Byliner’s New Adventure in Publishing—A Talk with CEO John Tayman

2/28/13Follow @wroush

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founded The New York Times’ sports magazine. We brought on a few other established, amazing editors we had worked with in the past so we would have a core team of people who had direct relationships with top authors.

X: Has it been difficult trying to explain this new product category to readers or authors or retail partners? What’s the story you tell them?

JT: We don’t put up any false distinctions about what is a book and what is not a book, what is a magazine, what is a publisher. We are agnostic about these things. If you begin to think entirely in terms of storytellers and stories, there is not much of a difference between that 7,000 word piece in The New Yorker by Susan Orlean and a 10,000-word Byliner Original e-book. It’s just a story. We very consciously avoid using the word “book.”

When I sit down at the end of the day, and I have a couple of hours, and I love adventure tales and I like Jon Krakauer or Sebastian Junger, Byliner should bubble up the perfect story every time. Conversely, if I want to read a 20-minute story, Byliner should be the easiest place to go and do that.

One of the reasons Byliner has been successful in the year and a half since we really launched, and that I think bodes well for our growing success, is that we work directly with these top authors to bring their stories to readers. We didn’t want to be a self-publishing platform; there are others like Smashwords and Hyperink and Inkling that are doing that extraordinarily well. We wanted to focus on the very top authors and help them reach their fan bases in a way that directly benefits them and, by extension, Byliner.

X: You mentioned Krakauer and Junger. A lot of your stories seem to be from the outdoor-adventure, extreme sports, or mountain wilderness genre, including your first original story, Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit. Why is that?

JT: Those are inherently engaging narratives. They always have been. Look at Melville or Jack London. Anything that transports a reader to a place, puts them at risk, elevates their adrenaline, and gets them safely home (though sometimes a great adventure ends badly and you get a voyeuristic thrill from having survived it) is interesting.

One thing that consistently sells—the biggest indicator of sales for us—is single, clean, straight narratives. It’s the equivalent of an afternoon at the movies. It’s something that resonates with people; they finish the story and they’ve been entertained. And to your point, one of the most powerful, truest, most exhilarating and satisfying narrative types is the adventure. Crime stories and personal memoirs also make great narratives.

We were one of the first companies to begin publishing in this category of single, quick reads, designed to be read in two hours or less, but other people call it other things. Amazon was smart enough to understand this, and they created a sub-store called Kindle Singles to make it easy to find this size of content. Apple soon created Quick Reads, and Barnes & Noble created Nook Snaps. We are the number one publisher in this category, and it is, by many accounts, the fastest-growing category of digital publishing. And the consistent thing is that these are strong narratives, told by an expert.

X: Can you imagine moving beyond narrative non-fiction?

JT: We will. The area we launched with was non-fiction, and then we added fiction. [Byliner is serializing a new novel by Margaret Atwood called Positron.] We will move into other genres as our readers demand it. We’ve talked about young adult, romance, horror, science fiction, fantasy. Our only threshold is that these are the best writers in the world, and these are their best stories. If one of these writers came to us with a zombie or vampire story, we’d do it.

X: A lot of the content you list at Byliner is actually stuff that appears on other sites and publications, right? What’s the thinking there?

JT: One thing that was obvious from the get-go was that for these top writers, there is no equivalent of a LinkedIn page that has all of their work on it—a single page online that, if you are a fan of one of these top writers, lets you know everything that they are doing. The forward-thinking ones were doing that for themselves, but then you run into the dilemma of getting traffic for that site. If every writer were to build a complete structured database of their portfolio and make it easy to plug into search and social networks, then you would have a reader resource that’s really powerful and a perfect marketplace for writers.

So we began building out that infrastructure. It’s now the largest database of narrative non-fiction that exists—there are 40,000-odd stories in the database. So if Malcolm Gladwell publishes a new story in The New Yorker tomorrow, people on Byliner know about it immediately, even if we are going to point you to The New Yorker to read it. But we also wanted to give these top writers the ability to surface stories that had never lived online anywhere, to let those backlist stories generate some revenue or act as lead generation.

X: You started out selling your stories as one-off e-books, but you’re now moving to a subscription model with your Byliner Plus program. How does that work, and what’s the business thinking behind it?

JT: For the first year or so, we leveraged the existing retail channels. We put our books in Amazon, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Google, and the rest. And we have authors making $70,000, $80,000, or $100,000 through a single story in those channels. But even then, there is friction. I have to go find it and download it, or put it in my shopping cart. Then you have to worry about whether it’s only going to be available on a Kindle or a Nook.

What we wanted to do with a Byliner subscription service is clear out as much of that as possible. It is a responsive-design, HTML5 site that works on any browser. You can dive in and read all of the Byliner originals, plus … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Guy-Montag/100000682995139 Guy Montag

    Wade Roush, you (and your readers) might find the backstory to thee genesis of Byliner.com to be of interest. In his interview, John Tayman appeared to dance around that issue :

    “It’s [“Into Thin Air”] there in print forever. It’s part of history. People should be above taking someone else down. And for what? For money and egos people are willing to destroy other people to further their careers.”

    — David Breashears, (“Improper Bostonian”, Sept 24, 1997)

    In April 2011, Daniel Glick wrote: “I believe in the importance of journalism to ferret out charlatans, expose financial fraud, and hold people and institutions accountable. That said, it’s hard to believe why “60 Minutes” decided that Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute qualified on any of those fronts – much less why Jon Krakauer joined in this recent barrage.” …“[their assault was overkill] lacking in basic elements of fairness, balance, perspective, insight and context.”

    Their expose resulted in a dramatic drop in Mortenson’s book sales and donations to CAI [and contributed to co-author David Relin’s Nov. 2012 suicide]. So, it’s rather ironic that after his break with Mortenson in 2004, Krakauer had written: “I still believe in CAI’s mission … I don’t want to make any public statements that would have a negative impact on Greg’s work….” So then, seven years later, what prompted him to speak out?

    Well, Krakauer was not just a “crusading do-gooder” outraged by literary deceit. It appears his e-book was largely a publicity stunt timed with the “60 Minutes” broadcast (largely spoon-fed to them by Krakauer) to create the “buzz” to raise the investment capital needed to launch his old friend Mark Bryant’s start-up of Byliner.com.

    For more details, see the chapter, “With Three Cups of Luck?,” in the April 2011 Jon Krakauer post at the Feral Firefighter blog.