A Discussion With Byliner

Last week, American Circus’s Mostafa Heddaya sat down with Byliner founders John Tayman and Ted Barnett in San Francisco to discuss how the start-up is capitalizing on changes in publishing and the consumption of long-form writing—or, as they prefer, “stories”—on the web.

AC: Tell us about the origins of Byliner.

John Tayman: Ted is the COO and co-founder, I'm the CEO and founder. We met five or six years ago through mutual friends. I was working on another startup but had the idea for Byliner percolating—my background is that I was a magazine writer and editor for most of my career. I took a break and did a book for Scribner, and came out of that in 2007, 2008. And I was trying to decide: do I go back in and write for magazines or do another book? And what I really wanted to do was tell stories that fell between those two.

So the initial idea was to create a publishing company that was primarily digital, that focused on that space between magazines and books—stories that could be read in two hours or less, thirty thousand words, narrative stories by great authors. And we started thinking about that and talking with writers and editors about it. And keep in mind, this was before the iPad existed, before the Kindle existed, and everything else…

What that really meant was there needed to be a way for fans of writers to aggregate themselves online, because if we could enable that, then it would work really well with the publishing side. When we went and commissioned a book by, say, John Krakauer or Amy Tan or whatever, we could publish it directly into that space. So the notion was of these two things that worked symbiotically as a result so we really began to look at where publishing was going in the digital space and moved from there.

Ted Barnett: My background is in Internet startups and tech—I was the CEO of two venture-funded startups [When.com, acquired by AOL in 1999, and SuperSecret, a gaming site for kids]. While I was working at one of them I was consulting with John, when he showed me Byliner I said that's the company you were born to run... I was excited about this idea. I've often said I’d pay more for a shorter story—there are so many books that are literally padded out and expanded to fit the constraints of their distribution model. Now that reading happens electronically, stories are free to be the length that they need to be. What I’m excited about in startups is where there’s an industry in transition...and that's exactly where Byliner is positioned.

AC: Is Byliner a publishing outfit or a content aggregator? Did you envision Byliner first as a social aggregator, a way to consume content, or a publisher?

JT: We are more of a publisher than anything else. What we wanted to do was create a platform that allowed writers to have a more direct connection to their readers. A more natural path where somebody first encounters that very first story by a writer, falls in love with that writer, and becomes a consistent fan of that writer. There wasn't and still isn’t an easy way to do that, other than Byliner... A central repository that has a wealth of work by one author so you can create a fan out of that, and then give the writer access to that fanbase and publish directly into that audience.

It's this explosion of digital reading that really allowed us to strip away the layers that existed between writers and their readers. Now they didn’t have to pitch The Atlantic or the New Yorker and wait for word back—“OK that'll fit into our editorial calendar, but it's got to be this length, and it's got to be this month…" If there's a story a writer really wanted to tell, suddenly the world allowed them to bring it directly to the reader at the length they wanted and timing they wanted. Byliner is a company that helps that and enables that.

TB: We're a hybrid between a publisher and a site that enables social interaction around content. This is what we believe a 21st century publisher should look like... Historically publishers have been very direct: print books, fill warehouses, and there's no contact with the readers, the fans.

AC: How will Byliner impact the way writers’ careers and relationships with publications are structured?

TB: Magazines do a great job often of curating content of a specific kind... But a writer may be more versatile than that one outlet would allow. Readers are becoming more aware of the names of the writers themselves... The importance of the content creator is growing, and that's an opportunity.

JT: A test case we did early on was to take Michael Lewis: He doesn't have a website, there is no central repository for all of his work, you can Google him but you get a ton of stuff, etc. But over the course of his writing career he's done 151 feature articles scattered across 27 different publications. We want to solve that discovery problem for a potential fan of Lewis's. We also have readers that are finding new publications through the site, whether it's a brand new web publication or an obscure literary publication. Oh, here's a weird Italian magazine that John Krakauer wrote an article in—maybe I'll check it out every once in a while…

TB: We coexist happily with publications themselves. We do provide enough of an excerpt to allow the reader to make the decision whether it's something they'd like to read…but it falls within fair use guidelines.

JT: And sometimes it's easier to find an article on our site than it is on a publication's site.

AC: How is Byliner’s content sharing platform different from the traditional social content aggregators like reddit or StumbleUpon?

JT: Nothing goes live on Byliner unless it’s been touched by an editor. The community social bookmarking sites, as fun as they are, are wild and wooly.

TB: People's time is valuable to them, these stories take time to read, so you want to make sure they're worthwhile.

AC: Do you see a deeper integration with Facebook than what you already have, à la Spotify?

TB: You'll start seeing us turn up the volume in social media and in marketing in general. We have some exciting new features for the service that we may not be able to discuss yet.

JT: Luckily, Facebook is really excited about what we're doing and we're working with their developers to integrate into the upcoming social feed feature.

AC: How do you plan to monetize the interest generated in content via Byliner? Is there a way to draw revenue from that social discovery process for yourselves or for publications?

