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.


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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.