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April 25, 2011, 10:30 a.m.

With three cups of luck, Byliner builds pre-launch buzz for its longform-focused platform

When former NYT Magazine editor Gerry Marzorati spoke at Berkeley earlier this spring about saving long-form journalism, he tossed out an interesting idea: Someone should assemble a “hive” of  long-form journalists and build a website to attract readers and showcase the writers’ work. New Yorker writer Mark Danner suggested that the hive could be a one-stop shop, providing writers with marketing, social media help, and event coordination, in addition to publishing their work. Marzorati emphasized that the endeavor would need to rely on popular, big-name journalists to establish its cachet.

Across the Bay in San Francisco, it turns out, a plan very much like this one was already in the works. Byliner, which will launch in May, combines a publishing platform for original, long-form journalism with a website that aims to be the Pandora of narrative nonfiction — and to make itself the main curator for that kind of storytelling on the web.

Three Cups of Deceit

It’s an ambitious project, led in part by an editor with deep connections to some of the country’s most established nonfiction writers. As editor of Outside magazine, Mark Bryant won five National Magazine Awards, and he’s worked with Michael Lewis, Susan Orlean, Jon Krakauer, David Foster Wallace, Annie Proulx, Sebastian Junger, Mary Roach, Bill Bryson, Ian Frazier, and Denis Johnson.

So yes, they’ve got cachet.

Byliner had a more or less picture-perfect debut last week with the publication of Jon Krakauer’s “Three Cups of Deceit,” an investigation into the finances and real biography of Three Cups of Tea author and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greg Mortensen. The story was available free for the first 72 hours, and more than 70,000 people had downloaded it as of yesterday. (It’s currently at #1 in Amazon’s Kindle Singles store.) The company has also worked out a partnership with Read It Later, which will give them immediate access to roughly 4 million registered users, Bryant said.

While some of the details about Byliner won’t be clear until after the launch, I spoke with Bryant about the strategy behind the project, and how he envisions the site will fit into the existing publishing world.

Bryant described Byliner as less a competitor for existing publishers and more a central gathering place for long-form journalism. It will provide some of its own content, he said, but also direct readers to stories elsewhere.

“If we can help create this narrative nonfiction community, and if Byliner can become a clearinghouse for that, that will help float everybody ‘s boat,” Bryant said. “We’re friendly with The Atavist,” and “I really admire groups like longform.org. They’re all great, and I think we can help each other.”

In talks with companies like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Barnes & Noble, it became clear that the web giants were eager to see more long-form reporting produced, Bryant said. The companies were particularly excited to build a relationship with publishers with a proven history in the field of nonfiction — and who would “guarantee them a steady diet of quality work.” (Byliner aims to publish an original piece every two weeks or so.)

In 2009, Bryant and his former colleague, Techland editor John Tayman (who had also previously launched MotorMouths.com), had started talking about ways “to help preserve long-form journalism” in a world where magazine ad sales — and with them, magazine budgets, page numbers, and story word counts — were shrinking. But the technology they needed to do that simply wasn’t in place, Bryant said, and they set the idea aside. Last summer, with the iPad ascendant, they went back into planning mode.

Partnership and community

Their startup has two branches. The more straightforward of them is “Byliner Originals,” which will edit and publish new journalism for a tablet platform. (They’re aiming for pieces in the 8,000-to-35,000 word range — long by most journalism standards, but still short enough to be read in one sitting.) To complement that endeavor, Byliner will also launch what sounds like a fairly elaborate website for nonfiction afficionados. The site will include author pages that will allow Byliner’s writers to tout their personal brands and connect with readers — an intuitive choice — and will also aggregate conversations about those stories from around the web.

“On the writers’ pages, the writers are encouraged to actually join in the conversation about the pieces, to talk about what they’re reading, what they recommend,” Bryant said. He thinks the site will be “a great place for writers to build fan bases.”

Byliner’s COO, Ted Barnett, provides the social media chops: AOL acquired one of his early companies for $225 milion, and he most recently founded a virtual world site for kids. To promote its brand and its authors, Bryant said the company will not only employ traditional marketing techniques, but also focus on social media. (They’re planning on hiring a full-time social media expert.)

