July 9, 2014

What we can learn from Byliner


lady ebookByliner, a company that published longform journalism and stories using a subscription model, is in dire straits. Its CEO is leaving and the company seems to be looking for a buyer. Laura Hazard Owen has a piece up at Gigom about whether the issue is with the company or the model.

At $5.99 a month, Byliner set an ambitious price point for a new publishing company. It was able to pay its authors advances (several mentioned were around $2,000) and envisioned a bigger reach when it set out with $1 million in 2011. A few weeks ago, Byliner’s CEO left, and the company sent an email to its authors to say the company was looking to find “a new home” for the stories it publishes.

So digital publishing  will move on without Byliner. But is this subscription model for longform journalism working for anyone?

How about the authors? Nicola Pring crunched some numbers in the Columbia Journalism Review, and determined that longform authors could make anywhere from three cents to twenty-seven cents a word through e-publishing.

Jennie Erin Smith, author of “Cocaine Cowgirl,” earned out her $2,000 advance and made a grand total of $3,878 with this one story. So yes, there are some writers successfully making some income from these pieces, even if, as Owen points out, they need to modify their sales expectations from those of print bestsellers.

Others, like Tony Horwitz, are bestsellers, but aren’t making the big bucks they’d been promised. In the New York Times last month, he wrote that editors imagined sales of 70,000 copies for his story, “Boom.” But that enthusiasm diminished, and he was left doing much of the promotion without Byliner’s support:

I was familiar with the stately ways of old-school book publicity: readings, dwindling print reviews, praying for a call from Terry Gross. Surely, Byliner’s tech-savvy team would move at light speed and deploy new tools like guerrilla marketing.

Except there didn’t seem to be a “team,” just an outside publicist who was busy on other jobs. She circulated a hasty press release and wrote a glowing review of “Boom” on Amazon, the main retailer of Byliner titles. Byliner urged me to “game the system” by soliciting more such “reviews” from friends and relatives, and issued a few tweets touting “Boom.” Then silence.

Publicity was crucial in digital publishing, Horwitz wrote. Otherwise the story just seemed to be floating in the “ether” (eventually replaced with an error message).

With sales of 700 or 800 copies, “Boom” became a digital bestseller, but it didn’t come close to earning out its $2,000 advance. Horwitz confesses:

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.

But is the digital longform model working for publishers? Byliner may be losing ground to other subscription services like Oyster, Atavist, Medium, and Longform. Oyster just expanded on the Android platform, with $17 million in funding so far. Atavist has Creatavist, the publishing platform it licenses, and it doesn’t have to rely squarely on its stories for revenue. (Full disclosure: Melville House books are available on Oyster.)

And what else do readers want from a subscription site? “Despite having been a subscriber for about six months, I received almost no communication from the site,” Angela Washeck lamented over at MediaBistro. She wished the company would highlight its biggest new pieces.

And saying “Netflix for books” isn’t much of a brand anymore; too many similar companies have made the same claim. There is a space for longform articles in this market, but there’s some magic recipe for brand, price, and publicity no one knows just yet, even if there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece misspelled Tony Horwitz’s name and incorrectly listed his advance from Byliner as $15,000. We regret the errors.


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.