Information Today
Volume 18, Issue 3 — March 2001
Table of Contents Previous Issues Subscribe Now! ITI Home
• Database Review •
Missing the Point on Contentville
This site's numerous problems often overshadow its strengths
by Mick O'Leary

It's a good thing that Steven Brill, the founder of Contentville, is a lawyer. Starting soon after it was introduced last summer,Contentville ( has been bombarded by controversy, litigation, harassment, and bad publicity. All this fuss has obscured just what Contentville does (which is hard enough to figure out anyway), and—even more sadly—has overshadowed the excellent material that it does contain.

Contentville's stated mission is to gather quality content—regardless of type—shaped by the contributions of outstanding journalists and writers. Contentville's model is not a database or a research service, but is instead a small, independent bookstore—an eclectic and idiosyncratic collection shaped by the knowledge and informed taste of its owner.

It's very difficult to discern just what this all means, especially since Contentville gives you almost no help. The site itself is poorly designed. Pages are too cluttered and too long. Departments are not clearly identified by page layout or captions. Ads are difficult to distinguish from content. Searching and browsing are just adequate. Documentation—in every sense of the word—is terrible or nonexistent. Names of content categories are misleading. Introductory remarks for each section are vague and incomplete. There are no help sections for content areas. There is no site map. And most frustrating, the sources of the content, with a few exceptions, are unnamed. Brill, in his Brill's Content magazine, is a self-proclaimed crusader for journalistic integrity and disclosure. He has been criticized for Contentville's secretiveness, and rightly so.

Amid all this confusion are two poignant ironies. One is that Contentville, almost by accident, has gotten the rap as an author-cheater. This is a charge that many others should share, but Contentville is the scapegoat in a very large pattern of injustice. The other irony is that all of this attention has fallen on the least interesting part of Contentville, leaving its genuinely worthwhile content in the shadows. But before we explore these matters, let's take a closer look at Contentville's content.

The Content of Contentville
Contentville is basically an aggregator, and most of what it collects is ordinary. Its third-party content can be found elsewhere, in proprietary services or Web sites. Its distinction is in having an unusually wide range of document types, from books and magazine articles to speeches and legal documents.

Contentville also claims to have the best prices commonly available, and there's a good bit of truth to this. Prices for several kinds of material are at or near the lowest you'll find anywhere. The site's pricing is transactional, with free searching and pay-per-view for individual documents. There's a membership savings option, called the "Citizens Club," which saves users 5 percent on most content types.

Contentville's collection offers the following:

  • Books—Contentville has a large collection of current and recent mass-market and trade fiction and nonfiction books, provided by Ingram, a large book distributor ( It concentrates on popular, wide-interest material, and lacks technical, professional, or academic titles. Most books are 20-percent off retail. This is the same discount usually provided by Amazon, so the prices for most books on both sites are identical. Amazon offers some titles for a deeper discount, but Contentville has its Citizens Club discount on almost all books.

  • Screenplays—This has its own heading, but it actually contains published screenplays from the same database and at the same pricing as above.

  • E-Books—The e-book collection is eclectic, and also concentrates on popular, mass-market titles. It has both the 20-percent and the Citizens Club 5-percent discounts. Compared to a sampling of the same items on other e-book sites, Contentville's prices are variable: sometimes less, often more, but never straying too far either way.

  • Hard-to-Find Books—Contentville partners with Alibris (, a large, out-of-print book distributor. It carries a small portion of the complete Alibris collection. Regular Contentville prices are the same as on the Alibris site, but the Citizens Club discount applies to most books.

  • Study Guides—The biggest provider here is the well-known Cliffs Notes, which is priced the same as on the Cliff site ( Other material includes familiar exam study guides for the SAT, GRE, GED, etc.

  • Magazines—This is actually a magazine subscription service for several hundred consumer periodicals covering news, current events, personal finance, leisure, recreation, hobbies, sports, etc. Annual subscription rates are lower than those cited in the magazines' mastheads, and are the same as or lower than the discount offers found on subscription-card inserts or the publishers' Web sites.

