Byliner’s New Adventure in Publishing—A Talk with CEO John Tayman
In 1997, Outside magazine published a memorable non-fiction story by Peter Stark about what it feels like to freeze to death. The headline, awesomely, cribbed from Emily Dickinson: “As freezing persons recollect the snow—First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.”
John Tayman was an editor at Outside at the time, and he remembers that even years after he left the magazine, he would often see mentions of Stark’s piece on link-sharing sites. “Every six months, I would see that damn piece pop up on Metafilter or Digg or Reddit or Stumbleupon,” Tayman says. “The comments were always the same. First: ‘That’s a great story.’ Next: ‘Who wrote that?’ ‘Some guy named Peter Stark.’ Then: ‘What else has he written?’ ‘I don’t know.’”
In other words, the links drove a lot of traffic back to Outside’s website, but that was where it stopped. The perennial virality of the piece wasn’t helping Stark to sell books or gather permanent fans. For Tayman, the example turned into something of an obsession. “There was this one piece of content that triggered a desire to read more, and then exposed the frustration of being unable to do that,” he says.
Many years later, Tayman is finally getting a chance to fix that problem. He’s the co-founder and CEO of a digital publishing startup called Byliner that wants to make sure readers never hit a dead end.
If you’ve already heard about the San Francisco-based company, you might be under the impression that it specializes in publishing short e-books like Jon Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit, its first original title back in 2011. But as Tayman describes Byliner, the vision is much bigger than that.
For one thing, Tayman’s team has built what’s probably the world’s largest database of narrative non-fiction articles by recognized authors, no matter where they were first published. In some cases the full text is available; in others, just links. If you search the site for Peter Stark today, for example, you’ll find six of his Outside articles, from the 1997 feature all the way up to a 2012 piece on the year he spent in Brazil.
And while some of Byliner’s titles have gone to the top of Amazon’s Kindle Singles charts (including David Leonhardt’s Here’s the Deal, published in partnership with The New York Times), Byliner’s business isn’t really about selling individual e-books. The company is now nudging readers toward a $9.99-per-month subscription model under which customers will get access to all of Byliner’s content through an HTML5 website and native mobile apps. Revenue is split half-and-half with authors according to the number of page views each racks up.
Think of Byliner as IMDB meets Netflix or Spotify, but for long-form journalism (and, down the road, other genres). “We want to become the go-to place, anytime you want to discover or read great stories by your favorite authors,” says Tayman. “If it’s not content we can deliver to you, we can at least point you to it.”
In the era of easy access to e-book software and e-book stores, it’s clear that readers are buying more books and spending more time reading. But what excites Tayman, himself the author of the 2006 non-fiction volume The Colony, is the possibility of using digital channels to create lasting connections between individual authors and their fans.
“One of the frustrations I always had as a writer was I didn’t know who was reading me,” Tayman says. “I had been a pretty successful magazine writer for a couple of decades before my book came out, and I had no way of telling the people who had been reading my stories, ‘Hey, I have a new book out, here it is.’” Byliner helps to solve that problem by allowing readers to follow specific authors, meaning they get updates every time the writer publishes something new.
Traditionally, the link between writers and readers has been mediated by agents, publishers, and bookstores. Tayman’s basic vision is to reduce the number of middlemen to just one, while solving the discovery problem and reserving more of the profits for writers.
To do that, the startup has raised a seed round of about $1 million and an undisclosed amount of Series A funding from Avalon Ventures, Freestyle Capital, SoftTech VC, Bullpen Capital, Random House, ICG Ventures, and Crunchfund. It has a bustling office in San Francisco’s SoMa district, where I visited Tayman for a conversation in late January. Here’s the edited transcript.
Xconomy: What were the strands in your history that led you to start Byliner?
John Tayman: My last book, The Colony, was the story of a leper colony on Molokai—everything about the history and the bacteriology and the community. It was that experience that led to Byliner.
For the early part of my career I was a magazine writer and editor. I started my own magazine in Colorado, and I was an editor at Outside magazine for a long time. I would switch between writing full-time and editing full-time. I took a break to do this book for Scribner, and like any big non-fiction project, it ended up taking three or three and a half years. It did really well, so my publisher and agent were saying, ‘Let’s get you going on another one.’ But this was early 2007, and the last thing I wanted to do was dive into another three-year-long book project in a publishing world that was obviously changing.
At the same time, because I had been a magazine editor and writer for such a long time, I had a stack of ideas that I thought would make good [magazine] projects, but as I started looking at them, I realized most were not well served by the publishing industry as it exists. They were too complicated to be told in magazine size—which is usually 3,000 to 4,000 words—but at the same time, they didn’t benefit from being 100,000 words, which is the conventional hard-back book size.
The lack of anything in between these sizes was troubling to me. As an obsessive reader, I would come home at night and on my nightstand is a stack of books, some of which I would never pick up, because … Next Page »