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 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 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 thousands of exclusive pieces by the same authors, and you can do it all at a single subscription price. It’s a model that delivers far more revenue to the author than they have ever been able to realize, and it’s of far greater value to readers than going around and hunting.
X: How do authors get paid under the subscription model?
JT: We do a straight 50/50 revenue share on all revenue that is flowing through Byliner. If you’re buying Jonathan Ames’ You Were Never Really Here, the most recent Byliner Original, you can find it on Apple, Amazon, wherever. The retail partner takes their 30 percent, and the remaining 70 percent, we split 50/50 with the author. The only difference between that and the subscription system is that if I read Jonathan’s book here in the Byliner Plus service, there is no 30 percent cutout, and we track what is being read on a pro rata basis. For every page read (and we count 250 words as a page), we do a 50/50 share of the revenue generated by that reading.
Now where this gets really promising is, if you enjoyed this story, Boom, you can follow this author, and from now on whatever Jonathan writes is going to drop into your feed. We can turn a new fan of Jonathan Ames into a lifelong fan, and when they’re done with Jonathan Ames we help that reader find the next person they are going to enjoy just as much.
In other words, we try and strip away everything that gets between the writer and the reader and give them a direct relationship with their fans. That’s something that always frustrated me when I was writing books—my publisher owned the relationship with my customer, and then Amazon or Apple or Barnes & Noble owned it. I never owned it. So if nothing else, what the industry’s move from analog to digital has made possible is that writers can have a direct relationship with their readers.
X: How direct? Are your writers really interacting with readers?
JT: I’ll go to Jon Krakauer’s page and show you how he is using Byliner. [Tayman pulls out his iPad mini.] I’m following him, which means anytime he publishes a new story Byliner drops that into my feed. Jon is also on Byliner recommending stories that he likes, and every time he does that, his likes drop into my feed.
Here is some other stuff that gets really interesting. Since we brought out Three Cups of Deceit a year and a half ago, Jon has written 19 updates to that story. Some of them are a paragraph or two, some are longer. So the narrative can continue to live. This works especially well with non-fiction, but it also works with fiction. Every time he writes an update, all the people who are following Jon are alerted to that.
X: How are readers responding to the subscription model so far? Are you getting a lot of uptake?
JT: We’ve been testing it for just under a month now, and all of the early metrics are running ahead of what we had hoped. Anecdotally, we noticed that readers who would go to Amazon to buy Byliner Originals would become repeat buyers, which we take a great deal of pride out of. But in Byliner Plus, the depth to which they are reading the writers’ portfolio of work and continuing to read Byliner Originals has been really exciting.
X: What do you feel you have to prove in the next year or two to show your investors that they made a smart decision?
JT: The investors we have really understand that we are maneuvering through a change in consumer behavior. That can take time. But they are all as convinced as we are that that change is going to come. This is how reading is going to work.
Happily, we have done exceedingly well. We have performed well above even our own ambitious expectations on the number of top authors we are working with, the amount of content that is flowing through Byliner, and the degree to which we have been able to make money for these top authors. The next step is, now that we have a subscription product, we will spend the next year finding where the dials are, and growing the subscription base and optimizing it for everybody involved.
Author’s Update: Just before going to press with this January interview I checked with Tayman for late-breaking news about Byliner. He writes:
“Our partnership with The New York Times has yielded a #1 bestseller at Amazon (and a NYTimes Best Seller, too): Here’s the Deal, by David Leonhardt. Our most recent Esquire/Byliner Original, Great Men, is also selling well.
“Jeff Gomez, a VP of Marketing from Penguin, has joined Byliner to help oversee writer relations and our writer network. At Penguin, Gomez developed the company’s first social media strategy, wrote the Penguin Authors Guide to Online Marketing, led the team that created Penguin’s first iPhone app, and oversaw the e-commerce website selling print and e-books for Penguin’s 30-plus publishers and imprints.
“On the stats front, we remain the leading publisher in the e-shorts category, accounting for 1 in 4 titles ever sold in this space. We currently have 5 of the top 20 at Amazon, including new Byliner Originals from Chuck Palahniuk, Richard Russo, Joe McGinniss, Alexander Fuller, and more.
“We’ll soon be doing story updates pushed live into our titles at Apple’s iBookstore, so that readers get a narrative that continues even after they’ve purchased the book.
“To date, we have more than 200 top authors who have joined the Byliner writers’ network, and who are making their work available to Byliner subscribers—including thousands of exclusive stories.”