Editor’s Note: Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with their Winter 2011 issue,”Writing the Book,” which focuses on the new relationships between journalism and the evolving book publishing industry. Over the next few days, we’ll highlight a few stories from the issue — but go read the whole thing. In this piece, John Tayman writes about his thinking behind starting Byliner.
How many words do I have? It’s a question I’m accustomed to asking whenever I write a story. Sometimes I ask it of myself, more often of my editor. Before I started writing this piece, I asked the editor of this magazine for a length.
“You’ve got 1,000 words,” she replied.
That’s an arbitrary word count, of course, since I could tell the story of our eight-month-old digital publishing effort in fewer words. Or I could tell it in more. With my words destined for Nieman Reports’s print pages — and for its website — it’s natural for the editor to think about how many words she wants and what visuals might accompany them. This is a sensible approach and until recently was how publishing worked, whether in a magazine or a book. Editors assigned story lengths, then slashed or stretched what got delivered to a workable word count, even when that count might not serve the story well.
Over the years, I’ve often been the one doing such slashing and stretching. It’s never fun. Some stories escaped unscathed, but most suffered — and their writers suffered — simply because a few magazine ads went unsold or the marketing department felt a fatter spine would sell more copies in bookstores. Oh, we waxed poetic about “letting the story find its natural length.” But deep down we knew it wasn’t possible. A story that needed 10,000, 20,000 or even 30,000 words to be properly told inevitably fell into publishing’s dead zone. This represented the vast wasteland of impossible-to-place stories that were longer than magazine space permitted and shorter than a book was thought to be.
In January 2009, a year before the iPad was launched and two years before Amazon introduced Kindle Singles, I was chatting with some writers and editors about an idea for a company that would bring stories that fell into that dead zone to life. Our idea was to create a new way for writers to be able to tell stories at what had always been considered a financially awkward length. Such articles — at this longer length they were likely to be told as narrative accounts — would be reported and written swiftly, not unlike a magazine piece. We’d sell them on digital platforms as ebooks.