Writers will get an advance, and will split the sales profits 50-50 with Byliner. “We really see it as much more of a partnership than a business relationship, and the authors have come with us in part because of our personal relationships with them,” Bryant said. “They trust us to handle their work right.”

But Byliner.com is going a step further: Its founders want it to be the central location for narrative nonfiction on the web, and they are creating an archive of 25,000 suggested stories, both current and classic, together with a recommendation service — the Pandora for longform — that will note readers’ preferences and suggest authors that they might like.

Tayman, the CEO and primary strategist behind the Byliner website, wrote in an e-mail that the archive will ultimately feature “more than 2,000 of the best non-fiction writers working.”

“We’re curating the full author directories by hand — the writers don’t need to do a thing — and we’ll roll them out in stages,” he wrote. “For our beta launch, almost 200 writers will have dedicated archives that will allow readers to find that writer’s newest or classic articles, their books, and — if they’ve written one — their Byliner Originals.”

“The idea is to give a reader the opportunity to do deeper discovery or cross-discovery related to an article or a writer, in a way that’s simply not possible now online.”

Byliner won’t host full articles on the site; the archive is more of a referral service. It will include headlines, decks, and the beginnings of each story, Bryant said, and will then send users directly to the site where the story was originally published — or to the place where they can buy the book. This linking out, in fact, is a small part of Byliner’s business model. (Think Amazon affiliation fees.)

There will also be publication pages on the site that will include links for readers to subscribe to a given magazine — Esquire was Bryant’s example — or to buy the magazine’s iPad app, or to find links to top stories from Esquire selected by Byliner editors.

Bryant said the archive is being curated with the help of roughly twenty young editors, some working part-time. It sounds like a massive endeavor, and it may also be a risky one.

Writing about Byliner last week, Sarah Lacy, who is in talks to be a Byliner contributer herself, called the archive a “distraction” from the more promising work of the Byliner Originals.

I just don’t think people are sitting around waiting for more long-form pieces to read. If you’re like me you already have a stack of books you are trying to find time to get through and stacks back issues of the New Yorker, the Economist and Vanity Fair are taking over your house…I think there’s a niche group who will love this site. But largely, I think it’s designed for a mass audience that reporters like me wish existed.

In response, Tayman took issue with the idea that people have too much to read. “I don’t think readers ever suffer from having too many *great* stories to read,” he wrote. “The idea is to save readers from wasting their time on reading that might not be satisfying — to steer them away from unsatisfying stories, and point them to stories that not only are great reads, but great reads that will resonate with them. We think that people don’t suffer from having *too* much to read, but from not being able to easily find stories they know that they’ll enjoy.”

“Aesthetically beautiful stories”

At least initially, however, the Byliner Originals will provide the major revenue stream for the company. The site will not feature advertising, at least not until its traffic hits a certain threshold, Bryant said.

He called the popularity of Krakauer’s free PDF story “kind of extraordinary.”

“Yeah, we were giving it away for free, but you know, I think the sales numbers would still be pretty significant,” he said. And while most of Byliner’s original pieces “will not be taking an investigative bent,” he said he does hope that many will be “highly relevant.” And they’ll run the gamut in their tone and content. “I think some of them might be quirky from time to time, a little surprising,” Bryant said. The idea is quality over category. “There’s a place for deadly serious stories. There’s a place for humor.”

“I think if you looked at the first year’s worth of Byliner Originals,” Bryant said, connecting them all “would be the idea that they’re all smart, they’re all really well reported, they’re aesthetically beautiful stories.” While Byliner’s first dozen authors are mainly veterans of long-form, Bryant is also recruiting younger writers. “We’re willing to take chances with people,” he said. “Generally speaking, we’re looking for people, whether they’re 23 or 73, that their skills are pretty well honed and that they know what they’re doing.”

And as for the echoes between Marzorati’s “hive” proposal and Byliner? Not a coincidence. “I had spent three years consulting full-time from The New York Times and working directly with and for Gerry,” Bryant said, “and I was fortunate to be able to hear a lot of his ideas.”

POSTED     April 25, 2011, 10:30 a.m.
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