Mining the Literary Middle Ground: Byliner and The Atavist

This article, by Hernán Iglesias Illa, originally appeared on the Publishing Perspectives site on 8/5/11.

Online start-ups Byliner and The Atavist have established a market for stories too long for magazines and too short for books.

NEW YORK: How long should a book be? For more than a century, publishers and authors have understood that most commercial books, to be profitable and viable, should come in around 250 pages, give or take a hundred or two. With the popularization of e-books, though, the restraints of the paper-based industry no longer apply, but new standards are still evolving. How long should an e-book be?

Two American startups, Byliner and The Atavist, are looking for an answer to this question in the middle ground between 5,000 word magazine articles and 100,000 words books. Earlier this year, both started publishing creative non-fiction titles that are too long to fit into a magazine or too short to fill a book.

They don’t call them “e-books” (Byliner refers to them as “originals”) and they don’t price them like regular e-books, either. While most digital versions of print books retail for around $10 in stores like Amazon or iBooks, Byliner’s ($0.99 to $5.99) and The Atavist’s ($1.99 or $2.99) pieces are much cheaper. And both share the revenue with the authors, who get 50% of what the editors receive.

They also had a promising start. Byliner’s first two articles hit the New York Times’ bestseller list for digital products, and The Atavist’s app for the iPad and the iPhone has been downloaded more than 40,000 times, according to the company.

John Tayman, CEO and co-founder of Byliner, started thinking about these issues a few years ago, after emerging from the three years he devoted to writing The Colony (Scribner), a book about an infamous leprosy colony in Hawaii. Tayman, who had been a magazine writer and editor for most of his career, found himself realizing that the stories he really wanted to write and read were longer than traditional magazine articles, but shorter than books. “I wanted stories that, as a reader, I could deal with in two or three hours,” says Tayman from his office in San Francisco. “And, as a writer, I wanted stories that I could get off my desk in one month or two, instead of a year or two.”

Read the rest of the article on Publishing Perspectives.