Computers show books not an endangered species

Dan Doernberg admits he would have liked a place with more character for his new Computer Literacy Book Shop. But a Victorian house, or its equivalent, is hard to find here in the heart of Silicon Valley. So book-and-computer devotee Doernberg had to settle for a modern smoked-glass storefront.

Still, to push through the front door of his bookstore is to experience firsthand the latest trend in the publishing industry. Computer books, with such provocative titles as ''The Personal Computer Book'' or ''The Genie in the Computer,'' cram the shelves.

Nationwide, these titles are selling as fast as cookbooks and almost as swiftly as science fiction. There are even predictions that this new genre will begin outselling all types of fiction within a year.

The Computer Literacy Book Shop is filled with 1,500 titles and more than 50 periodicals. Mr. Doernberg says he tries to keep at least one copy of even the most obscure computer volumes. But he'll have a hard time sticking to his policy. This year US publishers are expected to flood the country with some 3, 000 new computer titles, a number equal to all those currently in circulation.

''How many books on (the computer language) BASIC for the Apple (computer) do we need?'' Doernberg asks quizzically.

Besides computer aficionados and professionals, the specialty bookshop draws a number of computer novices. These fall into two basic categories: people who have bought computers and are trying to figure out how to use them and those who have decided to buy computers and figure they better read up about them first.

Peter McWilliams, author of several popular computer books, has ascribed much of the public's thirst for computer knowledge to the inadequate manuals that computer and software companies provide with their products.

Although the situation has improved somewhat, the problem of poor instructions has been chronic. After several frustrating hours with their crisp, new-smelling manuals, many proud new computer owners rush to the nearest bookstore in the hopes of locating a book that will help them decipher the all-too-cryptic text.

If they are not careful, however, these book buyers may not achieve the enlightenment they seek. As John Dvorak, the outspoken columnist at the computer newsweekly InfoWorld, has suggested, one reason that computer books are selling so well may be because many of them are so bad.

''This means people have to buy more books to get a good one,'' Mr. Dvorak quips.

The quality of computer books is uneven, Doernberg agrees. Before buying a book, the reader should peruse several pages (Doernberg suggests Page 4) to make sure the book is intelligible and will provide worthwhile information.

A diligent search can be rewarding. A good text that clearly explains a complicated program with an inadequate manual can save hours of aggravation. And there is no doubt that reading can be an inexpensive way to learn about computers, without being pressured to buy equipment or software.

Then, too, next year you may be able to pick up computer books for a song. The publishing industry could have dramatically overestimated the popular thirst for computer literacy. Robert Lydon, editor and publisher of Personal Computing, reports that newsstand sales of computer magazines has abruptly plateaued after 12 months of explosive growth.

If this means that the market for computer information is becoming saturated, a good share of the thousands of new books on the topic could end up on the bargain tables or gather dust in the warehouse.

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