When the journalist David Dobbs first had the idea of writing an article about his mother’s love affair with a flight surgeon during World War II, he initially went the traditional route: he pitched the story to several magazines. Mr. Dobbs, who has written for The New York Times Magazine, Wired and National Geographic, usually writes about science, so the piece was a bit of a departure. The magazines he approached turned him down. He suspected at the time that the scale of the story was one problem—it was a complicated tale, hard to fit in a magazine, even at 6,000 or 8,000 words. Dedicated to his story despite the rejections, Mr. Dobbs started talking to Evan Ratliff, editor and co-founder of the online startup The Atavist, a self-described “boutique publishing house” that produces non-fiction articles for e-readers and smart phones. Initially one selling point was the possibility of writing a longer story: The Atavist publishes “nonfiction stories that are longer than magazine articles but shorter than books,” ranging in length from 10,000 to 20,000 words.
“The length was one major advantage,” said Mr. Dobbs. “And then once I talked to Evan the multimedia capabilities added to the stories in some fun and satisfying ways.”
But it soon became clear that there were business advantages as well. Like most magazines, The Atavist pays a fee up front when a story arrives in decent shape. Mr. Dobbs called The Atavist’s fee “modest” when compared to the top-tier magazines. “It’s less than you would get either by word rate or total fee rate – unless you’re Michael Lewis,” he said. The big difference is that when the issue comes out, the writer gets roughly half the revenue the story generates. Which means a runaway hit by a mid-level writer, or even a run-of-the-mill piece by a marquee author, has the potential to rack up thousands, or in an extreme case, hundreds of thousands, in revenue for both the publication and the author.
“We give basically an even split with our authors,” said Evan Ratliff, co-founder and editor at The Atavist. “It’s not always that but give or take it’s usually around 50 percent.” Writers take on greater risk if the story fails, but also reap greater awards if it succeeds.
For Mr. Dobbs the risk paid off. The Atavist’s retail partners (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Apple) do not allow their partners to disclose sales figures, but Mr. Dobbs’s Atavist story, “My Mother’s Lover,” at one point was the sixth most-downloaded book on the Kindle and atop the most-downloaded list for Amazon’s short-form division, Kindle Singles —what Mr. Dobbs called a “healthy five-figure number” of copies sold. He earned roughly a dollar for each $2.99 copy, making the e-book a more profitable venture than any magazine story he has written. The story even generated more sales revenue than two of his books.
Mr. Dobbs may have been the exception—his record has not yet been matched by anyone else on The Atavist, though the young outfit has only published eight editions to date and has focused its initial efforts on lesser-known writers who tend to pitch to magazines like Harper’s and The New Yorker first.
Another company, Byliner, seeks to harness the financial potential of writers who are established brands in their own right: the Elizabeth Gilberts and Malcolm Gladwells of the world, for whom the risk of getting a low up-front fee is less scary than it would be for a writer like Mr. Dobbs. For brand-name writers, massive sales are practically guaranteed, an achievement for which they are already well-compensated by magazines: in traditional venues, these writers can command six-figure contracts to write as little as two stories a year for a high-end glossy mag. It is these writers that Byliner Originals, the editorial division of the long-form journalism aggregator Byliner, has sought to publish.
As its name would indicate, Byliner has dedicated itself to the process of promoting writers as individual brands rather than linking them to the institutions they write for. Byliner’s aggregation platform is usually described as the Pandora of non-fiction writing: users set up an account, click in favor of a particular long-form story and then receive more suggestions for stories by similar writers selected via an algorithm. Users can also follow individual writers as they would someone on Twitter, receiving notifications each time the writer publishes a new story somewhere. The result is brand-based reading, where the writer is a brand.
Earlier this year, Byliner also began a program called Byliner Originals. Like The Atavist, the Byliner Originals business model offers its writers an initial fee (reportedly topping out in the low five figures for the biggest names) and then splits revenues 50/50. The list of the thirty or so writers who have received assignments since the project launched in April includes Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air; Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights; New York Times food writer Mark Bittman and Ann Patchett, the bestselling novelist. (It’s not exclusively blockbuster writers, however—cult literary hero William T. Vollmann was commissioned to produce the second Byliner original, “Into the Forbidden Zone,” about post-tsunami Japan.)
“We’re very writer-brand specific,” said John Tayman, founder and CEO of Byliner, adding that the editorial process is as rigorous as that of a traditional magazine (the editorial director of Byliner Originals, Mark Bryant, is the former editor of Outside, Men’s Journal and Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine as well as a former executive editor at HarperCollins).