People used to view technology as a threat to longform journalism. But in the past year, tools like Read it Later, Instapaper and The Atavist have helped change that mentality by making it easier to find, save and share longform stories online. Longform.org and Longreads.com, which curate longform stories for online reading, have also helped.
These tools and sites are valuable resources, but they’re largely geared toward readers, not writers.
Byliner, which launched the full version of its site this morning, is different. It’s a publishing company and a social network that’s aimed at both writers and readers. The name Byliner suggests as much; it’s less about the product (longform) or reading experience (long reads), and more about the writer behind the product.
Filling the gap between magazines & books
CEO and Founder John Tayman thought of the idea for Byliner a few years ago after finishing his book “The Colony.” When deciding whether to start another book or write magazine stories, he began exploring the space between magazines and books.
“There were stories I wanted to write — and as a reader stories I wanted to read — that weren’t served well by either of those two options,” Tayman said in a phone interview. “These stories needed more room than a magazine, but they didn’t require the time commitment of a book.”
Since Byliner launched in April, its website has primarily highlighted Byliner Originals — nonfiction stories that readers can purchase online and read on their mobile or tablet devices. Now, the site has new features that distinguish it from Kindle Singles and other publishing platforms.
When users click on an author’s byline, they’ll be directed to a page featuring the author’s published work. The site’s custom-built aggregation system automatically updates the page whenever the author releases a new story. “If a classic article becomes available online for the first time, or if the writer elects to make it available, you’ll see it immediately,” Tayman said.
He noted that Byliner is encouraging writers to interact with readers on the pages and recommend other writers’ work. Each author page features “Byliner Stats” — the number of times a writer’s work has been read on the site and the number of readers who have chosen to follow that writer. It also features similar writers, the way Amazon features similar books.
Additionally, the site now has an archive — aka a “discovery engine” — of more than 32,000 longform stories. About two dozen editors curated content for the archive with the help of the custom-built aggregator.
“The entire system,” Tayman said, “is designed to help readers discover and discuss great stories, and become fans of great writers.”
Helping writers gain exposure, publish timely stories
Despite skepticism over whether there’s a market for this type of writing, the Byliner Originals have done well so far. Krakauer’s “Three Cups of Deceit,” which suggests Greg Mortenson fabricated key parts of his “Three Cups of Tea” book, has been purchased or downloaded by more than 100,000 readers and was featured on a “60 Minutes” segment about Mortenson.
Vollman’s “Into the Forbidden Zone” — a 20,000 word-narrative about post-earthquake Japan — is already among the bestselling titles he’s published, Tayman said. He described both pieces as being too complex for a magazine piece, and too timely for a book.
The flexibility of the publishing process enabled Krakauer to add new information to “Three Cups of Deceit” hours before it was released. Vollmann’s story, meanwhile, was available online a week after he returned to the U.S.
“Byliner was created precisely to take advantage of the many things that being a primarily digital company allows,” Tayman said. “We can move swiftly, and get these great stories in front of readers while they’re still very current.”
Looking for the opportunity to discover great writers
Byliner has an editorial team that develops ideas for Byliner Originals and assigns them to writers they admire. Many of the editors have connections with writers, which makes it easier when looking for people to write Byliner Originals.
Editorial Director and Co-founder Mark Bryant, for instance, has worked closely with Susan Orlean, David Foster Wallace, Sebastian Junger and Krakauer, who he reached out to when Byliner was initially looking for stories to publish. Similarly, editor-at-large Will Blythe reached out to Vollmann after the editorial team came up with the idea for a piece about the Japan earthquake.
Writers can also pitch their own story ideas. Some of the upcoming Byliner Originals, Tayman said, originated from writers’ pitches.
“One of the things we’re really excited about is the opportunity to discover some great writers. You don’t have to be famous, but the stories have to be great and the writing has to be great,” said Tayman, noting that Byliner Originals are typically between 10,000 and 35,000 words. “Everything is carefully edited and presented in a way that allows the author to be really proud of what’s going out to his or her readers.”
Byliner, which handles all of the social marketing and PR for the Byliner Originals, pays assignment fees to Byliner Original authors. It then splits the sales profit 50/50. The website plans to generate affiliate and advertising revenue, Tayman said, but the majority of the revenue will come from book sales.
To expand its reach, Byliner has partnered with New York University’s magazine journalism program. It also created a distribution relationship with Read it Later, which gives the company access to about 4 million registered users who are interested in longform journalism.
“People respond to great stories by great writers. And we want to give them a spot where they’ll always be able to find something good to read, whether it’s a classic article by their favorite writer, a new article by a writer they’ve just discovered, or a Byliner Original,” Tayman said. “We have the editorial resources and the marketing resources to make this a success — not only for us but especially for the writers we’ll be working with.”