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Reports of Publishing’s Death Are Exaggerated

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Posted on Dec 7, 2012
AP/Michael Probst

By Susan Zakin

(Page 3)

Porter Bibb is one of those ageless 1960s wunderkinds who love both art and commerce, and because he sees publishing from both sides, he understands the move to digital publishing better than most. (Graphic designer Roger Black and Sports Illustrated editor Terry McDonell are among the others in this unusual group.) An investment banker who is often quoted about media and technology, Bibb attended Louisville Male High School with Hunter S. Thompson. He was Rolling Stone’s first publisher, covered Washington, D.C., for Newsweek and is the author of five books.

Bibb may not wear mismatched Converses or hang out in Park Slope, but when he talks about his experience as an author, he sounds like every other disgruntled hack.

“The last book I did was a biography of Ted Turner for Random House five years ago,” Bibb said. “I brought it in, and they said, ‘Are you gonna edit it?’ I had to go out and hire a professional. Then they said, ‘It’s 750 pages. We want to cut it down to 500.’ I said, ‘Are you selling books by the pound?’ ”

In the end, Bibb not only hired his own editor; he also sprang for his own public relations agency and marketing consultant. He sold excerpts to Newsweek and the New York Post. When he asked about foreign sales, the publisher told him the book didn’t have the potential to sell in other countries. Bibb, furious, bought the foreign rights back and sold them himself. The book was published in 14 countries, including Taiwan and mainland China.

“The agent basically disappeared into the woodwork, because she didn’t want to suffer the consequences of my brashness,” he said. “I just couldn’t let the book die. I said, ‘You didn’t edit it, you didn’t promote it, what do you do?’ ”

The answer, five years ago, might have been distribution. Now, not so much, with Amazon dominating distribution, Apple hard on its heels and Google playing catch up. There are, of course, other advantages to being published by a major house. Traditionally, only books from big publishers were widely reviewed. But that’s changing, too.  Book critics are few and far between, marketing and promotion are evolving into new forms, and books published by independent presses are regularly reviewed in the prominent venues that still exist, including The New York Times Book Review.

“The reality is that the book business is going through the same trauma and disillusion that the music industry has already gone through,” Bibb said. “Twelve years ago, there were 30 or 40 independent music companies. Only three or four of them were really big, but they were all making money. Then the Internet came along and capitalized on the fact that people would rather buy one song they like without paying for the 18 they don’t care about. There are now three record companies—soon to be two. The book business has seen this coming and like everyone else in the media industry they have put their heads in the sand, and said ‘This isn’t going to happen to us.’ ”

The problem for writers is that the new models haven’t completely emerged from the primeval swamp of American entrepreneurship. Thanks to an infusion of nearly $1 million in seed funding, Byliner is evolving more rapidly than most. Tayman, a former editor of Outside magazine who co-founded the company with another Outside editor, Mark Bryant, and Ted Barnett, a Harvard Business School MBA with Silicon Valley roots, said the idea for Byliner came not from spreadsheets, but from his gut.

“It grew out of some frustrations I had been feeling as a magazine editor and writer and as a book writer,” Tayman said. “I had been in magazines for quite some time. I took a break and did a book for Scribner in 2007 [‘The Colony,’ about leprosy victims exiled on the Hawaiian island of Molokai]. Happily it did really well, so the publisher and agent were both saying, ‘Let’s get you going on another one immediately.’ ”

But after spending four years on the book, Tayman wasn’t ready to take on another big project.

“I had a backlog of story ideas I wanted to write,” Tayman said. “As I looked at them, I realized they didn’t fit into the magazine model. At the same time, they weren’t stories that would benefit from a couple years of my life and 100,000 words. They would be perfect at 10,000 to 20,000 words, and I was looking for something that could be on and off my desk in a month or two. The idea of being able to start and enjoy a story in two hours or less was appealing to me as a reader.”

Tayman had stumbled onto a new category of e-books called “singles” designed to be read in a single sitting. In early 2007, before the first Kindle was introduced, Tayman started sending out emails, brainstorming the idea of Byliner with friends and colleagues.

“Because it was before tablets were introduced, I knew there was going to have to be a different method of discovery for these stories, but that method wasn’t obvious,” he said. “I thought it should be direct, from the writer to the reader. Writers never own their relationship with their readers. I had been a magazine writer for 15 years but there was no way for me to market my book to the people who had been reading my work.”

Bankrolled by angel investors in Silicon Valley (yes, it has a business model), Byliner publishes original work under 30,000 words and is building “portfolio” pages where established writers can post their backlist of short stories or magazine articles. Byliner’s first release was Jon Krakauer’s “Three Cups of Deceit,” an exposé of the misuse of funds by mountain climber and “Three Cups of Tea” author Greg Mortenson. “Three Cups of Deceit” posted in April 2011, and proved to be a boffo opener: 70,000 readers downloaded a copy in the first 72 hours, before the text migrated to the Amazon Kindle store and became the No. 1 seller there.

“Three Cups of Deceit” was also great PR for Byliner, because it embodied the ethic of moneymaking with a gloss of social responsibility that is part of Silicon Valley culture. Not only did the story appear as a “60 Minutes” segment, but Krakauer donated his profits from the work, which later appeared as a book, to an organization fighting human trafficking of young girls in the Himalayas.

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