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Nine years ago, when Robert Jordan went to a cocktail party and told people he was the publisher of Online Access, he spent most of his time explaining what a modem was.

Those early years were "bloody," the Chicago-based publisher recalls. Readership was largely tech-based and ad support was minimal. The company went broke once, but he hung in, found new backers and relaunched in 1987.

Today, with the commercial online market flourishing and more than 20 million people tapping into the Internet, Mr. Jordan and his 10-times-yearly magazine appear to be on the cusp of a boom market. And soon the field he once had to himself will be burgeoning with three publications, each striving to guide people to the many services available in cyberspace through their own personal computers.

In November, CMP Publications will launch NetGuide with a December cover date. And Mecklermedia Corp. last year started the 10-times-yearly Internet World, with plans to go monthly in '95.

Mr. Jordan believes the market is big enough for the competition. But winning subscribers-and advertisers-may be even more tough than it was before.

"The online industry is so hot right now that the existing books have not had to develop much in the way of research or audits. Maybe the entry of CMP is the start of the big companies coming into the market," said Patty Keegan, associate media director for Freeman Associates, Wellesley, Mass.

To meet the challenge, Online Access is undergoing its first-ever audit. Mr. Jordan claims circulation of 80,000 now, with a goal of 200,000 within a year. Ad rates are $6,540 for a color page and $5,460 for black & white.

NetGuide, meanwhile, is promising a rate base of 200,000 with its launch issue. The CMP publication will charge $12,500 for a one-time color page ad and $9,500 for a b&w page. The magazine bills itself as a TV Guide for online users.

"I think it is going to be a very large market," said Drake Lundell, VP-group publisher at CMP. "There are about 6 million people using commercial services such as America Online, CompuServe or Prodigy, and about 25 million people on the Internet."

Mecklermedia's Internet World was born as a newsletter several years ago. The magazine claims a rate base of 90,000 and charges $5,800 for a color ad page and $5,000 for b&w.

Each magazine is angling for its own turf. NetGuide is aiming for a consumer-driven audience. But Online Access claims its subscriber base is leaning more toward the mass market than it used to.

"I'm real happy the competition is there," Mr. Jordan said. "It validates the market, and it means there are other advertising sales forces out there on the same crusade that we've been on for the past nine years."

He credits Prodigy Services Co. for bringing online services to the mass market.

Mecklermedia Chairman-CEO Alan Meckler thinks his rivals are trying to carve too wide a territory.

"Seems to me like NetGuide is really a souped-up version of Online Access," he said. "We're happy that they're not concentrating solely on the Internet."

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