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Contentville Folds After Short But Controversial Run
Posted On October 8, 2001
Contentville, one of the Web's most idiosyncratic content sites, closed its doors in September after a 14-month run. The creation of media entrepreneur Steven Brill, its short life was marked by high-profile controversies that overshadowed its mission and obscured its worthy content. Contentville started with an ambitious goal to bring together the best of several kinds of content in one site, and it ended for the most mundane of reasons: a business model that just didn't work.

A simple notice from Brill is now posted at that begins: "We are sorry to report that we have suspended operations at Contentville, effective September 28. We appreciate your business, but unfortunately we simply were unable to entice enough people for us to see our way to a viable enterprise."

Brill's vision was to assemble and sell high-quality information sources, regardless of type. Contentville's inventory included a widely disparate set of sources that included books, e-books, magazines, pay-per-view articles, broadcast transcripts, research reports, dissertations, speeches, and legal documents. Brill also recruited an impressive set of writers, journalists, and independent booksellers to contribute original columns and reviews.

Some of Contentville's wares were quite promising, while the commercial prospects for others were dubious at best. Contentville sold popular print and e-books at prices that were comparable, and often lower, than those charged by other Web booksellers. The magazine article archive provided searching from a large group of prominent magazines and journals.

Several other content types seemed like odd choices for a general-interest market. Contentville offered dissertations, a type of publication sought mainly by researchers and almost never by general readers. Specialized newsletters and market research reports were also quite out of place in a mass-market distribution model.

This jumble of content was made more difficult to understand and use by unhelpful site design. Contentville had cluttered screens, ambiguous page and section titles, and unintuitive navigation. A distressing dearth of help screens, FAQs, and other documentation aggravated the confusion.

Unfortunately, these complexities and difficulties also obscured the consistently interesting and original work by Contentville's contributors, who included prominent and less well-known writers and commentators from print and electronic media. Their essays and commentary on books, reading, journalism, media, and the Internet were often well-written and incisive. Essays on books and the book trade from independent booksellers were particularly refreshing.

Contentville was developed by Brill, an innovative and energetic entrepreneur who had previously created Court TV, as well as American Lawyer and Brill's Content magazines. For Contentville, he amassed a group of partners that included NBC, CBS, Primedia, Ingram (a large book distributor), and EBSCO (a leading producer of full-text periodical databases).

Ironically, these partnerships brought criticism down on Brill even as the site opened in July 2000. Brill's Content magazine was a self-described watchdog of the media, and the magazine's unflattering critiques had stung numerous writers and publishers. Then, when Brill partnered in Contentville with the very people he was supposedly judging in Brill's Content, he was skewered for the same practice that he had condemned in others.

These rebukes from Brill's peers were quickly overshadowed by a larger and more public controversy. This time, however, Brill and Contentville were much less deserving targets. Shortly after Contentville appeared, it was assailed by writers' groups for unauthorized reselling of copyrighted material. The publications in dispute were periodical articles from the EBSCO database. This controversy flared at a time when other database producers—including Bell & Howell, Dialog, and LexisNexis—were also under assault for selling periodical articles without receiving permission from the authors or making royalty payments to them.

There were several layers of irony in the scapegoating of Brill and Contentville. First, EBSCO was arguably more responsible than Brill. Second, the actual number of articles sold from Contentville was nominal compared to the volume of other distributors. Third, Contentville, after only a few weeks of operation, took a very public fall for practices that several much larger distributors have been doing for many years. Finally, Brill negotiated an agreement with the writers' groups in which he would pay royalties to copyright-holding authors; other large information producers, on the other hand, have withdrawn such material from their databases.

In a memo to the 15 members of the Contentville staff (posted at, Brill wrote, "[D]espite the great work of the Contentville staff and the great support we had from our partners, my idea for Contentville just didn't work." As an aggregator, Contentville drew its revenue from a share of each content purchase; it had no search or membership fees. Contentville had ads, but Web ad revenues began to slump just about the time it appeared. Selling content on the Web has proven to be—at best—an uncertain business model, and Contentville was unable to achieve commercial viability.

Dot-com failures are now so common that it is difficult to take individual note of them. Although Contentville's business model didn't succeed, its editorial mission was committed to excellent writing, whatever its source.

Mick O'Leary is the director of the library at Frederick, Maryland, and a principal in The Data Brokers. He is also a columnist for Information Today.

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