With the Atavist, E-Reading Goes to Great Lengths

A new startup digital publishing venture opens up a realm of novella-length stories to journalism—and comes today to Amazon's new "Kindle Singles" store. The app launches next week for iPhone and iPad, and stories will also be coming out for e-readers like the Kindle.

The Atavist

In late October of 2009, the freelance journalist Evan Ratliff invited his editor at Wired, Nick Thompson, over to watch the Alabama-Tennessee game at Ratliff's Brooklyn apartment. The two got to talking over what fun they had had working on a two-article series about what it takes to disappear in an age of ubiquitous digital traces. Ratliff had actually attempted to vanish himself, goading his readers into a digital manhunt, and Ratliff chronicled the story in a feature that Wired permitted to run considerably longer than the typical 4,000-word fare constrained by magazine page counts.

"I brought up the idea," Ratliff tells Fast Company, "that you have a digital medium that should allow you to do things at any length you want." Magazine space-constraints limit the feature well; while the economic demands of the publishing-industry all but rule out the short book (people want their $25 worth, when buying a hardback). E-readers, though, should upend this logic, opening a whole new province of novella-length non-fiction. What's more, the digital medium would allow a suite of multimedia extras to enhance the story. Thompson got excited about the idea, and looped in a designer named Jeff Rabb, who had designed the website for Thompson's book, The Hawk and the Dove. In that moment, The Atavist—which launches next week across several e-reading devices—was conceived.

The Atavist is, in the words of its website, "a boutique publishing house producing original nonfiction stories for digital, mobile reading devices." On the 26th, two stories will be available as $2.99 in-app purchases on the iPad and iPhone (less tricked-out editions will also be coming out for Kindle for $1.99, and eventually for the Android and Nook). Download the app, which is itself free, and an elegant checkerboard design launches. Different stories are represented by tiles, which you then touch to sample or purchase for download. The first two stories, each running in the 12,000-word range, are by Ratliff and Brendan Koerner, a friend and fellow Wired regular.

Last weekend, Ratliff gave me an early look at the app, walking me through the two stories on his iPad. He launches the Koerner piece, Piano Demon, about an African-American jazz pianist named Teddy Weatherford who became a sensation in Asia in the 1930s. A bit of honky-tonk piano, the story's "soundtrack," begins playing (it's silenced with the press of button, if you prefer to read without the ambiance). Ratliff shows me how the story is divided into several "chapters," each of which is manifested in a single, scrollable page. Reach the end of the chapter (the bottom of that page), and an unobtrusive arrow signals that you can swipe to the right for more. Sometimes, navigating to the right will first bring you to an interpolated image related to that moment in the story; swiping again will bring you to the next chapter. "The Atavist is a hybrid between magazines and books, and we're trying to reflect this in the design," explains Ratliff.

Atavist stories also feature "in-line extras"—essentially a back-channel of opt-in multimedia content, whose availability is signaled by faint gray arrows in the margins. That piano solo Koerner is describing? Press here to have a listen. Yet another place name you forget whether you've encountered already (since Weatherford was a worldly man who criss-crossed the globe)? Press to get a look at a map, or a "smart" timeline that traces Weatherford's steps—without spoiling parts of the story you haven't yet reached. Ratliff's own piece, about a heist in Sweden, begins with a "prologue" of security-camera footage of the team making off with the loot. Every story also has an audio feature where you can listen to the author read the story; the text scrolls all the while, keeping pace with the author's voice. (For a Q&A with Rabb on the Atavist's design, click here.)

So it looks pretty, has the "cool" factor, and might actually deliver on some of the innovations in reading that devices like the Kindle and iPad have been promising for a while. But how will it make money? Atavist's overhead is very low, says Ratliff; editorial and design meetings tend to occur at a Brooklyn Heights pub. And the pay scale is one that, as in book publishing, is low-risk, rewarding performance. Rather than pay a per-word rate, the venture offers interested authors a modest fee ("It has three zeroes after it, not two," says Ratliff. "It's not an honorarium.") Writers also make a percentage of the sales—something just shy of 50%, promises Ratliff. If your story is a runaway viral hit, and manages to sell 20,000 downloads, you're looking at a nice fee to rival anything a top magazine would have fetched you. Even if you don't strike it rich, writing for Atavist is a chance for authors get to place that 12,000-word piece that no one else will take, that isn't quite ripe for a book, or that got killed at another magazine for being too long or not topical enough.

The publishers, like Amazon or Apple, take a 30% cut; Atavist itself also takes a share. "The big missing thing in profitability is that we can't work for free forever," says Ratliff, referring to himself and Rabb. But the two have equity stakes in the company that they hope will pay off over time; a gold-star panel of occasional advisers are similarly compensated with a stake in the venture. "We think this can be a sustainable and profitable venture on its own as a publishing thing," says Ratliff, adding that he and Rabb will also be licensing the software Rabb has developed for app-building, meaning another revenue stream.

Asked what makes Atavist a "boutique" publishing venture, Ratliff laughs. "'Boutique' can be interpreted as some sort of euphemism for not having any resources," he says. "But really we're using that word to evoke an idea that we're being very careful about what we choose." Ratliff has had coffee with some 30 top writers, he says, and chatting on the phone with about as many more. A select few stories are in the pipeline, including three that he thinks are in very good shape and should likely be available soon.

And how about the name, Atavist? For years, www.atavist.net was Ratliff's personal and professional website; he simply liked the word (an atavism is a biological trait that reemerges after laying dormant). After hashing out countless other possible titles for the new venture, Ratliff, Thompson, and Rabb decided that the URL Ratliff had been sitting on all the while was perfect—since here was a new sort of writing that harkened back to something older.

"The closest thing would probably be chapbooks," says Ratliff, referring to a small-book form popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. "We thought about calling these non-fiction novellas," he muses. "But that was either too pretentious or too confusing."

For more on Atavist's design and an interview with Jeff Rabb, click here

Update 1/26: The two first Atavist stories are being offered as part of Amazon's new "Kindle Singles" store, which launches today. Says Amazon, which had announced its intention to sell Singles last fall:

Each Kindle Single presents a compelling idea—well researched, well argued, and well illustrated—expressed at its natural length. From an elaborate bank heist in Lifted, to Congolese rebel camps in The Invisible Enemy, to Jodi Picoult’s moving portrayal of family in Leaving Home, they offer nuanced journeys of both fact and fiction. This first set of Singles was selected by our team of editors, and includes works by Rich Cohen, Pete Hamill, Darin Strauss, and Ian Ayres. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we have.

The cheapest Single runs for $0.99; the most expensive (for now) at $2.99. The Atavist stories run $1.99. Kindle Single versions of the Atavist stories only contain text and some images—none of the additional video content.

Ratliff met with the Kindle Singles people a few months ago, and was delighted by the consonance of their views and ambitions for long-form digital journalism. "We got together and talked...this was the rare meeting where it was like, this is perfect."

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