On 60 Minutes Sunday night, Jon Krakauer appeared as a talking head in the program's investigation into the truthfulness of Greg Mortenson's two memoirs, Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, as well as the management of his charity, the Central Asia Institute. Krakauer appeared on the show as an expert -- a bestselling nonfiction author and fellow climber who could verify some of the details Mortenson disclosed about his trek could not have been accurate. So how did Krakauer get wrapped up in Mortenson's tale? It was not as an author who smelled literary fraud but, instead, as a charitable donor who felt betrayed.
Mark Bryant, editorial director at Byliner.com, the new Web site on which Krakauer's full expose of Mortenson is now available for free download as a piece called "Three Cups of Deceit," said Krakauer, who declined to be interviewed, was an early supporter of Mortenson's charity. Though Krakauer was not close personal friends with Mortenson, the two knew each other from climbing circles and Krakauer was a strong supporter of Mortenson's work. Bryant estimates that around 2002 Krakauer started hearing rumblings about misuses of funds and possible fraud at the organization. Krakauer stopped donating to the charity but continued to hear rumors and, according to Bryant, finally sat down to read Mortenson's book, Three Cups of Tea, around May 2010. Before finishing the first 100 pages, Bryant said, Krakauer felt the tale "was less than plausible." (Krakauer, a climber who wrote about the catastrophic summit of Everest he was on in 1996 in his book Into Thin Air, was wary about some of the climbing details Mortenson disclosed in Three Cups. In Three Cups Mortenson's story about funding a number of schools in Pakistan begins with him being nursed back to health in a Pakistani village after he unsuccessfully tries to climb K2.)
Krakauer, Bryant explains, brought his initial findings to 60 Minutes, thinking it better that a third party look into the situation, but continued his own research. Bryant said the show did not initially jump on the story but did, eventually, start looking into Krakauer's claim and a broadcast was ultimately scheduled. Krakauer, who had done his own research, wanted to write something after the show aired which Bryant said would be more informal than a book. When Bryant, who had been Krakauer's editor at Outside, started talking to the author about a new project he was working on that would feature long form journalism, Krakauer offered up his piece on Mortenson.
Krakauer is donating all the proceeds from his article to charity and the piece, which is currently available for free on byliner.com, will be sold exclusively through Amazon's Kindle Singles store for $2.99 on Wednesday evening. Bryant said the story has had roughly 20,000 downloads since it was posted Tuesday morning.
For Bryant, Krakauer's piece, which he said grew out of a need to reveal the behind-the-scenes wrongdoings at Mortenson's charity more than a desire to shine a light on a literary fraud, seemed an ideal way to launch his new project, Byliner. The site, which is still in beta and will go live in May, is dedicated to both new and classic narrative journalism. Bryant, who worked as an editor at Men's Journal and Outside as well as an executive editor at HarperCollins, said the site is intended to function as a kind of Pandora for the kind of long form journalism that is getting harder and harder to find in mainstream magazines. Users can search for content by various criteria -- author, subject matter, time period, etc -- and find content that way. The site will then also point users to other content they might like, based on what they've searched for or read, and allow them to comment on articles and interact online with other readers. The archived material, Bryant said, will only be available in excerpts and users will then either be sent to an author's Web site or a magazine publisher's site to get the full story. The site will also feature buy links for an author's books.
In addition to the archives, Byliner will be featuring new stories by a range of established and lesser known writers. The stories, Bryant said, will range from about 8,000 words to 35,000 words, "a length you don't see much in magazines these days." The writers will be given a flat fee for the stories, as they would at a magazine, and then a royalty percentage of sales on top of that.
John Tayman, CEO of Byliner, said that despite the current exclusive deal with Amazon on "Three Cups of Deceit," the company has not made any "long-term commitments" to one retailer and will "look to make some of those decisions based upon how our early titles perform." And, for the site's launch in May, Tayman said a planned PR campaign for the Byliner Original series will include "selected local and national TV; promotional campaigns via distribution partners; and newsletter and on-site marketing on our distribution platform, Byliner.com."