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.)
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?
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.”
Byliner is also basing its Singles on newsworthy topics. “The Vollman story came about because we have regular editorial meetings where we think about what’s going on out there,” says Tayman. “We thought of John Hersey’s Hiroshima. What if we could tell the story of what life in that evacuation zone was like? We reached out to Bill”—William Vollman—“and in two weeks he turned around that story. It was in front of readers within ten days of his plane landing back in the US.” In other words, the book was edited and formatted in ten days, not the year between editing and publication that tend to weigh down and periodize works produced by legacy publishers.
I wanted to believe in each enthusiastic exchange with these publishers. As I trolled looking for further mention of serious, shorter-than-book-length nonfiction online, I started to see a pattern, like many a trend writer before me. Suddenly, there seemed to be a rash of academic conferences devoted to the substantial essay. One in July in London was dedicated to the literary essay, and there’s another in October in New York, at Fordham. The London conference’s promotional literature bemoaned contemporary publishers, who would never have run the work of the great early nineteenth-century British essayists William Hazlitt or Charles Lamb. Both of those writers defined the experiential essay, creating a fashion for them. For instance, one of Hazlitt’s most famous personal essays was about watching a fight.
Of course, an increased interest in the history and a new sense of the value of the long reported piece are not the same thing as an audience that will buy the stuff. Is there, or will there be, sustained appetite for long, true stories on the web? Or will the only true successes be those of old media megastars like Krakauer, who just happened to be publishing a crackling revenge tragedy involving another famous older writer?
One reason to bet against Byliner et al is that magazines bundle together a range of pieces. The “good” pieces—often the ones that don’t make “most e-mailed” lists—are shored up by the more digestible articles, in a single issue of a magazine. Stand-alone singles will have to rise and fall on their own popularity.
Are enough people eager to read well-written yarns when nonfiction is not selling so well generally? When so many of us come home tired of reading the Internet all day at work? I think the answer is yes. I believe the best of these enterprises will succeed, that this work will find an audience and has an audience. I can’t prove it—it’s a bet of the heart.
For years, traditional publishers have been notoriously contemptuous of essay collections, short-story collections, and even novellas (by anyone except Philip Roth!). Long-short form/short-long form doesn’t sell, they say. The sales numbers behind some of these singles would seem to at least begin to prove them wrong. The people who are taking chances with new forms and lengths are more likely to succeed than the ones who are pushing old formats and forms that readers are turning away from. Better to double-down on the singles.
Disclosure: After Quart completed this story, she was invited to apply for a job at The Atavist and subsequently landed it. She started in early September.Alissa Quart is a CJR columnist and contributing editor. She is the author of two books, Branded and Hothouse Kids. Her third, about American outsiders, comes out in 2013. She is also senior editor of The Atavist and an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School.