Web Informant #208, 24 July 2000:
Examining Contentville


I asked Brigitte Weeks, who has long been active in editorial and publishing circles, to review Contentville.com. Here is her report:

Ads for Contentville.com haven't yet showed up on the side of New York City buses, nor as a matter of fact did its debut in early July cause more than a rustle. Could it be that the age of hype is passing? This new eCommerce site is the brainchild of Steven Brill, an entrepreneur whose brain never sleeps. He created Court TV to bring the working of justice into the nation's living rooms, sold it to Time Warner and moved on to create the magazine Brill's Content on the media and journalism bent on castigating and exposing his colleagues in the media. (Funnily enough, when launched, the magazine got lots of bad press about boring articles that were too long.)

Now Brill has created what he calls a "real" virtual eCommerce site, backed by an impressive roster of companies, including CBS, NBC, Primedia Inc., and the Ingram Book Group. "When I started this," Brill told the New Yorker, "I knew I didn't want a single square foot of warehouse space, and I didn't want to hear a damn thing about picking and packing." No Amazon look-alike here.

So what is Brill selling and how is he doing it? The site is still under construction, but its ambitions are clear. It will intrigue readers with tidbits of content in the hopes that they will be curious enough to click on the buy buttons conveniently placed on every page. It also aspires to be the first portal on the web for purchasable, downloadable content.

The whole concept is intriguing given the swift transformation of reporters, writers and editors into a new hybrid known as content providers. Steven Brill wants to be a haven for these folk and would like to get paid for his troubles. It is a worthwhile first effort.

There are magazines on sale, of course, books, speeches (not easy to find elsewhere) and 1.5 million dissertations going back to 1871, licensed from Bell & Howell. To my astonishment, this treasure trove even included my husband's truly esoteric 1973 thesis on an ancient Greek named Heliodorus. Should I pay $69.50 for a hard cover version? That would make quite a birthday gift! Perhaps $57.50 for a paperbound would be more prudent.

There's a department to sell e-books, but as yet it has no inventory, although an eye-catching promotion offers the first chapter of Anne Rice's new novel Merrick (not to be published until mid-September) and even the second chapter is available to those willing to yield up their email addresses. Ms. Rice obviously doesn't intend to be upstaged by the debut of Stephen King's $1.00 a chapter e-novel-payment on the honor system.

Screenplays are promised and the wills of the rich and famous are already available. Searching for all of this relatively straightforward. This wealth and range of information is intriguing, especially to those on deadline with limited time to scour the web. Will it work? There is something almost wistfully simple and clean about this concept. It is actually offering REAL content, actual information, not links or come ons. However, Contentville isn't Pleasantville: Just about anything will cost you some cash. You can indeed read Doris Duke's will and download it, but for $2.50. There is a charge for almost all the documents, and naturally the books and magazines are for sale. This is a content superstore, not a library.

There are however a whole plethora of experts to advise you on what to read and where to go: Timothy Ferris will talk to you about science; Rahm Emanuel about politics. Contributing editors include Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, literary curmudgeon Harold Bloom, as well as Anita Hill and Wendy Wasserstein, to name just a few. Mr. Brill is well connected and so is his site.

Contentville will have to deal with some Big Issues, however: Can it break through the noise and confusion of the web? Will enough serious readers and writers be willing to pay for quick access to large amounts of current and archival information? Can Brill trump Bezos in the books wars? Will his intricate team of suppliers be able to deliver on his pledges of service? Web surfers are pretty intolerant and fickle. Upset them once and they move on.

Brill's slogan on every page of Contentville is "Readers rejoice" and there's a forty/sixty chance that they will. The odds would be more favorable without the payment impediments, but then how is a mogul to live without income or keep a site up to date for that matter. Perhaps a year from now the site will be finished and will have begun to build a presence. I for one wish it well. There are many too many snazzy graphics and non-functioning gizmos out there and not enough sober words, those old and faithful friends who have outlived many a format. And that is worth rejoicing, to be sure.

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David Strom
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