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"Arts" of the Deal

How did a one-page bookworm's delight become the Net's hottest property?

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If you set up a lemonade stand by the side of the road and suddenly found yourself taking bids for it from the makers of Snapple and Country Time, you might have some idea of how it feels right now to be Denis Dutton.

Dutton, a 55-year-old with thick salt-and-pepper hair and bushy eyebrows, is an American-born philosophy professor at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. He's also becoming the latest and least likely Internet entrepreneur to strike it rich, thanks to a Website for fellow eggheads that he set up in his spare time last September. Dutton's one-page site, Arts & Letters Daily, has recently become the target of a small-scale bidding war. Well-funded highbrow suitors including Microsoft's Slate magazine; The Chronicle of Higher Education; Jeffrey Kittay, who publishes Lingua Franca; and Steven Johnson's online publication Feed have approached Dutton. All of them declined to comment, but prices under discussion are said to run to about $750,000 for the Website, which cost just over $200 to establish.

Dutton won't talk about any impending windfall: "I am discussing no speculations this week other than those by Aristotle and Spinoza." But he says Arts & Letters Daily began simply. "The idea was to find the very best, most provocative, deepest reads available on the Internet." He began by putting up links to about 90 articles or book reviews already published elsewhere and available free on the Web, plugging each one with a short teaser instead of a citation. "One of the oddest things about falling in love is that it is not a very good way to get to know someone," reads a pitch for a recent review in London's Financial Times.

After eleven months in business and no promotion, the page is now read more than 250,000 times a month (more than twice as much as Lingua Franca's site). With just a couple of employees and the sale of a few ads, Arts & Letters Daily's monthly "burn rate," or net loss, is in "the low three digits," Dutton says.

Still, some wonder what, exactly, there is to buy. "Considering that it is not a well-branded product and there is no original content, no registered list of users, and a limited audience, it seems pretty wacky," says Patrick Keane, a senior analyst at the research company Jupiter Communications.

"Yes, it is essentially a lemonade stand," Dutton admits. "But it is intended to be the most intellectually attractive lemonade stand in the universe. Are you aware that the London Sunday Observer said it was one of the best Websites in the world?"


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