March 15 (Bloomberg) -- Today at 9 p.m. New York time, bestselling thriller writer Dean Koontz will give a virtual reading from his forthcoming novel ``The Good Guy'' (scheduled for publication May 29) at the ``Bantam Dell Book Shop and Cafe'' -- a new virtual destination in Second Life for Bantam Dell Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc.
Second Life is a 3-D online world in which people roam a fictitious but familiar environment in the form of digital avatars -- that is, computer representations that look, walk and misbehave much like real human beings. Since its creation by Linden Lab in 2003, Second Life has attracted more than 4 million users worldwide.
Bantam Dell's virtual bookstore was created by Electric Sheep Co., which has produced Second Life destinations for other companies including AOL, Starwood Hotels and Major League Baseball.
During his reading, Koontz will be represented by an avatar fashioned in his likeness and assisted by a pair of Bantam Dell employee avatars with the literary-sounding names of Beatrice Scintilla and Horatio Ruggles.
Scintilla is actually Betsy Hulsebosch, senior vice president and director of creative marketing for Bantam Dell. She will field audience questions via instant and text messaging and relay them to Koontz, who will answer in his real voice via an audio feed.
Hulsebosch says she hopes that 30 to 40 avatars -- or visitors -- show up, as any more in one Second Life destination can cause computer glitches. To deal with overflow, the event will be simulcast in several other Second Life destinations; an audio feed will be broadcast on Koontz's Web site and on Bantam Dell's.
Those attending will be able to browse almost 100 Bantam Dell titles on shelves, tables and ``dumps'' (those cardboard displays that sit on the floor) in the virtual bookstore. Clicking on a book will take them to a page on Bantam Dell's Web site where they can read an excerpt and, if they wish, buy the book, either from there or from a number of online retailers, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Powells.
Publishers have been slow to enter the age of digitized information -- unlike writers and entertainers. The singer- songwriter Suzanne Vega has given a virtual concert in Second Life, and an avatar of Kurt Vonnegut has sat for an interview with a virtual John Hockenberry.
``We think Second Life represents the next dimension of social networking,'' Hulsebosch says. ``It's three-dimensional. You physically create the world around you. We think the people who are drawn to that sort of experience would also be drawn to books.''
Russ Lawrence, president of the American Booksellers Association and owner of Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton, Montana, is sanguine about the prospect of virtual competition. ``If publishers want growth, they have to look to reach people where they haven't before,'' he says. ``Second Life is itself a fictional environment. Who knows, selling fiction there might be a pretty good match.''
(Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)