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A discovery engine for narrative nonfiction: Byliner.com launches with high hopes and a sleek site

It’s a nonfiction nerd’s fantasy: a database of nearly 30,000 feature stories, meticulously organized, sleekly presented, and fully searchable — by author, by publication, by topic.

Byliner.com, which launches today, wants to be the Pandora of narrative nonfiction. It offers users a recommendation service that suggests new authors they might like, as well as automatic Facebook updates whenever a favorite writer publishes a new story. It also offers writer profile pages that gather their long-form stories from across the web together with links to the Amazon pages of their published books.

The site is already large and impressive. It has the “follow me down the rabbit hole” appeal of Wikipedia (one page leads to another, and suddenly you’ve spent an hour on the site), paired with the ambience of a gentleman’s club: elegant design, good service, a certain tone — like the rustle of electronic pages as Serious People Read.

But the most striking thing about the Byliner site is that it has been conceived and created purely as a subsidiary to a publishing platform, Byliner Originals, which produces and sells tablet-friendly works of narrative nonfiction. The platform’s first offering, Jon Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortensen, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way, was downloaded more than 70,000 times in its initial week on the web. Over the past few weeks, according to a press release, nearly 200,000 people have downloaded or bought the early Byliner Originals, which also include William T. Vollmann’s exploration of Japan’s nuclear “hot zone,” a volume of “poems” drawn from Sarah Palin’s e-mail archive, an account of the first six months of the Civil War by the lead writer for The New York Times’ “Disunion” blog, and Glenn L. Carle’s The White House Wants to Get Him: An Inside Account of the Bush Administration’s Campaign to Smear Juan Cole, by the Agent Who Tried to Stop It.

The model

Byliner co-founder and CEO John Tayman told me that the company does not plan to charge readers for using Byliner.com — and, more surprisingly, they aren’t going to charge authors for their profile pages, either. It’s all free. Tayman said one goal of the site is to cultivate communities of readers interested in certain styles, topics, and authors — which will make it easier to target purchasers for certain Byliner Originals.

But the sheer scale of Byliner.com — a rigorously curated 29,760 feature articles, as of yesterday, and growing — seems out of proportion to this simple goal. Tayman is a long-form true believer. Like other journalists in the industry, he’s seen the evidence that there is a strong web readership for new long-form stories. But he also seems to think the appetite for long-form is great enough to support a great Palace of Nonfiction Culture, featuring stories  from 1816 onwards.

TechCrunch reporter Sarah Lacy, who wrote in April that she hopes to publish with Byliner Originals, noted then that she had much less faith in the plans for Byliner.com. “I just don’t think people are sitting around waiting for more long-form pieces to read,” she wrote. “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.”

Byliner.com is a referral service, not a library. The database contains tens of thousands of article previews: the hed, the deck, the source of the article, and its first 300 words or so, followed by two discreet buttons: “Read at Source” or “Read It Later.” These are substantive hooks, and they lead to many different online magazines and news sites, some of them (including, of course, The New Yorker) behind paywalls. “We’re approximating the leads as pushed out by RSS,” Tayman explained in an email, when asked about the length of the previews. “We’ll make adjustments if required, but…the intent is to give the reader enough information to see the value of the article, and then point them to the full article at the source.”

The real innovation of the site, however, is the meticulously edited metadata attached to each article preview. Each article and author is labeled in many ways, from the predictable, like the topics it covers, to the unexpected, like where the author hails from in the county or the world. This metadata is what will power Byliner’s recommendations to its readers. Do you like tech stories by writers from the midwest? Southern crime stories? Byliner’s Pandora function will note the preferences of each user, based on what they read and share, and present them with increasingly tailored suggestions.

Author pages

It’s possible to search the Byliner archive by topic (Arts, Business, Crime, Tech, etc.) or by keyword search, but the site is designed around writer discovery, so it focuses on writer profiles. Each writer page has a small head shot, and a two-sentence summary of the writer’s work, together with a selection of their long-form stories, which are sortable both by “most recent” and “most popular.” Each author profile also features small icons of the author’s books, linked to the page where you can buy them on Amazon.

The author pages are where the social sharing aspects of Byliner come in. These include both the typical Facebook and Twitter buttons, as well as a Byliner-specific sharing system for registered users. If you “follow” a writer on Byliner, updates about them will appear in your Byliner dashboard. (Mine currently notes, among other things, that “Tom Wolfe published One Giant Leap to Nowhere in New York Times 10 days ago.” There’s a teensy little photo of Wolfe in his white suit.) If you “Like” an author, you’ll get notifications about their newly published articles automatically integrated into your Facebook feed. If you “Share” a story you like on Byliner, it will pop up on your own Byliner profile page, and other Byliner users can decide to follow you, too, if they like the mix of articles you curate.

Finally, each article page has a Facebook-enabled comment box, which allows users to respond to particular stories. Tayman said the site will also aggregate commentary on stories from around the web — a feature that could be very dynamic for new, popular, or controversial stories.

Byliner’s editors created the profile pages without major input from the authors, Tayman said, but he said that several writers who have previewed their pages are excited about the possibility of gaining a wider audience through the site. Jon Krakauer will be hosting five of his no-longer-available articles on his Byliner profile page. In the age of “building your personal brand,” Byliner is giving nonfiction writers a jump-start, which many of them seem to need. (Michael Lewis, for instance — a nonfiction writer at the top of his game — does not appear to have any sort of personal website, although he does have a fairly detailed Wikipedia page. His Byliner profile brings together a deep archive of his work from across several different publications.)

Authors themselves can choose to be present in the Byliner community — or not. At the moment, their involvement is mainly limited to recommending stories they like to other users, or to asking Byliner to add more of their articles to their profiles. At least for now, Tayman said, authors can’t do much to personalize their profiles — there’s no way to add an extended bio or a list of recent tweets. The profiles are brief and standard.

“There’s so much noise on the web. There’s so much stuff that gets in the way, that we wanted to present a really clean, fast, simple site that encourages you to jump in and start reading these stories,” Tayman explained.

Emerging writers

Tayman himself is most enthusiastic about the ways that Byliner might help talented emerging writers consolidate a fan base. Byliner is designed to guide readers from well-known authors to younger, less-discovered ones, Tayman said. For instance, one of the site’s highlighted “emerging writers” is Graeme Wood, a contributing editor to The Atlantic who also freelances for several other publications. On Wood’s Byliner page, Thomas Friedman and Fareed Zakaria are listed as “similar writers.”

“The system is going to slide this new, emerging writer in front of you, and then Graeme Wood benefits form the audiences of Fareed Zakaria and Thomas Friedman, and the reader gets exposed to a younger writer,” Tayman explained.

The point of the Byliner system is to accelerate a reader’s path from being someone who doesn’t recognize an author’s byline, to someone who might buy his or her book. It cuts out the messy Googling and browsing through various contributors’ pages,  and it makes an author’s long-form oeuvre elegantly sortable (by popularity, “editor’s picks,” or “award winners”) and searchable: As Tayman pointed out, you can search within Michael Lewis’ archive for the word “baseball.”

The question, of course, is how many non-journalists will be excited to jump into the site and play these kinds of games. (Does clicking on war correspondent C.J. Chivers‘ profile lead you to war correspondent Dexter Filkins? Check!) I found clicking through Byliner yesterday, in advance of the launch, to be a delightful but disorienting experience. The site is glossy and thorough and forward-thinking. It’s built to be the definitive gathering place for fans of long-form journalism.

But I had to wonder: Are there enough of us — with enough buying power — to keep this new club open?

                                   
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