux. "This summer, it became a matter of `No question about it.' "

But in removing one question, publishers have unwittingly posed dozens of others. What to post on a Web site? How to bring people to a site, and how to keep them there? What is the ultimate goal of bringing them there anyway: branding, sales, customer service or some strange form of 21st-century credibility that defies quantification? How to integrate online and offline marketing departments-or is segregation ultimately the best policy?

The lists run as long as a Webhead's catalogue of bookmarks.

First You Need a There, There

Web marketers of all stripes and colors often ask how to steer surfers to sites. And, indeed, publishers often deploy considerable offline means -- including print ads and author pitches-as well as online promotion -- such as links and newsgroup postings -- to market their marketing. But if it has dawned on houses that they need ways to bring customers there, they are also learning that, as Gertrude Stein might say, "first you need a there, there." Given that many visitors to publishers' sites come with a deliberate purpose, content becomes more than just a luxury.

Realizing this, Rough Guides took a chance. The Penguin-Putnam imprint in September announced plans to post the contents of its entire list (numbering 100 titles) on the Web. Arguably the most ambitious Internet project yet by a major publisher, its undertaking came after three years of watching sales jump by as much as 20% for the select titles previously posted. Other publishers sport similarly content-heavy sites. Times Books posted the notes of Wendy Goldman Rohm's The Microsoft File after critics complained of a lack of documentation in the printed version. Simon &Schuster created a site for Stephen King's Bag of Bones and sent the first chapter to fans by e-mail weeks before the book went on sale.

"Information sells information," says Larry Chase, an online marketing specialist who has marketed his own book, Essential Business Tactics for the Net, on the Net. "The more that people have access to information about your product, the more likely it is they will buy the product."

Swelling Staffs

If no limits exist to what customers will soak up, publishers' resources often impose their own constraints. Despite exponential gains in personnel, online departments remain comparatively small; Simon &Schuster currently employs 13 people, Penguin-Putnam six. (Random House, believed to have a large department, said it wished not to disclose the exact number of employees.) "A lot of people jumped into the Web and said, `We have an infinite amount of shelf space,'" says Sorelle Braun, marketing manager at Rough Guides. "But what there is a limit to is the amount of content you can develop. A lot of the sites being developed are being scaled back because they can't be updated every day."

The future size of online departments depends, to a large degree, on other departments' perceptions. It is in this area that online departments have made the greatest strides. "Last holiday season, a lot of people in publishing noticed that Amazon.com can move books," says Ina Gottinger, director of marketing for simonsays.com, Simon &Schuster's online division. "Some editors who never touched a computer before began to notice online. We don't need to explain ourselves anymore."

At the moment, online departments' future place in the hierarchy remains unknown. One school argues that for a department to be truly effective it must exist not as an independent entity but as an extension of sales, publicity, marketing, even editorial. A day on which "online marketing" becomes an irrelevancy may not be far off.

In the meantime, size can be a mixed blessing. Publishers are finding that the heightened attention has given rise to increased pressure. "As a 13-person department, we have more resources to do what we want than a small publisher d s," Gottinger says. "But we have to tie everything into offline marketing plans. I think a small publisher can be a little more offbeat and a little funkier."

While other departments warm to online's increasing role, online divisions at competing houses have taken to a cooperative strategy that embodies the democratic, information-sharing nature of ordinary Web communities (and not the proprietary approach that personifies Silicon Valley).

About a year ago, Larry Weissman, associate director of online marketing at Random House Inc., formed the Publishers Web Association. The group meets informally every month to discuss topical issues such as marketing to women and how the media can take advantage of publishers' sites. "People come together so readily and easily because even now we feel like outsiders in a very traditional business," says Greg Durham, marketing manager at simonsays and one of PWA's first members. "We can't run to other people, so we run to each other."

Lest anyone think the Internet has merely added a few jobs to publishers' rolls, houses such as Scholastic are a reminder of how the Net's efficiency has inspired a fundamental change in houses' identity. In creating so-called destination sites- -- and, by extension, branding the company name -- houses have uncloaked themselves to customers. At Scholastic, for instance, the company seeks to make its site "a destination to enjoy great characters," in the words of website coordinator Bill Wright, and wants every reader to know the Scholastic name.

Destination sites also indicate how houses have also become more customer service oriented than ever. Authors such as Holt's Sharon Kay Penman (Cruel as the Grave) routinely respond to reader comments, in another step toward the interactive utopia that mists the eyes of idealists.

The focus on customer service g s to the nub of the issue, namely, what is the purpose of Internet marketing? The coming year may force a reevaluation. Some, however, have already begun to do so. "When we started, we never asked the question `What is the goal of this site?' Now, looking into '99 and 2000, we're at a place where it's not just about marketing but about revenue," says one high-ranking marketer at a large publisher who asked not to be identified.

That revenue could come through many sources. Publishers such as Rough Guides have, through advertising, already generated extra cash. It could also come from more publicity for the house or for specific titles that will in turn lead to a sales spike. One place that probably won't bring in any money-direct sales. Simon &Schuster is one of the few large publishers to do so; Random House recently stopped selling on its site.

Without sales, however, marketing on the Web becomes, at best, a soft science. As with traditional marketing, research d sn't yield data a number cruncher covets. To some degree, the Net has avoided this through hit counts. But by fragmenting the market between Internet and non-Internet customers, the Net has also complicated marketing and made it harder to ascertain efficacy.

The coming months will likely also bring a reassessment, and perhaps a switch, in houses' focus. "A tremendous amount of effort has been placed in developing sites with the thinking that `if you build it, they will come.' But dollars could have been spent marketing authors to where buyers already are," says the anonymous executive. Marketing gurus talk about this as online's greatest challenge. "The Internet is a huge place and it's really easy to get unfocused," Chase says. "You have to ferret out the audience you need."

Ferreting out authors, while a political hot potato, might also pop up on the calendar. For in the enthusiasm about the Web, big-ticket authors request -- and receive -- sites even when they don't work best online, while niche authors in subjects such as romance, fantasy and even serious nonfiction get the snub. "Basically, the bigger authors' budgets are justifiable, but we're starting to learn that what makes sense for these budgets d sn't always make sense with the authors who work best on the Web," says the high-level marketer.

Publishers will continue to grope with questions of ambition as they struggle to keep expectations in check. As Voynow put it: "We're being very careful. Being online is not a panacea. It's not like Oprah."