Start-Up Byliner Thinks the Digital Ink Isn’t Dry on Long-Form Writing

There are at least a few of long-form writing’s elite who don’t believe the Internet is out to kill the written word. In fact, they’ve gotten together and built Byliner, a discovery platform for fans of long reads to chat about at their next wine, cheese and turtleneck party.

Byliner aims to become the new hub of authors, fans and the writing that connects them.

To do so, it has collected links and excerpts of contemporary non-fiction of greater than 1,500 words — pieces a reader could get through in a sitting or two.

Then, around the writing and associated metadata, Byliner has built a free platform for discovering other works and sharing them with people both on and off of Byliner.

“We think of it as the Pandora for writers,” said author John Tayman, Byliner’s CEO.

So far, Byliner has raised venture funding from Josh Felser of Freestyle Capital and SoftTech VC Jeff Clavier, with a recently closed $1 million seed round.

But it’s not a new model: Aggregate links provide a service on top of the stuff other people create and try to draw a user base around it. That said, it hasn’t been applied to this particular form of writing before.

With a database that now spans more than 40,000 articles, Byliner’s long-term vision is to become the hub for this type of content on the Web.

The site features the chunky fonts, shades of grey and conspicuous white space typically found in a coffee table book about design. Like those coffee table books, the site is also free of advertising.

All of Tayman’s talk of discovery and readability ultimately left open a fairly important question: How will it make money?

That’s where Byliner Originals come in, and where the funding model starts to look a little more like a regular publisher.

The Originals are written works available only through Byliner, purchasable through the site and transmitted to your device, or delivered to you on paper, for a few dollars.

Early figures on sales of the Originals seem promising. A high-profile riveting exposé by Jon Krakauer on Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson sold 100,000 copies in the first two weeks in an exclusive deal with Amazon.

Byliner’s COO Ted Barnett thinks that modern devices have opened a hole in the market — and in readers’ attention spans — that is large enough to cram in one of Byliner’s exclusive works.

“Before [modern reading devices], it only made sense for someone to publish a book that took 10 hours to read,” he said. “But these devices have made the purchase and delivery of individual works of this length possible.”

Still, the site has a way to go if it wants to become a true platform.

As of today, for example, integration with the popular Read it Later service and the usual panoply of social network sharing buttons are all Byliner has mustered in the social category.

But, according to Tayman, Byliner doesn’t have to do much to be the leader.

“Short of doing some power-Googling, there is no other place to do deep cross-discovery around longer articles and writers,” he said.

He said as much, and a little more, about Byliner’s core mission during my recent visit to their HQ in San Francisco’s Presidio district:

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus