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The Death of Contentville and the Woes of NetLibrary

By David Rothman ( is dead--done in by a mix of free sites and better-stocked commercial ones.

Contentville Web siteAs unabashed boosters of e-text, we are sorry that Contentville Web siteowner Steve Brill failed at this experiment in net.commerce. What's more, we like his honesty about the experiment. Rather than blaming the terrorists and the dotcom debacle, Brill simply said: "My idea for Contentville just didn't work."

Brill envisioned a mix of a bookstore, a newsstand and a Contentville Web sitelibrary, but the competition was too formidable. Remember the Contentville ad that bragged about readers being able to download Nixon's Checkers speech? As we noted some months ago, surfers could easily catch up with text and even audio clips for free. "A Google search," we observed, "will take less than a minute." Meanwhile large commercial competitors offered a much wider range of content.

The big private sites by themselves, however, are still not the true answer if we're to reduce costs to readers and adequately reward content creators. Even the large sites lack the economies of scale that a TeleRead-style collection would introduce. And, no, we are not talking about TeleRead as a full replacement for commercial sites offering content. A future essay will explore the latest visions for TeleRead.

Some of these same ideas will also be the topic of a TeleRead presentation in early November at Electronic Book 2001. See you there.

NetLibrary siteAnd meanwhile, an update: We've just learned that NetLibrary is up for sale. Our best wishes go to the employees being laid off, and of course we're sad when any e-book effort does not fare as well as hoped. At the same time, as with Contentville, this is yet another indication that a universal TeleRead-style library would actually be better for readers, writers, publishers and librarians than for-profit collections without the same permanence.


Rothman is national coordinator of TeleRead and a long-time advocate of electronic books and a well-stocked national digital library. He wrote the above commentary in October 2001.