Byliner Brings Binge Culture to Books

Rachael Hanel
From the May/June 2014 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

We’ve all heard of (and have likely been party to) the phenomenon of binge-watching: blasting through several television episodes in one sitting thanks to technology like Netflix. Now, in the continuing trend of literary websites battling to be crowned “the Netflix of Books”— Scribd, Oyster, and other platforms offering massive libraries of digital books to users for a monthly subscription—one innovative service is working to create the first binge-reading experience.

Byliner, founded in 2011 as a digital publisher of book-length fiction and nonfiction, recently reinvented itself as a library of works in the shorter form: Its collection includes thirty thousand short stories, magazine articles, and essays by thousands of well-known and emerging writers. An unlimited number of works can be read online or off, through a smartphone or tablet app, for $5.99 per month.

Like some of its counterparts, Byliner is often compared to Netflix for the breadth of work it makes accessible to users, which is a reasonable assessment, says Richard Nash, the newly instated vice president of partnership for Byliner and former publisher of Red Lemonade and Soft Skull Press. But what makes Byliner different is the length of the pieces made available—stories and essays, works meant to be read by those on the go and attractive to a culture looking to binge. As greater access to film and television has stolen potential readers away from literature, Nash says, Byliner hopes to bring the focus back to words.

“Watching The Sopranos over two days is like reading a novel,” Nash says. “We see this as taking back our rightful inheritance.”  

By suggesting pieces that fit a user’s specifications for time and interest, Byliner seeks to help readers sort through the abundant literature available today. The site’s app allows readers to receive recommendations of stories as short as a thousand words or as long as thirty thousand, based on the amount of time they have.

Readers can also use genre filters such as Crime, Culture, or Science to select what they’re in the mood for, and can “follow” their favorite authors, whose stories appear in a personalized feed along with works that these writers recommend. “The general hypothesis is that people will read more, and read more deeply, if it’s set up for them better,” Nash says.

Byliner makes its library available through hundreds of existing partnerships with individual authors, including Margaret Atwood, Hilton Als, and Jon Krakauer; and through new partnerships with magazines such as McSweeney’s, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and dozens of others. While the website does not accept unsolicited original work, previously published pieces can be submitted by publishers and editors.

Going forward, Nash hopes to establish more partnerships with presses, agents, and magazines to increase the amount of work available in Byliner’s library. “For technology to be able to help society, the future is going to have to integrate better with emotions and narrative,” Nash says. At the same time, publishers will gain more readers by embracing new technology. “Now is the time to work together.”

Rachael Hanel is the author of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, published in 2013 by the University of Minnesota Press.