There are other new places where the long article-cum-short book has a chance. Sites like Longform.org and Longreads.com are compiling richer and more thorough stories, and Byliner’s own website, Byliner.com, is updated daily with summaries and links to literary nonfiction works, some published decades ago, available for free. The site currently points readers to more than ten thousand stories. Bryant describes Byliner.com as “curatorial,” to use the phrase du jour, as the site guides users toward worthy long-form material. It links to sites where the pieces are already available, or to pieces that authors have asked it to include. The owners talk about it as a “discovery engine” for finding authors you like, sort of like Pandora finds music. The site is also, of course, a distribution platform for Byliner Originals and generates a small amount of money when a user buys a book off of the Byliner site on Amazon. Eventually, the plan is to pursue advertising and sponsorship opportunities. But Byliner has other sources of funding, including an angel investor, says Bryant, a “social media Silicon Valley person.”
Perhaps the biggest entry into the field is Kindle Singles, Amazon’s own platform for some of these essay-books, as well as those from other publishers. They may be read on any of the Kindle platforms and are priced from $1 to $5. Kindle Singles seems the best evidence that there is a market for this type of work—Amazon must have done its homework. While Kindle is strict about disclosing sales figures or letting publishers like Byliner disclose figures, plenty of Singles have been doing well. The Krakauer Single—a best-seller for all of Amazon, digital and print, was downloaded for free seventy thousand times in the seventy-two hours after it was first released, before Kindle started charging for downloads, and Bryant says they sold a number comparable to that immediately thereafter. Sarah Gelman, an Amazon spokeswoman, says seven Kindle Singles titles—including Krakauer’s— have broken into the top twenty bestselling titles in the Kindle store, which includes all Kindle books. Twenty-one of the seventy-five Kindle Singles published so far have been in the top one hundred Kindle best-sellers.
If these e-booklets have a genre antecedent, it might be the musical EP, a recording that’s longer than a single but too short for a full LP. Byliner’s Tayman believes that the “decoupling” of the very long piece from the magazine or the book is parallel to what has happened in music, where individual songs now sell rather than albums, or what happens to television series now that Netflix or iTunes allow you to watch individual episodes of, say, the British series Downton Abbey, rather than having to wait for the boxed set. It’s part of our new world, where complete sets are deconstructed, leaving us with stories or songs we want to enjoy individually. After all, “normal” lengths of cultural products, from books to articles to albums to the three-minute pop song, were initially determined not by tastes but by technology. Three minutes was what could most easily fit on a gramophone disc, due to the thickness of record players’ needles at the time, and the small number of grooves possible on a single’s surface. (Hey Jude was one of the songs to show record companies that three minutes wasn’t a law of physics.) In the case of journalism, thousand-word pieces are not in human DNA and neither are four-hundred-page reported books; they were in the pre-digital marketplace’s DNA, though.
The new booklets are not just about breaking down traditional forms, however. They are also about publishing writing that is shorter than long. This makes sense to me from a marketing and reading perspective: Why commit to a long film or a long book that maybe should have been short to begin with?
But it works the other way, as well. Some readers want more than what a traditional magazine article provides. With infinite digital space available, why buy into the conventional wisdom that articles have to be shorter?