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).
“We don’t want a customer to encounter anything written by a Byliner author that isn’t as good as it could be and we take care and obsess over and craft these stories as well,” said Mr. Tayman.
Thus far, some three-quarters of the thirty stories Byliner Originals has published or has in the works have been assigned by the Byliner editors, who follow a traditional magazine process of conceiving of ideas and then thinking of writers who might be able to execute them well. One exception to that was the story that launched the program, Jon Krakauer’s “Three Cups of Deceit,” a 75-page takedown of Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, which questioned Mr. Mortenson’s integrity. The release coincided with an investigative report on 60 Minutes for which Mr. Krakauer was interviewed. Byliner made the e-book available for free for 48 hours, during which time the story was downloaded some 70,000 times. (Under the terms of its deal with Amazon, et al., the company is not allowed to disclose sales figures but says 200,000 copies of its titles have been downloaded and read overall.) After the positive response, Mr. Krakauer, who maintained the paperback rights to the work, sold it for publication as a short book to Anchor, which publishes his other books.
If Mr. Krakauer can pull in those numbers of readers (and money) authors like Michael Lewis or Malcolm Gladwell could prove a boon to magazines struggling to make up for loss in advertising revenue. So far, only a handful of magazines have published e-book versions of their articles. GQ sold an extended version of an article from its May 2011 issue, “Here Be Monsters,” by Michael Finkel, about three boys who were lost at sea for 51 days, but the magazine version of the article was available for download online for free. A second e-book, an extended version of the magazine’s oral history of Nirvana, called “The Moment We Found Nirvana,” will be out this week. GQ deputy editor Michael Hainey said that the extended versions are edited by the assigning editor, adding that the magazine has “other ideas on the runway.”
Vanity Fair has also entered the game, with an extended version of Keith Gessen’s “How a Book is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding” from its October issue. The article was not available online. Instead, readers wishing to read a digital version of the article had to purchase a $1.99 e-book of a 17,000-word extended version of the magazine article. Vanity Fair declined to comment on what Mr. Gessen’s cut of the book will be and said it was too early to comment on sales.
“Keith’s account made for a dramatic narrative,” wrote his editor, Cullen Murphy, in an e-mail. “And Keith had plenty of additional material that readers would enjoy but that we hadn’t been able to use in the magazine. The fact that this e-book is itself partly about changes in the publishing industry was one more element—the decision seemed especially appropriate.”
From these initial forays, however, it’s easy to envision the potential in sales for a bestselling author. Let’s pretend Michael Lewis writes a 10,000-word article called “No Hitter” about hedge fund manager David Einhorn’s recent failed attempt to invest in the New York Mets. While at Condé Nast’s ill-fated business title, Portfolio, Mr. Lewis reportedly had a $100,000 contract for two 4,000-word stories a year. It’s reasonable to assume his current contract at Vanity Fair improved on that: a conservative estimate would be that Michael Lewis earns something like $60,000 for every Vanity Fair article. But let’s say Michael Lewis decides to publish “No Hitter” as an e-book instead of a Vanity Fair article. Given that sales of Mr. Lewis’ The Big Short have now surpassed 475,000 units—and that’s the $27.95 hardback version—it’s reasonable to assume he could sell 250,000 copies of an e-single at $1.99. His take would approach $175,000 at Byliner and Atavist’s rates, for a long magazine article.
Morever, the article would keep earning into the future (a significant incentive for authors of all levels), particularly if David Einhorn surfaces in the news once again. And if Michael Lewis takes a J.K. Rowling approach, hires a freelance editor and self-publishes his magazine stories, assuring all revenues except for online retailers’ customary 30 percent cut, he would do even better for himself.
If magazines do embrace the e-book model as a way to generate individual sales, the days when a magazine’s big-ticket stories are available for free on the internet—Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi articles, Vanity Fair’s dispatches from Marie Brenner or William Langewiesche, GQ’s stories by George Saunders—might be numbered. Once electronic readers become ubiquitous, the purchase of long-form articles might become as regular as a cup of coffee. If the big glossies do enter the e-book game, it might also might mean tough competition for start-ups like Byliner and The Atavist.
“There’s a question of influence also,” said Evan Ratliff of why Atavist has not yet attempted to lure celebrity writers. He added that the number of non-fiction writers who are household names remains relatively small and it’s hard for a start-up to attract big writers. “If you’re writing a story for The New York Times Magazine or The New Yorker your influence to readers and your reach is going to be so much better. Even if we have a bestseller we’re not possibly going to have the reach of those publications.”
So will magazines begin writing e-books into a writers’ contract? It seems too early to tell. “I think that’s a neat model but obviously the money has to work for the writer so you’re not running two stories for the price of one,” said David Dobbs. “There are plenty of stories where I wrote long and then shrink the thing so I can definitely see how that would work and it’s nice for readers too.”
One thing the new length might solve are all those books about which one says great magazine article, lousy at length. “We all read a lot of books where it’s a pretty big book but it didn’t need to be a book,” said Mr. Dobbs.