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Longform Journalism is Alive and Well, Say Co-Founders of Byliner, Atavist

Over the weekend, I found myself at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in Grapevine, Texas. It was my first trip to the gathering, even as a native north Texan, but I must say it was an extremely valuable and exciting place for any nonfiction storyteller to be. Speakers and authors came from all over — The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Outside magazine and more, offering nuggets of wisdom that you just can’t get working in a newsroom.

One talk, in particular–“Rejoice! There is a place for long-form journalism online–and it pays”–proved especially interesting, and I thought it’d be fun to share some takeaways with an audience that couldn’t be at the Mayborn.

The session was led by Byliner co-founder and editor-in-chief Mark Bryant and Evan Ratliff, co-founder of the Atavist, and it included esteemed writers Susan Orlean and David Dobbs.

Here were the resounding choruses of the conference discussion:

Ignore what you’ve heard: “longform journalism” as we know it isn’t going away.

Rather, we might be right in the middle of the most thrilling time that extended nonfiction narrative has ever seen. Ratliff said the product the Atavist has for readers is inspired by traditional book and magazine industry models.

“We thought,” Ratliff said, “‘why don’t we try doing these pieces individually?’” And this new way of presenting lengthy, quality writing offered a unique opportunity to package stories visually for a digital audience.

But, he said, only stories that truly identify as narrative nonfiction can lend themselves well to a stimulating aesthetic online. No essays or politics — pieces with “characters, surprise and tension” need the digital home that the Atavist provides.

Writer Susan Orlean said she appreciates the fact that stories can be “full and rich” and very publishable even if they’re not long enough for an old-school book publisher to want to fool with.

“There’s a pressure in traditional publishing for a book to be 300 pages… the great thing about these new forms of digital publishing is length is no longer relevant,” she said.

Orlean champions the creative freedom that comes from writing a piece organically and allowing it to be as many — or as few — words as it needs to be, because now there is still a place for it.

More and more publications are actively seeking the work of long-winded reporters and writers. 

When author David Dobbs first pitched a 7,000-word draft of his book My Mother’s Lover to The New Yorker, it didn’t take. Eventually, he rewrote the piece and sold it through the Atavist and Kindle Singles. It was a hit.

Dobbs said, as a writer, he doesn’t necessarily see streaming reading services as “the answer to long form” but as another opportunity.

“There are just different kinds of risks. If you’re a freelancer, you’re always taking risks. Just getting [the story] out there is satisfying,” he said.

Sites like Buzzfeed, The Verge, Aeon magazine, Medium and Matter are all open to commissioning longform pieces, Dobbs said.

Publications are out there just waiting on a solid reported pitch, essentially.

Yes, there can be significant cash involved in writing longform pieces. 

Both Byliner and the Atavist contract their authors to report a piece following a successful pitch and then agree to half the revenue made on the story. Sometimes, that split can have a big payoff.

“We’ve had authors make more than $100,000 on a single story,” Bryant said, though he said following an audience gasp, “that’s really the exception.” Byliner is more concerned with fostering an improved relationship between author and publisher, he said. In the beginning, Byliner conducted some informal research online to determine what topics and authors people most cared about in hopes of reaching out to writers with pre-sold audiences. The reading service sought to provide a place for accomplished writers to be read and have a home base for its authors’ old work.

Byliner believes, Bryant said, that individual authors should be able to continue monetizing archived stories, when in the past, writers haven’t been able to take full ownership over their narratives financially because their publishers had limited space and time.

With Byliner’s first iteration of an iPad app now available, Bryant hopes to maintain Byliner’s reputation as a “streaming reading service akin to a Spotify or Netflix” if the current model proves scalable. All the while, dedicated writers are getting their work in the hands of readers craving journalism with real depth and length, and they’re finally making money off of it. A win-win.

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