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Author explains the long and short of e-books

There is a debate in media circles about whether people want to read short newspaper or magazine stories that allow them to get on with their lives, or if readers are willing to invest more time if they have access to high-quality, long-form journalism.

It's likely that both sides are right. A lot of us get the headline version of things from TV, or scan news and Twitter feeds from our phones.

At the same time, more of us own tablet devices and e-readers, or use apps such as Instapaper and Read It Later that save articles for future consumption. It's easy to develop a voracious appetite for web content, and there are sites such as, and that serve up a daily diet of links to long-form articles.

Then there is, which has been compared to the Pandora music service. Pandora recommends tunes based on the artists you say you like. Byliner seeks to aggregate the best of the web and sort it by author and topic. The site also makes reading suggestions based on your stated preferences when you become a registered user.

In addition, Byliner is a pioneer in the sale of short e-books that can be read in one sitting. Byliner Originals, as they are called, sell for 99 cents to $5.99. Most of them are too long to be a magazine article, too short to be a full-priced book. They are sold online though's Kindle Singles, Amazon's Quick Reads and Barnes and Noble's Nook Snaps.

Jonathan Mahler, author of the acclaimed book "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning," is one of Byliner's featured authors. In early November, Mahler had an essay published in the New York Times about the sad state of affairs at Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The publishers of Byliner contacted Mahler about writing an e-book on the topic, and the result is "Death Comes to Happy Valley," which was published a few days after Joe Paterno's death in late January.

The 40-plus-page book, which sells for $1.99, is an examination of Paterno's rise and fall. Mahler spoke by phone last week from his New York office about Penn State and his first experience writing an e-book.

After spending time around State College, Pa., Mahler said he was surprised by how "integral Paterno was to the growth of Penn State. When he got there it was really a small agricultural college and he played really a central role in building it into a major national research university."

Paterno, of course, was fired by the university after the Sandusky scandal erupted. Mahler said the questions of what Paterno knew and when he knew it may never be answered.

"Whether or not [Paterno] knew before it was brought to his attention that Sandusky had a problem -- because he had been investigated before this -- and whether or not Mike McQueary was explicit with him about what he had seen in the shower, regardless, I am sure he made it clear enough that Paterno should have known better, should have done more than simply notify his superiors and then never even follow up.

"Paterno himself acknowledged that, he said 'I wish I had done more.' Why he didn't do more is again a question we can't answer. My sense is there were a variety of reasons. Was he protecting the program? I think that was part of it, maybe a small part of it.

"And I also think that he was -- and I think this is in some ways most important -- he was too old to be in a position of authority like he was. I think he was not up to the task. He did not have the kind of clarity of mind and vision that a person in that position needs to have."

Books with a sport theme are not a big part of the Byliner Originals catalog yet, though there are some. One of the biggest sellers is "The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA," by the historian and writer Taylor Branch.

Mahler, who contributes articles to the New York Times Magazine and elsewhere, said the one-sitting e-book format didn't quite "make sense" to him at first. That has changed.

"I had never really spent much time in the Kindle Singles store on Amazon, and now I've kind of noodled around there and I can sort of imagine it now as kind of the newsstand of the future. It could potentially be an exciting new possibility for authors. Of course it has to work financially and I think that remains to be seen. I think it might still be a little bit ahead of America's reading public. I don't know what percentage of Americans now have some kind of e-reading device, or if they have them, how many use them. I don't know if we're there yet, but I can imagine a day when we would be."