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Real or virtual? That's the question publishers and magazine analysts are asking about the vitality of a fast-growing segment of the computer magazine market: home computer books.

For the moment, many of the exploding titles in this category appear to be licenses to print money. In fact, Advertising Age has selected the home computing magazine field as the hottest category for 1994.

Boosters of the home PC market say a PC has become almost as commonplace as a family car in upscale families. Families represent 54% of all home PC households and are the fastest-growing category of all computer users, according to market researcher Link Resources.

Count Ziff-Davis Publishing Co. among the believers. It not only has FamilyPC, a joint venture with Walt Disney Co. (see story at left), but its adult-market entry, Computer Life, is one of the company's most successful consumer launches.

Meanwhile, the genre's patriarch, CMP Publications' year-old Home PC, has a 400,000 paid circulation-100,000 more than projected. With ties to Time Warner's subscribers, Home PC expects to break the half-million circulation mark next year.

The editorial philosophy of Home PC, says Publisher Dan Schwartz, is based on an equal use of the computer between adult functions, such as business and finance activities, and family activities.

These titles have scored well with advertisers.

According to Adscope, a service that tracks ad pages and dollars in computer magazines, Computer Life's three issues in 1994 accumulated 412 ad pages, while Home PC's six 1994 issues totaled 921 pages. And FamilyPC's first two issues totaled 281 pages, Adscope says.

However, some observers aren't as enthusiastic about the home PC magazine category.

"The PC is a business machine. I don't see the market as broadly as they do," says Jack Edmonston, editor and publisher of the newsletter Computer Advertisers' Media Advisor.

Executives at Scholastic Inc. would probably agree. Last year, amid much fanfare, Scholastic announced it was re-entering the home market with a new version of Family Computing, a title earlier tried in 1983. The publisher bundled 1 million issues in the November issue of Parent & Child.

Pundits applauded the move, saying that at last the market was finally ripe and PCs had true applications in the home beyond storing recipe files. But once again, Family Computing disappointed.

"Right at this moment, it's a bit premature to place a wager on winners or losers," says David Leibowitz, magazine director and publishing industry analyst at Burnham Securities.

That time will come about a year from now. Most current advertisers in these titles are still working on charter ad rates and may experience sticker shock when they see new rate cards, despite some higher rate bases.

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