Destination Contentville

SAN FRANCISCO (07/05/2000) - Steven Brill, the self-appointed watchdog of journalism, wants to sell you the latest John Grisham novel, a subscription to the New Yorker and - since he's got your attention - the 164-page doctoral dissertation "An Experimental Study to Determine the Effect of Warming-Up on Golf Performance." (A hard copy goes for US$69.50.)"What's the market for dissertations?" Brill asks while chomping on an unlit cigar in his midtown Manhattan office. "Maybe nothing. But the point is, we're not buying anything until we sell it."

Welcome to Contentville.com, a new business that Brill - founder of American Lawyer magazine, Court TV and Brill's Content media magazine - calls a "second-generation e-commerce venture." Launching this week, Contentville is backed by $120 million from some of the very media companies - CBS (CBS) , NBC and Primedia - that his magazine monitors.

The company will draw on the writing talents and opinions of National Public Radio commentator Daniel Pinkwater, Brandeis University law professor Anita Hill and author George Plimpton, among others. It will cater to information junkies, selling books, magazines, speeches and "more than 1 million doctoral dissertations from over 1,000 universities."

It's an ambitious plan. For one thing, Brill has to persuade people to come to Contentville to pay for "content" - everything from a magazine article on golf swings to an old New York Times piece on genetics - even if it's already available online for free. And in selling books online, he's entering a market that is very competitive.

Contentville is a clearinghouse; there will be no inventory. Books and magazines will be shipped directly from distribution partner Ingram, the book wholesaler and magazine distributor; e-books from Gemstar and Microsoft Corp. ; research materials from Bell & Howell; and rare books from Alibris. It will charge customers for content downloads like magazine articles and speeches.

"The whole ethic of this place," says Brill, "is we're going to give people the honest deal."

Brill is not afraid to say that he thinks many well-known Internet businesses are "bullshit." He freely questions the viability of companies like the Web zine Nerve and delivery service Kozmo.com; he has doubts, too, about Amazon.com Inc.

"We're going to do something different," he says. "We'll take our time. We're going to run on a five-year business plan. And we're going to raise all the money upfront, like I did with Court TV. And we may go profitable beforehand.

And we may go public."

Brill has attracted some big-time backers. Aside from CBS, NBC and Primedia, investors include Microsoft; TheStreet.com founder James Cramer; magazine subscription service Ebsco; and Ingram, which also handles shipping for Buy.com and Barnesandnoble.com. Brill's company, Brill's Media Holdings, owns a 34 percent stake.

He has plans for the cash: Contentville intends to spend $75 million on advertising through the end of 2002. Even so, Brill figures it has enough money "to last the next two years and then some."

While Brill has deep pockets, he also has competition. One new rival, Booksense.com, is scheduled to launch a few days after Contentville. That site, sponsored by the American Booksellers Association, will give independent bookstores a way to sell to customers around the clock. Contentville also has relationships with independent booksellers - but Avin Mark Domnitz, CEO of the ABA, sees Contentville's alliances as little threat.

"What an independent bookstore is, is people. It's a physical location," says Domnitz. "Now, should it have an online location so that it can be au courant in this world of e-commerce? Yes. Should it be only that? Never."

Brill figures Contentville's pricing policy - to sell books discounted 25 percent - will be a competitive advantage, although Amazon and Barnesandnoble.com follow a similar policy and sell some popular titles at 70 percent off. Customers who pay $19.95 a year to subscribe to the Contentville Citizens Club will get an additional 5 percent discount on books and speeches, plus a subscription to Brill's Content.

Brill contends Contentville is more than just another online bookstore. The site will also offer low-price subscriptions on 2,000 magazines, he notes.

Brill figures it won't be book sales that will make the difference in the early years - rather, he's banking on selling magazines. Through Ingram he can deliver a magazine in two days. It can take weeks for a customer to get a first issue using a mail-in card.

Brill is relying on technological flash, too. He is charging customers to use a research engine on the site; it costs $2.95 to search for a magazine article (the fee can be applied toward a magazine subscription), and $1.95 for speeches. Contentville will sell doctoral theses and research papers at a price that ranges from roughly $18 for a downloadable version to several times that for a hard copy.

"If we have 10 percent market share in books and magazines, and a larger share in those other markets [for dissertations and research materials], because obviously we're sort of creating this market, then we will have a very successful business," Brill says.

Perhaps. But 10 percent seems like an unrealistic goal. Amazon, for instance, accounts for roughly 5 percent of the $24 billion book market.

And while Brill contends Amazon isn't the primary competition, there are plenty of others. Barnesandnoble.com last month invested $20 million in MightyWords.com, a company that will bring the same variety of speeches, screenplays and research reports to Barnesandnoble.com customers. Brill plans to outdo the bookseller with a constantly expanding selection that eventually will include TV show transcripts and tapes.

An assembly of 40 independent booksellers from around the country, such as Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont, will provide weekly and monthly recommendations and columns that consumers can browse for free. And Brill has commissioned a cast of over 80 writers, journalists and academics, including playwright Wendy Wasserstein and former Clinton adviser Rahm Emanuel, to contribute what Contentville Editor in Chief David Kuhn calls "monthly brainloads of what they're reading." (One person who won't be writing for Contentville is convicted hacker Kevin Mitnick; his probation officer declined him permission to write for the site.)A lean staff of 15 will edit and write original content for the site. Some, like Kuhn, also editor in chief of Brill's Content, is working at the magazine and the site. In the wake of APBnews.com and other burned-out content sites, Brill insists he is not overspending on resources.

One of the biggest victors in this new wave of competition could be a once-forgotten group: independent bookstore proprietors such as Ed Morrow, co-owner of Northshire Bookstore. The Net represents the second major threat to Morrow's 25-year-old business, after superstores came into vogue in the late 1980s and early '90s.

With Amazon eating into his business, Morrow is working with both Contentville and Booksense. "There are other booksellers that think I'm crazy for dealing with the enemy," says Morrow about Contentville. But with Brill paying bookstore partners between $1,000 and $2,000 per month for their commentary, the temptation is too strong to pass up, especially with Morrow planning to expand the store and build a cafe.

"Brill's a bright guy," says Morrow. "When you see the backers behind this and the amount of money so far, you say, 'This is something that has a chance. This is the team that can play in the major leagues.'"

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