“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.