Byliner is a revolutionary new method of distribution for short fiction and long-form journalism. The subscription-based website works like this: for $5.99 a month you can read articles and short stories by a huge range of writers including Margaret Atwood, Nick Hornby, Jon Krakauer and Jonathan Lethem. This content is both original and exclusive to Byliner, and taken from the archives of other publications. Indeed, many of the articles can probably be found elsewhere on the internet but it is the large quantity, high quality and elegant presentation of the pieces which makes Byliner unique and appealing.
Ease of reading is central to the site: all pieces are laid out simply as text on a white background. No pictures. In the menus pieces are presented as a series of thumbnails with an estimated reading time and a concise description is given when you click on them. These reading times range from five minutes or less to several hours and, conveniently, Byliner remembers where you were should you stop reading an article midway through. The huge range of material on Byliner can be easily sorted by writer, content and reading time.
All this is intended to offer an enduring place for quality writing in an era when our attention spans are governed by constantly buzzing smartphones. In theory, on Byliner you can find something you want to read, fiction or journalism, to suit the length of your lunch break, your daily commute or your lazy Sunday afternoon. Read something you like and you can follow that writer, making their work appear on your ‘feed’, or read other similar pieces and writers that the site recommends. You can even see who your favourite writers have followed and read although, in reality, not all are active on the site. No idea what you want to read? Well pieces are recommended by the editors or collected into thematic anthologies, all of which appear on the site’s front page. Basically, something will pique your interest soon enough.
Byliner looks particularly slick on tablets where you can flick through menus and articles easily and intuitively. If you see something you want to read later you can save it to your ‘nightstand’. It will be then be automatically downloaded to the Byliner app on your tablet or phone so that you are able to read the piece at your convenience with or without an internet connection. When used like this Byliner becomes something like a kindle for short stories and long articles, but working on a subscription model. If you like reading then you will quickly build up so much on your nightstand that you wonder when you will get time to read it all – in essence, lack of interesting content is not an issue on Byliner and with new writers constantly added to the roster it is unlikely to become so.
While I have tended more towards the journalism on the site I think Byliner’s nature makes it an interesting platform for short fiction and serialised fiction in particular. Margaret Atwood, a great champion of the site, has embraced this with her exclusive serial Positron which has thus far consisted of four parts, all about an hour in length. Moving forward, while the novel seems unlikely to give up its sacred space in Western culture any time soon, I think that shorter fiction will have to adapt to formats compatible with the smartphone and tablet if to hold its own against the lure of social media.
Long-form magazine journalism too is under increasing threat with even giants such as Newsweek, who issued their last print edition on the 31st December, struggling to adapt to changes in the media landscape. These days all but the most niche magazines struggle to make money off print and more general publications are struggling to effectively monetise their digital content or to make the leap to online-only subscription models. It seems inarguable that a website like Byliner, which acts as a forum for the broad area of ‘cultural journalism’, interviews, reportage, travel writing, food writing, cultural analysis and so on, will be the ideal outlet for this kind of content once many or all of the magazines which used to trade on it finally go bust.
In the 21st century print publications are an endangered species and in the next decade, should current trends continue, many publications that once seemed entrenched in the media landscape will fold. The vague sense of identity cultivated by many of the magazines in the broad area of ‘cultural journalism’ is a false economy. In comparison to the sheer breadth and volume, along with the quality, available on Byliner they simply cannot compete. Byliner may have been invented as a digital platform for ‘short stories and articles by the world’s best writers’ as its header proclaims, but it is fast becoming apparent that it is a model for the future of the publishing industry in general. Try it free for two weeks today and I bet you’ll be hooked. If not, you had better start buying print magazines and fast.