One annoying thing about fantastic narrative nonfiction is that it's really hard to find. Sure you can search "Gay Talese" and find "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" pretty high on the page of results--but that's only because Esquire republished Talese's seminal work of new journalism in 2007 and you also already had Gay Talese in mind. But what if you're wondering what Tom Wolfe thought about the financial crisis or want a comprehensive update on the Arab Spring? What if you just want to browse or check out what your friends are reading? Go to Byliner.com, a socially enabled, editor-curated depository of nearly 30,000 long reads. The new site fully opened its archives for the first time today and it's amazing.
Byliner works like a discovery engine for the best long form nonfiction writing. Fueled by the archives of publications like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Outside as well as an original content platform called Byliner Originals, the newly launched site indexes individual works and sorts them by author, by topic and by source. Users can follow their favorite authors, submit links to quality articles and share what they like with their social networks. Imagine an aggregator like Arts & Letters Daily meets Google News and has a beautifully designed baby. That's Byliner's basic idea, and media nerds are going nuts about it.
The Pandora of Narrative Nonfiction
At the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, Lois Beckett compares Byliner to Pandora, and the comparison is mostly pretty apt. "It has the 'follow me down the rabbit hole' appeal of Wikipedia (one page leads to another, and suddenly you've spent an hour on the site), paired with the ambience of a gentleman's club: elegant design, good service, a certain tone--like the rustle of electronic pages as Serious People Read," says Beckett, who points to the tablet-friendly Byliner Originals section of "the most striking thing" about the site. In the same way that Pandora directs listeners to buy albums of the artists they stream online, Byliner hosts a large body of original work that authors can sell to readers. Also like Pandora, every article on Byliner is packed with detailed metadata--from the topics covered to the author's home country--that drives personalized recommendations for what to read.
In a terrific step past the Pandora model, Byliner also offers a "Read It Later" system that both saves an article for future fun and catalogs the reader's wants. (Pandora sort of does this with the thumbs up/down buttons and the bookmarking feature, but the stream of radio content doesn't offer an archiving tool to listen later.) In a move that butts into Instapaper's territory, Byliner makes browsing and bookmarking as central to the experience as discovering.
Between Books, Magazines and Blogs
With the inclusion of the Originals section, Byliner fills a space previously unavailable for authors. In an interview with Poynter's Mallary Jean Tenore, the company's CEO and Founder John Tayman describes how the platform's flexibility made unique takes by authors like William T. Vollman and Jon Krakauer possible:
Vollman’s “Into the Forbidden Zone” — a 20,000 word-narrative about post-earthquake Japan — is already among the bestselling titles he’s published, Tayman said. He described both pieces as being too complex for a magazine piece, and too timely for a book.
The flexibility of the publishing process enabled Krakauer to add new information to “Three Cups of Deceit” hours before it was released. Vollmann’s story, meanwhile, was available online a week after he returned to the U.S.
“Byliner was created precisely to take advantage of the many things that being a primarily digital company allows,” Tayman said. “We can move swiftly, and get these great stories in front of readers while they’re still very current.”
Much like a magazine or a blog, Byliner's team of editors also maintains relationships with writers that lets the site move quickly on stories relevant to on-going news events. With over four million users inherited from a partnership with Read It Later, Byliner should also be able to move quickly in drawing people to the site. We'd recommend some good pieces to start with, but Byliner does that for you.