Either way, as far as new publishers like Ratliff are concerned, many contemporary nonfiction books might as well be published at thirty or a hundred and thirty pages rather than three hundred pages. And think of the hours of our lives we could have not wasted and the guilt about not reading we could have been spared if the page-length convention for books was removed?
I was relieved to hear about these new mini-enterprises for my own reasons. For one thing, they made me feel a little less messianic and oh-so-alone in my tastes. For years, I had rabbited on to whomever would listen about how we need to save long-form writing and the reported essay before it went the way of the LP or Aramaic. ProPublica and other nonprofits were supporting some longer investigative pieces but that didn’t include writerly features. This kind of writing seemed slated to become the cultural equivalent of poetry—quaint.
Byliner presents itself as a believer in sensibility and the lost Golden Age of the endless magazine piece, a period that ended in the late 1990s, partly because Tayman had been a long-time magazine writer and editor, including a stint at Outside in its literary heyday. Like many journalists, Tayman realized two years ago that the stories he wanted to produce as a writer weren’t suited to the “traditional publishing systems,” as he puts it. “Selfishly, as a writer, I wanted something that fell between magazines and books.”
For Ratliff of The Atavist, the idea for long-form web publishing started when he, too, realized how difficult it was to place a story longer than five thousand words. In the fall of 2009, he started building the site, and by the time he was well into its development, Amazon announced Kindle Singles. Ratliff got in touch with them. He called his press The Atavist because he owned that domain and also because he liked the word’s meaning: to take something from an earlier era and revive it (he says it also helped that the name would be easy to find in app stores). Two of The Atavist’s titles have sold very well and the rest reasonably so, but the enterprise has been surviving and beginning to expand as it adds a new revenue stream—licensing fees. While the Kindle Singles version of their books cost $1.99, the “enhanced version” that costs $2.99 contains videos, timelines, music files, etc. The software that produces those versions has caught the imagination of an old fashioned textbook company, which is licensing it from The Atavist. Combined with respectable e-book sales figures, it’s enough income for The Atavist to open an actual office in a building full of freelancers in Brooklyn.
A few older off-line publishers mine the same in-between genre of nonfiction as the new e-booklet vendors. In Australia, The Quarterly Essay is a premiere publication for that nation’s intellectuals. Each issue contains a single essay. In England, there’s the Big Idea book series, which pairs an intellectual with a big concept like “bodies” in an essay-book format. In the US, one of the better examples is the 33 1/3 book series of music criticism, in which, for one example, a single slim volume of cerebral prose was devoted to Celine Dion. Another is publisher Soft Skull’s Deep Focus series of very short essay-books, in which a writer devotes himself to a single film. None of these publications is a big seller by conventional publishing standards, but all have cult followings.
The long-article/short-book publisher with the most sales possibilities is Kindle Singles itself, which launched in January. They “can be twice the length of a New Yorker feature or as much as a few chapters of a typical book,” in Kindle Single’s promotional parlance. As Sarah Gelman from Amazon, the publisher of Singles, says, Kindle Singles is looking for little books on “something news-related like Christopher Hitchens’s The Enemy”—booklets that are “quick to market.” “Hitchens’s piece on Bin Laden’s death”—a best-selling Kindle Single— “was published two weeks after the president’s announcement,” says Gelman, “when the public’s interest in this event was piqued.”