Social reading: A user review of Byliner

In my quest to pare down the general social noise and hone into fewer readings of more substantial value, I’ve gotten pretty excited about the web service Byliner recently. The Byliner site launched around this time last year and does two basic things:

  1. It aggregates high-quality long-form journalism and short fiction from across online magazines and categorizes them by subject and author. As a user, you can follow authors you like as well as other users who have similar interests to yours. When you login to the site, you are presented with a list of the most recent articles written by your authors, as well as recommendations that reflect what the entire Byliner social population is reading that day (top three articles, etc.) You can read the first couple of paragraphs of the article on the Byliner site before being driven back to the originating site to complete it – which actually helps to perpetuate the existence of online magazines rather than taking away from them.
  2. It publishes exclusive long-form essays and fiction from some great authors and sells them for between one and three dollars. These transactions are managed through whichever reader-system you have whether that be Kindle or Kobo or Google – so there is no need to give yet another company your credit card info. These works are listed for sale on Amazon as “singles”.

What I like about this? While I am pretty much wedded to hard-copy books, I gave up paper magazines more than ten years ago because they just seem to *wasteful* in terms of their temporality and the fact they are designed to go straight into the recycle-stream month after month. Not only that, the price of magazines in Canada has gotten really out of hand and I can’t really find my way to shelling out $10 or $12 for something that I’ll leaf through and then toss away. In the intervening ten years, a lot of my favourite magazines have come online in a big way, but even then, it’s difficult to track all of them for the authors and topics I actually want to read.

Hence – a long-form aggregator to dish up exactly what I would be looking for on my own – as well as a social reading community to share their own suggestions.

But even more important – I think – is this new model of publishing for writing that doesn’t quite fit into the standard models. Not so long ago I read a piece that suggested that the short story – and by extension, the novella – were the least-marketable forms of printed fiction and thus on their way out. Part of the problem was allocated to the fact that magazines, traditional publishers of short stories, have been on the decline for some time – which has vastly reduced the number of venues for new authors trying to break into the short fiction market as well as established authors who have mastered that particular form.

While I have no idea what the author-cut on the Byliner “Originals” is, I have to imagine it is somewhat decent for authors like Margaret Atwood, Jon Krakauer and Amy Tan to have signed themselves up for what is still an experiment. I would like to imagine that they are receiving at least half of what Byliner charges for their works, which is what service says they pay on average (Atavist publishes singles for e-readers) – which makes for much better remuneration than many authors might expect when submitting to a magazine…. if the readership is there.

Byliner is only really dealing with top-tier writers – which is great from a reader perspective (they are as rigorous as any editorial board, guaranteeing me a good read) but perhaps not so great from the writer perspective. It seems that so far Byliner is relying on print-publishing to determine the writers they will carry. Scrolling through their current selection of “Originals” it is notable that most of these writers are well-established in the world of print – and there is not a lot of risk-taking going on with regards to author selection. On the other hand, a baby start-up has to prove itself somehow, and one way to do that is to snag high-profile authors with a proven track record in publishing.

Ultimately, Byliner gives me the opportunity to do what I want to do: find excellent reading material and pay authors for their work. At one to three dollars (the price of the proverbial coffee) I can “treat” myself every once in awhile to some environmentally-friendly reading material, while knowing that someone like Jess Walter is being fairly remunerated for that. And when I just feel like a quick browse at breaktime, there is always the “free” content collected according to my parameters. This feels like a good model for micro-payment/micro-publishing – I just hope it doesn’t get entirely swallowed up by Amazon or Google down the road.

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