  • Archives—This misnomer actually refers to Contentville's full-text magazine-article database, which is provided by EBSCO ( It has nearly 2,000 full-text magazines and journals in a wide range of topics. Coverage starts from 1990 and is almost up-to-date; I noticed that the most recent citations in Contentville were 2 weeks behind those in my library's EBSCO database. Articles are $2.95 each, which is the market rate for full-text articles from aggregators.

  • Newsletters—This is another misnamed category that includes high-end market research reports as well as newsletters. Many of the reports are from the Icon Group (, and are priced the same in both places. (This is where Contentville starts to get strange. If you're going to spend $1,000 for a market research report, why wouldn't you shop in one of the full-sized market research report databases?)

  • Dissertations—Contentville partners with UMI ( to provide Dissertation Abstracts with document delivery at prices similar to those of UMI. This is another peculiar category. You're not going to read these things for fun, and if you're doing research, you would want to search the database directly, where you'll find complete abstracts instead of the truncated ones on Contentville.

  • Speeches—This is a large and pleasingly broad collection of texts of famous and significant speeches, from antiquity to the latest utterances from the White House and Congress. They're priced at $1.95 each.

  • Legal Documents—Lexis and Westlaw needn't worry. This section could be entitled "Celebrity Legal Misadventures." It's a selection of wills, depositions, and indictments of prominent political, business, and entertainment figures. More seriously, there are landmark Supreme Court decisions. Prices range from $2.95 to $3.95.

  • Transcripts—These are transcripts of reports, documentaries, specials, etc., from leading TV news programs, priced from $7 to $10.
Databases containing each of these content types, in far greater depth, are available elsewhere. Contentville provides you with a small selection of the whole, based on unspecified and undocumented criteria. If you like what you see on Contentville and want to buy, go ahead, but the caveat is, "You don't know what you're missing."

Steven Brill: Fall Guy
The Contentville controversy centers around the full-text articles from EBSCO. EBSCO is one of the major database suppliers to libraries, which rarely, if ever, charge for use. By licensing its third-party content to a commercial reseller, it was actually EBSCO that opened Pandora's box. Soon after Contentville appeared, a group of Canadian authors sued for the right to obtain royalties on articles sold there. Next, the National Writers Union started harassing Brill and eventually worked out an author-reimbursement compromise.

The great irony here is that Contentville is only the latest in a long line of copyrighted content resellers, and a very small one at that. It has been preceded for decades by the proprietary online services. On the Web, pay-per-view article databases have been available from Dialog, etc. Brill just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and took the fall. It may be some small consolation to Brill that there are now two class-action suits pending against Bell & Howell, Dialog, Dow Jones, Northern Light, Reed Elsevier, and Thomson.

Hidden Contentville Treasures
The EBSCO database is the most ordinary and unremarkable content on Contentville, but it has received most of the notoriety. This is a shame and another great irony, because it detracts from Contentville's most unique and worthwhile content: its original contributions from writers and booksellers. Brill has recruited dozens of writers and independent bookstore owners to contribute regular essays on books, magazines, and reading. The roster is impressive. Commentators on books include Jonathan Alter, Harold Bloom, Frank Deford, Laura Ingraham, and Gay Talese, and on current magazines, Timothy Ferris, Rahm Emanual, and Keith Olbermann. Essays from bookstore owners provide fresh and original insights on books and the book scene. Overall, the quality is superb—engaging, thoughtful, informative, and provocative.

Let's also mention an excellent feature brought over from the Brill's Content Web site: the All-Star Newspaper. This is a collection of the week's best newspaper articles and columns, selected by the magazine's editors from papers around the country. It's an up-to-the-minute anthology of the country's best journalists.

All of this wonderful writing is tucked away in a side frame, with obscure titles in small print. You can ignore the rest of Contentville and its troubles, but make it a point to click on "Visit the Experts," where you can enjoy the real content treasures of Contentville.

Mick O'Leary's e-mail address is

Table of Contents Previous Issues Subscribe Now! ITI Home
© 2001 Information Today, Inc. Home