TB: That's a conversation we're just about to start. We want to present the whole story to publications. There's a lot of interest and it’s growing. When people come in via interest in a writer...that should benefit everyone in the ecosystem. We can't get too specific about how that would work quite yet, but we've been thinking that through...as you could imagine.

AC: With authors developing the kind of clout you want them to have with their readership, what's to stop them from bypassing Byliner altogether and publishing straight to the digital marketplace? 

JT: We've had authors who have done that already. There are different things that we bring. They can reach a larger audience by going through us, in part because they can get access to Barnes & Noble, etc. We have a dedicated editorial team that actually edits and does quality control on the all the work, all the way through. The minute we start working with a writer an editor is assigned for proofreading, fact-checking. Every Original has a dedicated marketing and PR plan behind it.

TB: We also present to authors an integrated dashboard that presents to them how their publications are going. This answers questions like, “Does it make a difference whether I did a press interview the other day?” They can actually track that. People talk about how we're competing with traditional publishers, but what I say is we're competing with people being their own publishers. And the way we compete is by doing a good job, by being a lean company. We don't have fancy offices in Manhattan.

AC: With the launch of UK-based Unbound this summer and the meteoric rise of Kickstarter, can Byliner enable bottom-up idea generation for writers?

JT: When you start peeling away all the things that exist between the writer and the idea, you can do all sorts of interesting things. The writer can use the data from their readership to test-drive an idea. One of the things we're very focused on, in addition to editorial quality, is the value of good data and analytics, and to be able to share that with authors so they can grow their careers.

For many of our Byliner Originals, we bring the idea to the writer. We have weekly editorial meetings and think about the sorts of stories that need to be told and think about the sorts of writers that would excel at that kind of story. We of course publish Originals when the writers come to us.

TB: It's kind of a magazine technique applied to the world of publishing. You saw this with "Three Cups of Deceit" which came out the day after the 60 Minutes piece and he [Krakauer] had been editing it hours before we published it.

JT: And Krakauer has since written an additional 2,000 words of updates to that story, which means that the long tail of his story hasn't been a long tail at all—in fact, sales have picked up.

At this point, Ted leaves for an appointment and John shows me a wall in the office where headshots of the various members of the Byliner editorial team are lined up in columns beneath clocks displaying their respective time zones. They hail from a range of places: New York, Chicago, Iowa, Montana, Santa Fe.

AC: What are your current revenue sources? Any plans on tapping advertising or affiliate agreements?

JT: The transactional stuff from our Originals is our core revenue right now, and it's doing very well. We're looking at different ways of monetization: we may do placement areas, referral fees, monetizing some backlist work, I don't think we're going to do much that's advertising-based. We just want a clean, fast, reading experience.

AC: Where do you position yourselves relative to competitors in the space, most notably The Atavist?

JT: We’re friendly with those guys. Evan and his company have developed this software, this technology to allow people to very easily package an enhanced e-book, which he's licensing to textbook publishers, children’s book publishers, where those enhancements make sense. Are people dying for an enhanced John Krakauer or Malcolm Gladwell e-book? I don't think so. We don't do enhanced e-books, and there are two reasons for that. First, my own bias as a writer: I know the amount of work that goes into that first sentence, that first paragraph, that grabs the reader and creates that spell and never lets them go until the story is finished. Anything that breaks that spell, a piece of audio, a video, a link, felt intrusive to me. I want a pure experience for the reader. The other thing is that the market for enhanced books isn’t very large. Virtually all e-book sales are text-only.

AC: Do you foresee a future where Byliner is acquired by, say, a large publisher? Or is your goal to stake out a claim greater than that?

JT: We obviously think there's a very large opportunity here. Our scenario is how writers will be telling their stories, which doesn't necessarily mean they won't still be using the legacy methods, and the other publishing companies will recognize that. One of the things that benefits us, that makes us work, is that we're publication-agnostic. It would be hard with a book publisher or a magazine publisher to have no qualms about other publishers having their content on there as well. We're fundamentally organized around the writer, so that's really liberating.

AC: Regarding the size of the Originals, is the length envisioned not a concession about the possibilities of the American attentions span, but rather a business decision governed by what’s easily commoditized?

JT: I guess. That makes it sound cold. There isn't a set term for this size of story, we'll use different phrases for it. My current favorite is what Amy Tan called it when she wrote for us: she calls them “single-sitting stories.” Which makes sense. It's not something you're afraid to pick up because you don’t have enough time to finish... We wanted that happy feeling when you're done because that reflects well on the story, on us. The reading equivalent of coming out of a really great movie.

AC: Since Byliner is trying to explode the book/article binary: what does the future hold for published writing?

JT: Probably what's going to happen is the definition of an article and a book will blur. The writer will be able to let the story find its proper length, rather than saying, "Shit they've only given me 4,000 words for this, I’ve got to cram into that" or “This is a story that wants to be 30,000 words but that doesn’t look good on the shelf space so my publisher wants 70,000 words”... That bad reading experience reflects poorly on the writer and the publisher. Letting the writer and the story organically dictate a proper length is crucially important.