The Atavist: A New Take on Narrative Nonfiction
Evan Ratliff is an award-winning feature writer and freelance journalist with bylines at Wired, The New Yorker, Outside, The New York Times Magazine, and many other publications. Recently, Ratliff founded The Atavist, a boutique publisher that specializes in narrative nonfiction and original journalism, published electronically through a custom app for iOS devices. The Atavist runs on a custom content management system (CMS), designed to make it easy for publishers to create digitally enhanced stories without the need for technical expertise.
Articles from The Atavist are also available on the Kindle and the Nook, but the app includes special features not available in other formats–namely, graphical and audio enhancements, links to further information and annotations, and “smart” timelines that tracks the reader’s place in the narrative without “spoiling” the ending.
Here are some of the features that are part of the reading experience in The Atavist app.
I caught up with Evan Ratliff over email recently, to get his take on where The Atavist fits in the overall publishing landscape and to find out more about his business model.
What inspired you to start The Atavist as a publisher of long-form journalism? What needs do you believe The Atavist fills?
I’ve been a writer of long-form journalism, or at least a writer who aspired to long-form journalism, for most of my career. And I’ve been lucky enough to write for the places that still really value it, like Wired and The New Yorker. But as more and more writing moved online, it also seemed to generally be getting shorter and shorter. Which doesn’t make sense, really, since digital platforms should free publishers from the page constraints of print. But of course there are economic reasons behind it. With The Atavist, we were hoping to find a sustainable model for publishing long-form narrative reporting digitally, such that both the publication and the writer were able to get paid enough to keep producing that kind of work. On top of that, we feel that there are a lot of inventive ways to tell stories in the digital realm. So from a multimedia perspective we’re trying to experiment and push those boundaries without cluttering up a great yarn with a bunch of widgets and junk.
How would you describe the target demographic for stories published through The Atavist?
We don’t think too much in terms of traditional demographics, partly because we are too small to really gather that kind of data. So essentially we’re targeting anyone who loves to read great true stories. We don’t really get too much more specific than that when it comes to the reading part. Obviously, of course, we are targeting people who own, and like to read on, mobile digital devices. So that narrows the pool a bit (although you can read any of our stories on Amazon’s Kindle desktop software too).
Part of The Atavist’s mission involves a custom content management system that you designed and built. Could you describe what sets Periodic CMS apart from other platforms? What are your plans for the CMS moving forward?
Periodic was originally built to allow me, as an editor, to construct our Atavist stories without having to know any code or have a coder touch it. So the main thing that I think sets it apart is how easily it allows you upload, edit, and shuffle around components of a story or a book—including audiobook versions, video, music. We’ve also built an entire system of behind-the-scenes content, which makes it simple to build in additional information that then links to the story and pops out at a reader’s touch. Overall it’s got a kind of one-button approach to digital publishing, where you can publish the piece of work out to the iPad/iPhone app, Android (in the works, but will be out mid-summer), and then also create the right files for platforms like the Kindle and Nook. In the app versions, the system also live connected to the app, which means you can constantly update, correct, or change whatever you’ve published.
Our plans are to license it out to a widest possible variety of publishers, large and small! We’ve got beta clients in several different industries at the moment, and we’re getting ready to go fully commercial within a month.
What is the business model for The Atavist? How will The Atavist sustain itself in the long term?
Our plan is to bring in revenue from both sides of the business: our own publishing and licensing the CMS. In the short term, the CMS will probably generate more of the revenues, since it takes time to build up a readership. But we see them as complementary businesses that can both be profitable. Our own publishing efforts help us push the app with new features, which then benefit the CMS, which in turn helps us fund some more cool stories.
What are the touch points or markers of success for The Atavist, either as a publisher of long-form journalism or as an app?
I think as a publisher we want to keep building up a readership steadily, over a few years. That means implementing subscriptions, which we’ll be doing soon. It means trying to grow our numbers on Kindle Singles and elsewhere, by doing a better job of getting the word out about each release. But I think the ultimate marker will be when each story can generate enough revenue on it’s own to pay its costs, and get the author paid. We’ll always have some that are bigger hits than others, and even right now one story’s sales can pay for several more. But we’re after a consistent base of readers.
Looking forward at the future of publishing, where do you think long-form journalism is going? Is the glass half-full or half-empty?
Part of the problem with debating at long-form’s future, I think, is that everyone is comparing today to some mythical date in 1969 when every writer’s pitch got assigned, every story was brilliant, everything ran to 15,000 words, and money fluttered out of magazine pages like blow-in cards. I love the work from that time period as much as the next person, but the reality probably wasn’t how I imagine it. Certainly stories have gotten shorter in print, and the Web has leant itself to even snappier approaches. So there’s been cause for pessimism. But it would be hard to look around at the moment, with things like Kindle Singles, Byliner, Longform, Longreads, The Awl, and others, and not find some cause for optimism. I’ve been a freelancer for 10 years, so I’m pessimistic by nature. But there are more outlets now than there were even a year ago, and that can’t possibly be bad. And clearly folks like us and Byliner believe that there’s a real business in long form. And there’s no way to find out if we’re write to think that glass is half full until we try it for a while.
Evan Ratliff is an award-winning journalist and contributing editor at Wired magazine. In addition to Wired, his writing appears in The New Yorker, Outside, Men’s Journal, National Geographic, and many other publications. He is the co-author of “Safe: The Race to Protect Ourselves in a Newly Dangerous World” (HarperCollins, 2005). His 2009 story “Vanish,” about his attempt to disappear and the public’s effort to find him, was a finalist for the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing.