When author Jon Krakauer started looking into the altruistic claims of his former friend, the best-selling author of Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson, he uncovered quite a story. Mortenson was famous as a philanthropist who raised millions for his charity, which builds schools and other resources in Afghanistan. But the more Krakauer investigated, the more Mortenson’s generosity seemed like mismanagement or embezzlement. It was ultimately a story that was darker than a glass of oolong.
In 2010, Krakauer went to 60 Minutes with his findings. As is typical for television, the show was slow to get his story on the air and then some of the sources who talked to him were not comfortable appearing on camera. So Krakauer decided to write about Mortenson himself. He was advised to take it to The New Yorker.
But at that point, the piece ran ten thousand words and soon would become a twenty-three-thousand-word tale of treachery and greed. Krakauer was well known and best-selling, yet he nonetheless faced a dilemma that snares many journalists and nonfiction authors: Where do long pieces and essays go, given that magazines are publishing shorter and shorter pieces? It was unlikely that a magazine, even The New Yorker, would run a piece as long as this, at least promptly, even by a journalist as famous as Krakauer. It was equally hard to get booklet-length works published as conventional books on paper—they are too short for the seventy-five thousand words typically required. And then, even if Krakauer had published it as a book, it would take months, perhaps a year, to hit bookstores. Krakauer had news to break, and sooner than traditional publishing would allow.
He mentioned the story to his former editor at Outside magazine, Mark Bryant, who had been talking up a new e-book venture, Byliner Originals (Bryant is the editorial director and co-founder of the company). Byliner was planning to publish narrative nonfiction for e-readers that was somewhere between an article and a book, between ten thousand and thirty-five thousand words, through Kindle and the Byliner website, for less than $6. According to Bryant, Krakauer quickly decided to have the new web publisher put out his Mortenson takedown, Three Cups of Deceit. Krakauer’s e-book/essay wound up number one on Amazon’s nonfiction list in April. (In the middle of July, it was down to a still very respectable number 286 on the list of paid best-sellers for all of Amazon’s Kindle Store, a list that includes the game Yahtzee.)
In May, Byliner released its second work, Into the Forbidden Zone, a twenty-thousand-word gonzo account of post-tsunami Japan by William T. Vollman. Bryant and Byliner founder Jon Tayman are a little cagey about how much writers like Vollman get paid—they say assignment fees are “competitive” and royalties are divided in a fifty-fifty revenue split. Other works that are in development include an essay-book by Anthony Swofford, the author of Jarhead, along with efforts by more than twenty-five other writers, including Mark Bittman and Mary Roach. Bryant believes that “readers don’t suffer from having too much to read but from having a hard time finding what to read.”
Byliner isn’t the only outfit counting on readers’ appetite for true stories online that are longer than articles and shorter than books. New platforms featuring heavily reported pieces are emerging faster than pop-up restaurants. In January of this year, The Atavist, run by Wired alum Evan Ratliff, also opened shop. Ratliff’s own Atavist piece, Lifted, about a Swedish bank robbery, had made the Amazon best-seller list. Ratliff hopes to position The Atavist so that the publisher will be “the first line of getting book proposals that are not quite books.” Ultimately, he hopes to collaborate with traditional publishers. (Editors’ note: please see the disclosure at the end of this article.)