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Festival of books: Publishing in the digital age

April 22, 2012 | 11:05 am

Click to view photos from the Festival of Books

Editors of four of the most interesting and innovative digital publishers sat down with L.A. Times book critic David L. Ulin Saturday to discuss how they do what they do, and why.

PHOTOS: Festival of Books

The players, in alphabetical order:

The Atavist. Launched in January 2011, The Atavist was one of the first iPad-native apps to tell robust nonfiction stories that fully exploited the possibilities of the tablet, such as audio, video, an interactive time line and animations. Its editors are careful to pick stories that use multimedia not as add-ons but as storytelling elements -- although the text-only versions of its stories have also been popular.

Byliner. Launched in April 2011, Byliner has two main components: a series of original reports, which are published as ebooks and also as novella-length stories, and a curated database of long-form nonfiction and fiction pieces organized by author. Byliner's first original story, "Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way" by Jon Krakauer, which was published the day after a "60 Minutes" broadcast sharing many of its accusations about the "Three Cups of Tea" author, was a sensation.

Figment. Launched in December 2010, Figment is a collaborative writing and reading site for teen girls that strives to be platform-agnostic -- it functions on the Web, cellphones, tablets, and plays nice with social media tools. It was based on a Japanese phenomenon co-founder Dana Goodyear wrote about in the New Yorker. The site's other co-founder, Jacob Lewis, was on hand to accept the L.A. Times Innovators Award at the book prizes Friday night.

Grantland. Launched in June 2011 by ESPN, Grantland covers sports and culture. Its popular website is dense with daily fresh conent, often long-form stories written with strong voices, and it has launched a print anthology with McSweeney's. Its regular writers include stars like founding editor Bill Simmons and essayist Chuck Klosterman and a host of younger authors who are entirely at home with the conventions and possibilities of social media.

FULL COVERAGE: Festival of Books

The takeaways:

Jay Caspian Kang, an editor at Grantland, noted that all of these sites came together at about the same time, responding in different ways as "a backlash to this idea that long-form journalism was dead."

"There's a community of people that read this stuff and actually love it," said Evan Ratliff, editor of The Atavist. "Everything doesn't have to be chopped up and shrunk down to be read on a screen."

The length of content matters less to Jacob Lewis of Figment than the people who are creating it. "We are nothing without a community," he said. "We need to always be growing in terms of size and interaction."

Byliner's a little different. While its curated database helps readers navigate to find stories by authors they like, it's the content itself that's important. "At Byliner, we're experienced, old-school magazine editors," co-founder Mark Bryant said.

Each of the editors talked about the challenges of getting well-written pieces in response to an instantaneous news cycle, the value of promoting good authors, and the importance of being technologically nimble in a fast-changing digital environment. And all were committed to telling, in their different ways, good stories.


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