Byliner gone bad and the business of longform journalism on the web

On Christmas Eve Day in 2012, I sat in a Starbucks and wrote an enthusiastic post about why it had been the year of the e-single. E-singles — works of journalism between 3,000 to 15,000 words, usually nonfiction and sold as individual ebooks — were “a true digital-native format,” I wrote, “the format for our time,” ideal to read curled up with your iPad.

With the crash and burn of Byliner this year, however, my enthusiasm seems less than prescient. Byliner, which launched in 2011, was one of the darlings of the literary startup scene (which is also not doing so hot these days). Its original mission was to publish original e-singles, both fiction and nonfiction, and also to create a sort of archival home for journalists on the web. But over the next couple of years, Byliner moved away from that mission, and in recent weeks bad news about the company has trickled out onto the web and then into the pages of the New York Times as the most high-profile executives, including CEO John Tayman and co-founder Mark Bryant, left the company.

Deanna Brown, Byliner’s president and the former CEO of Federated Media and, is still at the company, and told me Friday that there is “not much to talk about” and “the company is still very much in business,” which seems more than a little disingenuous considering the emails it’s sent its authors. Regardless, does Byliner’s failure mean that longform journalism on the web is doomed? Or are Byliner’s problems specific to Byliner?

A subscription model that didn’t work

byliner iphoneMany people I talked to over the last couple years wondered how Byliner was making money. The San Francisco-based company raised $1 million in seed funding and raised an undisclosed amount of further funds from investors like Avalon Ventures and Freestyle Capital. It seems that, for those investors, Byliner’s original strategy of selling individual e-singles wasn’t enough, and the company over time began to focus on a subscription model: Byliner Plus, which for $5.99 a month would give users unlimited access to Byliner’s original stories and other exclusive content. (In addition, Byliner continued to sell its works as individual e-singles for a couple of dollars apiece, through Amazon, Apple and other ebook retailers.)

When I met with Brown in New York earlier this year, she talked to me about the “third icon challenge”: Users of mobile devices have “the video streaming icon, the music streaming icon, and there is this third opportunity, which is the reading experience.” Byliner could be that “third icon” alongside Netflix and Spotify, Brown argued — a reader’s go-to “reading streaming” experience.

It’s probably not surprising that that didn’t work when so much longform journalism is free to read online, and existing communities like Longreads (which was acquired by WordPress parent company Automattic earlier this year) are happy to turn it up for you. In addition, read-it-later sites like Pocket — which Brown described to me as “a service or a tool as opposed to a curated, editorially driven product” — are increasingly suggesting stories to readers for free.

In addition, if any readers actually are looking for that “third icon,” Byliner would be competing in that area with existing ebook subscription services Oyster and Scribd, which both cost just a couple dollars more each month and offer unlimited access to hundreds of thousands of full-length books, many of which are well-known already. It’s by no means guaranteed that either Scribd or Oyster will get enough members to survive, so Byliner faced an even tougher path to success with a subscription model.

Longform journalism just isn’t a huge moneymaker

In the past few weeks, some Byliner authors have come out against the company, essentially arguing that they didn’t make as much money as they thought they would. In a New York Times op-ed, author Tony Horwitz wrote in detail about his bad experience with Byliner. The company paid him a $2,000 advance for a 40,000-word story that it sold for $2.99. While “Boom,” a story about the Keystone XL pipeline, “broke the top 25” on the Kindle Singles bestseller, “in the sales rankings on Amazon for Kindle Singles,” it only sold 700 or 800 copies in its first month of publication.

Another Byliner author, Jennie Erin Smith, received a $2,500 advance for a 14,500-word story on a Colombian drug trafficker. It sold 7,849 copies, netting her $3,878 — not bad at all, in my view, but, Smith told the Columbia Journalism Review, she “went into it thinking there was real money in it.”

Ultimately, the problem might be one of unrealistic expectations — both the unrealistic expectations that VCs had for Byliner, and unrealistic expectations of authors about how much money they could make. Ultimately, e-singles are like full-length books in that a lucky few will be bestsellers, but most won’t. Even as he complains in his op-ed, Horwitz sums it up well:

“Online journalism pays little or nothing and demands round-the-clock feeds. Very few writers or outlets can chase long investigative stories. I also question whether there’s an audience large enough to sustain long-form digital nonfiction, in a world where we’re drowning in bite-size content that’s mostly free and easy to consume. One reason ‘Boom’ sank, I suspect, is that there aren’t many people willing to pay even $2.99 to read at length about a trek through the oil patch, no matter how much I sexed it up with cowboys and strippers.”

That’s too bad, but it’s not a new revelation. What originally excited me about Byliner was that it wanted to let writers chase those long investigative stories and would pay them to do so. It didn’t work out. That doesn’t necessarily mean such a model can’t work — it just means the expectations have to be different. And by “different,” I primarily mean “lower.”

The Atavist, for instance, is still publishing original e-singles. But the company derives most of its revenue from Creatavist, the publishing platform that it licenses to others. Byliner “worked with some of the best writers out there and published really strong original stories,” Atavist CEO Evan Ratliff told me recently. “We more than anyone know how difficult that is to do. Our business model and our approach diverged from theirs a long time ago, so it doesn’t really relate to us in a significant way, but it does show how hard it is to try to find new ways to succeed in publishing in a digital world.”

And those publishing models that do succeed will likely never become the “third icon” next to Netflix or Spotify. There’s not enough demand, and there’s too much competition.