New platform for delivering the old "long-form story"

Posted: October 05, 2011

The last year may have seen the creation of a whole new genre of literature.

With its own market.

All via the Web.

Starting in fall 2010, a new world began rising of shorter, digital e-texts aimed at readers with a little time, a little attention, and a big taste for reading.

The works are longer essays or short, short books, readable in a couple of hours, and are often called "long-form stories" - a trifle misleading. Once, they were the foundation of magazine publishing. Now, a generation of publishers has stepped in, digitally, to offer them to readers. It won't end the era of the book - but it brings new possibilities.

John Tayman, founder and chief executive officer of, which publishes long-form stories, explains: "Two years ago, we recognized that there was a need for readers to read and writers to publish stories that fell between conventional magazine- and book-length." Byliner's mission, Tayman adds, is to "do everything digital would allow, and get these current stories out while they're still fresh." A year out, the long-form market seems to be doing very well. "There's a lot of growth and excitement," Tayman says.

The territory is uncharted. "It's all very new, and we've seen a lot of success," says Evan Ratliff, founding editor of the Atavist, another growing giant in this new realm. "But if anybody says they know where it's going, I wouldn't believe them."

The big moment was Amazon's announcement of "Kindle Singles." Kindle is Amazon's market-leading e-reader. Singles are pieces "twice the length of a New Yorker feature or as much as a few chapters of a typical book," from 10,000 to 30,000 words. Prices go from $0.99 to $4.99.

A lot about this is revolutionary. Publishers such as Atavist or Byliner partner with Amazon to publish commissioned titles. Authors can also self-publish directly on Amazon, which will happily walk them through an easy online process that bypasses the traditional lineup of editors, publishers, industrial printers, and warehouses.

Larry Dignan, editor and chief of the biz-tech website ZDNet, self-published a Kindle Single, The Business of Media: A Survival Guide, on Amazon. "All in all, I'd call it a pretty good experience," he says. "It's sold around 2,500 copies, so it's not going to make a million dollars. But the intangible benefits were there: I made a lot of good contacts I never would have made."

Since the work is digital, it can be easily updated. "I'm going to do that at the end of this year," Dignan says. "I have stuff I want to add."

Promotion is a challenge. Writer and blogger Meghan Ward says the effort needed "to package and market a self-published book is so great that only a very small percentage of writers really succeed - the same percentage that succeed through the traditional publishing process, I'm guessing."

Byliner doesn't just publish e-texts (nonfiction only), but it also seeks to create a community of readers. Byliner's motto is, "We'll find you something good to read." Its founders pride themselves on discovering fine new talent and fine new writing by established talents (Jon Krakauer, Michael Kinsley, Richard Dawkins).

Byliner's opening splash was a cannonball: Jon Krakauer's Three Cups of Deceit, a critical examination of the claims of Greg Mortensen, who, in Three Cups of Tea, recounted his humanitarian work in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Released in April, the e-text rose to the top of the Amazon Kindle Singles best seller list.

"Jon was reporting for the book within hours of when we published it," says Byliner CEO Tayman. "The flexibility and speed of digital really worked to our advantage. And the book is continuing to live on our site. Jon has done 10 story updates, and he can advance the tale as he wants to and needs to, so readers can continue to be engaged."

Amazon and Byliner are, generally, text-only, although that will change as everybody grows up together. More aggressively into multimedia is the Atavist. "We're trying to merge the values of traditional long-form stories with everything digital can do," says Ratliff.

What might that look like? Well, if you get Blindsight, by Chris Colin, you can also get an app for your smartphone that lets you switch from text to an audio version. Or see photos, film clips, special videos, or a time line. Ratliff especially likes Brendan Koerner's Piano Demon, about jazz pianist Teddy Weatherford. "It really used his music as part of the actual story."

Alissa Quart, journalist and senior editor at the Atavist, says, "It's like the digital equivalent of an illuminated manuscript."

Some day, Ratliff says, "there will be more of a balance" between text and multimedia in every book. Neither he nor Tayman thinks reading is dead, but the long-form story is a new genre for a new readership with new media and new habits.

As Quart puts it: "Pretty soon, we're all going to be reading like this."

Contact staff writer John Timpane at 215-854-4406,, or

@jtimpane on Twitter.


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