Last month, an unknown San Francisco publishing start-up had just about the best debut imaginable. Byliner's first product became an instant best-seller and seriously called into question the reputation of an international sensation a decade in the making--all in less than 25,000 words that never touched a printing press.
The tiny operation released Jon Krakauer's "Three Cups of Deceit"--a scathing deconstruction of alleged fraud and mismanagement at the hands of world-famous do-gooder Greg Mortenson of "Three Cups of Tea" fame--as a free PDF in mid-April. The launch got a big boost from a story that aired last month on "60 Minutes" about Mortenson, based largely on Krakauer's research. (Disclosure: "60 Minutes" is broadcast by CBS, publisher of CNET.)
"Reaction has been extraordinary," Byliner.com founder John Tayman told CNET. "In the 72 hours it was available as (a) free download, more than 70,000 readers downloaded a copy. It then moved to thestore, and it went to No. 1 within six hours."
As of this writing, the 75-page narrative--a riveting account despite being based largely on a review of financial records and interviews with people with ties to Mortenson's nonprofit--remains in that top slot (even as Mortenson's supporters, including one of his former climbing partners quoted by Krakauer, have come to his defense).
Now, Byliner is looking for a repeat performance with its follow-up release in its "Byliner Originals" series--20,000 words from award-winning author William T. Vollmann titled "Into the Forbidden Zone: A Trip Through Hell and High Water in Post-Earthquake Japan." Byliner commissioned Vollmann, who has written about Japan in the past, and paid for his trip to the triple-disaster area to gather stories of survivors, the aftermath, and implications for the future.
"We want to take advantage of the swiftness that digital publishing allows to get these great reads in front of readers," said Tayman, himself a writer and editor who has worked at Business 2.0 and Outside magazine. "Our first two titles are excellent examples of that approach. These are stories that have complexity and currency, tackled by two of the most acclaimed writers in America."
That swiftness offers a new experience for readers of long-form nonfiction. I downloaded and read the free PDF of Krakauer's "Three Cups of Deceit" on my Kindle within hours of its becoming available. By the time I reached the final few pages--after less than 90 minutes of reading--I was taking in updates from Krakauer that he had penned less than 48 hours prior. The space provided by the digital format allowed him to expand at length with blow-by-blow details of his efforts to pin down the evasive Mortenson for a last-minute interview.
Tayman says Byliner has more than 20 original titles in development from name authors, but acting as a sort of nouveau digital publishing house producing new, timely work is just part of what Byliner will be when it launches in full. The other part of the business, as Tayman describes it, is essentially a discovery engine for fans of nonfiction.
"When we launch, Byliner will allow readers to get easy access to more than 25,000 of the best feature articles ever written. These are articles that may have been published mere hours ago, or 50 years ago. We'll also make it easy for readers to explore the work of more than 2,000 of the best nonfiction 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 says a beta version of the site, expected to launch in the next few weeks, will include archives for nearly 200 writers featuring their new and old work, as well as any Byliner originals they might have done. Sales of those in-house originals will be the main revenue stream, but Tayman says the site will also produce advertising and sponsorship revenue, as well as revenue from affiliate sales--Krakauer's piece is already available in audio through iTunes for $4.99.
Over the years, it's become a common assumption that the Internet drives the trend toward more brevity in everything we read, but Tayman is in the smaller camp that also sees an opening for another niche.
"Some stories aren't suited to either books or magazines, because of length or timing. Byliner was created to allow writers (to) get those sorts of stories to readers."
And it looks as though there are plenty of readers hungry for those stories. Some other content producers, notably investigative journalism outfit ProPublica, have experimented and had some success with posting long stories in Amazon's Singles section, but Byliner appears to be one of the first to attempt building a business model around it.
So far, it's a promising gamble. Just a few days after debuting on Amazon, the Byliner Originals story by Vollmann is currently stalking Krakauer's No. 1 ranking. "Into the Forbidden Zone" currently sits at No. 5 on Amazon's list of nonfiction best-sellers.