Publishing Without the Publishers

By: Steve Outing

Later this year, a new Web site will be launched that aims to transfer some of the power publishers hold over to writers. Tentatively called Bylines, the site will be a showcase for outstanding work by leading writers and journalists who want to sell their writing independently on the Internet.

The concept, which is still under development, is the work of Jon Franklin, a creative writing professor on sabattical from the University of Oregon in Eugene; his wife Lynn; and former Baltimore Sun special projects editor George Rodgers. They believe that they can create a special place on the Web where top-quality writers can showcase their work and find a large audience willing to pay small amounts on a pay-per-read basis.

Bylines is likely to contain a hodge-podge of writing, but the emphasis will be on “literary quality” work, says Jon Franklin. By that, he means writing of depth and quality; articles that grab readers’ attention; good writing and good journalism. The Bylines staff will screen writers carefully, and serve as editors for work that passes their scrutiny.

The kind of content that Franklin has in mind typically is not found in newspapers and magazines, because it’s the type of writing that commercial publishers avoid, believing that there is no market. Bylines will contain some longish pieces — 20,000 to 40,000 words — that probably won’t find a home in the traditional publishing world, as well as out-of-print books.

As an example, Franklin says the site will carry a long piece on farriers, the people who shoe horses. He thinks this piece will have a decent sized audience, because it’s a fascinating look at what it’s like to keep alive a traditional craft and lifestyle during an era of high technology. This is not something you will see in a newspaper (unless it’s edited down to 1,500 words).

Readers first

“We’re working for the reader and not the advertiser,” Franklin says. Most commercial publishers say this, “but I don’t believe them.” Bylines will operate free of pressure from advertisers, relying on reader purchases to fund the operation and pay the writers.

That farriers piece is “evergreen” content, of which Bylines will contain an abundance. The writer will continue to receive royalties on this piece for years, Franklin points out, since there’s no need to take it off the server, and there’s no perishability the way there is with a dated print magazine.

Franklin says he will guarantee writers at least 50% of royalties, and hopes to offer better. Pricing has not been set, but current thinking is that a long piece or a book might cost 50 cents to $1 to download. Other works might be much less.

Franklin hears from many critics of his concept that Internet users won’t pay for reading articles on the World Wide Web, but he thinks they’re wrong. It will take an operational site to prove who’s right. To reach a mass market — which is what he’d ultimately like to do — Bylines will have to charge tiny amounts to readers. That’s still problematic, because transaction costs still prevent selling a story online for a few pennies. When true micro-transactions arrive — allowing a piece to be sold for 5 cents — then Franklin believes that writers (and his site) will earn good money.

Most of the writing that’s come Franklin’s way thus far has been done specifically for the Web marketplace, much of it adventurous, breakthrough work, he says. But the site also can serve as a marketplace for articles previously published in print (and for which the author still holds publication rights). This is a way for freelancers to get extra revenue out of their better works, long after the printed magazine pages have yellowed. (Bylines is a good argument for freelancers to be careful about wording of contracts they sign with publishers.)

Franklin also envisions columnists being available on the site eventually, though they probably would be delivered by e-mail. And while initially looking for literary quality content, Bylines will evolve to include more informational journalism.

The digital reader

Reading longish pieces on a computer screen is not ideal, of course, and it’s expected that many readers may simply click the “Print” button. Ultimately, Franklin hopes to see development of a portable digital tablet reader, which will give a major boost to sites like Bylines.

Bylines is all about “getting out from under the thumbs of publishers,” says Franklin, who believes writing isn’t attracting as many people as in the past because of the way publishers treat writers. If you’re a publisher and have paid millions of dollars for a printing press, that investment is likely to make you conservative. On the Internet, free of those burdens, it’s possible to be more adventurous and creative, he says, and for writers to learn to control their own destiny.

And besides, “I think there is big money in this, eventually,” he says.

Bylines evolved out of the WriterL Internet mailing list, which is a moderated, digested forum run by Franklin. The list has about 325 participants, who pay $20 a year to take part. Franklin screens submitted writings, which are discussed online. The list was moved from a University of Oregon server onto the server of NICAR (the National Institute of Computer Assisted Reporting), which is creating the Bylines site in exchange for a piece of the action.

Contact: Jon Franklin, jonfrank@darkwing.uoregon.edu

Quotable: ‘Dress rehearsal’

Mark Loundy, telecommunications chair of the National Press Photographers Association, in a recent posting to the online-news In ternet mailing list:

“As long as users compare …

Going to where the computer is
Turning it on
Waiting for it to boot
Starting the browser application
Intiating the dial-up connection
Initiating the dial-up connection again when the handshaking fails
Waiting for the page to load

with …

Picking up the paper and reading it,

we will be holding a losing hand for anything beyond narrowly defined niche products.

For now, we’re still in rehearsal, waiting for the scenery and wardrobe to arrive and waiting for the theater to be finished.”

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company.

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