Byliner’s New Adventure in Publishing—A Talk with CEO John Tayman
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that is a 7- or 10- or 12-day commitment, and I would really just like a story I can be in and out of in an hour or two.
So the early origins of Byliner were, what if you created a digital publishing company that focused on the space between conventional magazines and conventional books—what would that look like and how would that work? From my own selfish writer’s point of view, that was appealing, because then I could spend a month on a project, rather than a year or two, and from a reader’s perspective, that’s the size of story I can enjoy in a single sitting.
X: How do you define a single sitting?
JT: When I was thinking through this, I was trying to equate it with other entertainment experiences. Like when you go to a movie—you’ve just enjoyed a whole story, a complete narrative with a beginning and an end in two hours. Then I looked at reading speeds—what could the average American read to completion in a couple of hours. It turned out to be about 25,000 or 30,000 words. So I decided to start a digital publishing company that focuses on narrative non-fiction under 30,000 words.
X: Why do you think that gap existed for so long, between the 4,000-word magazine article and the 100,000-word book?
JT: In the old bricks-and-mortar world, there was no effective way to monetize content that fell between those two sizes.
Back in the 1980s, it wasn’t uncommon for a few magazines to run pieces that might total 25,000 words. Often, what would happen is that their agent or publisher would then encourage them to turn it into a full-size book. Then you’d have a story that was perfect at 25,000 words that would get larded up to hit the 75,000-word threshold—so the spine was large enough that the marketing people thought they could sell it in a bookstore—but the story suffered. If you picked up a hardcover book that had been plumped up like that, it wasn’t a very good reading experience.
But then as a magazine editor, I found myself way too often looking at a story that was beautiful at 10,000 words, but had to be carved down because we could only accommodate 3,500 words in that issue.
So from an editor’s perspective and a consumer’s perspective, I saw the problem with having to shoehorn content into either size. Once you begin thinking primarily digitally, you are freed from that.
X: You’d been a writer and editor all your life—how did you take this idea and turn it into an actual business?
JT: I knew that I didn’t know enough. If somebody said “structured database” to me back then, I would have said, “What?” So I attacked it the way I would have attacked another book or magazine experience—I went about learning how someone starts a company.
Now, in 2006, 2007, it was obvious that the timing wasn’t quite right. We could be commissioning these stories, but the delivery, distribution, and discovery mechanisms weren’t in place, and in fact wouldn’t be in place until the Kindle and the iPad came out. So I thought what I needed to do was build a “starter startup”—something that I could conceivably pull off and use as a learning experience, a graduate-level course.
So I bootstrapped a kind of Rotten Tomatoes for car reviews called Motormouths. Through happenstance, I had ended up being the car columnist for Business 2.0 for four or five years, so I knew there wasn’t a Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes that pulled together all the credible, expert reviews about cars and made them really easy to find and read. I said, okay, that will be a good project. I contracted with developers, creative assets, distribution deals, API stuff.
In the course of doing that, the Kindle came out, and then the iPad, and the explosion of mobile reading, and in very short order all of the things I was hoping for came to pass.
X: But there were e-book devices on the market long before 2007. What were the specific signs that made you feel the time was right to advance from Motormouths to Byliner?
JT: Back in the days when it was just the Sony Reader and those very early devices, an effective mobile device [for selling e-books] hadn’t been invented. It was when the Kindle came out and its user base blew up, and then the iPad, that you could see the trend lines.
Part of my research was on myself. I found this was how I was reading. And then I saw the early rise of the time-shifting apps that enabled users to consume this kind of content during their commute or off-hours—Marco [Arment] with Instapaper and Nate [Weiner] with Pocket.
I was never one of those people who worried about the future of reading. I always had confidence that there were going to be great writers, and the right writer will tell a great story, and will always attract a readership. If there were hiccups in the system, it was because no one had ever made it incredibly easy and cost-effective and fun to be able to find and read those stories by top authors.
X: How did you attract your first authors to the Byliner platform?
JT: I had functioned as the editor-in-chief of various magazines, so the publishing part of it was fairly straightforward for me. I was experienced at commissioning original work from great authors, as were the early people who came and joined me on Byliner, for instance Mark Bryant, my co-founder and editor-in-chief, who was executive editor at HarperColllins and … Next Page »