We talked by phone this week with Evan Ratliff, one of the founders of The Atavist, a just-minted publishing house that makes original narrative nonfiction available on digital mobile reading devices. Last year, Ratliff made a splash with a story of his own for Wired, in which he tried to vanish. He has also written for other traditional long-form outlets, from The New Yorker and Outside to The New York Times Magazine. We wanted to find out why he felt compelled to become a publisher, what kinds of stories he hopes to generate, and where he thinks narrative nonfiction is headed. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Why create The Atavist?
Some days I ask myself that same question! It started about a year and a half ago with myself and Nicholas Thompson, who is now an editor at The New Yorker. At the time he was an editor at Wired – my editor. We were hanging out and talking about long-form writing, and we had just done a pair of stories together for Wired, one of which was a thing where I tried to disappear. The end result was a very long piece, like 8,500 words. We talked about the fact that even as page counts were shrinking in magazines generally, online it seemed like new homes hadn’t developed where you would naturally think they might show up for long-form. There are obvious reasons for that, mainly that it costs money to produce, and the ways of generating the money weren’t necessarily there.
I had been toying around with some kind of project to either encourage this kind of writing or create a place for it. So we started talking to Jefferson Rabb, who had built Nick’s book website. We started getting together in bars. It really started out as “Maybe we would start a magazine of some sort,” and then it shifted into, “Why don’t we do pieces of a length that are longer than magazines but shorter than books?” It’s a playing field where nobody is really playing these days, because it doesn’t work in print for economic reasons.
So then it was sort of ideas piled on each other as we experimented. Jeff, who is a brilliant designer and coder and the perfect combination of person for this kind of thing, worked on building a prototype.
“What if we layered in this type of multimedia? What if we did this? What if we did that?” Eventually he said, “Why don’t I just build the whole system where we can do all of this really easily?” So he built this content management system. It took us about a year of playing around with it to figure out exactly what we wanted to do. And then we started trying to develop stories to put into it.
To be clear, what length of story are you talking about? Do you have a set window in your mind?
No, it’s not absolutely set. We use the handle “longer than magazines and shorter than books,” but in truth there are some very short books that have been very successful. “On Bullshit” has been very successful. And there are some very long magazine articles. We generally say that we like things that are longer than 6,000 words. Our first ones are in the 12,000 to 15,000 range, so we haven’t touched the top end of it yet. But there’s no reason why we can’t go as long as 35,000 words, as long as the story itself sustains it, because our whole driving force is to have a story that really pulls the reader along. We don’t want to take a story that should probably be 3,000 words and inject it with all this random stuff to make it longer. We actually think that there are all these narratives that are very nice at that length, and those are the ones we want to find. We’ve been saying 6,000 to 30,000 words, but it can fall anywhere.
Are you going to stick with classic, linear narrative nonfiction, or are you also looking at some of the more innovative narrative models that digital publishing might let you explore?
I think that we are going to do some of what I would call more exploration than experimentation. In one of the pieces we have now, the one I wrote, we have a piece of video that is a very integral part of the story. It’s the prologue to the story. It’s the first thing you see before you start reading in the iPad and iPhone versions.
I think there are a lot of things like that that we will try to do. Of course you can do things like split up the narrative and give people options of what to choose. I love that idea, and there’s certainly potential for it. We just need to have the right writer and the right story to make sure it’s an approach that makes sense. We’ve been trying to be careful not to do things just because we can do them, because in the digital world that’s easy to do. We’ve been trying to do things that we think we would like to read, that aren’t just gimmicky or done just for the sake of doing it. So yes, we’re interested, but we haven’t yet found a story that we would do in a really experimental way.
You have two stories for sale now. How often do you expect to roll new ones out?
We don’t have a set date. We land in the industry somewhere between magazines and books, and in that sense, we’re a little more like books, in terms of not having an exact publication schedule. We’ll probably try to do one every four to six weeks at the beginning, and if we start having stories lined up, then we’ll go a little quicker. If we start thinking, “That’s too fast,” then we’ll slow them down. But about four weeks from now, maybe a little less, we’ll roll out the next one.
As far as Periodic Technology, your content management system, it looks like you’re also marketing that on the site. Is that true?
We are, although some of our press got a little ahead of us in terms of being ready to give it to someone. That caught us a little off guard. We’ve had a lot of people interested in it, and we’re taking on a couple beta clients just to develop it a little more with them and to make sure that it has features people actually want and also that the interface is polished enough.
It’s basically ready – that’s what I use to design our own stories – but it’s got some rough edges that we’re just going to work with a couple projects to smooth out. In a month or two, I think it will be ready for us to see who else would like to license it.
Do you expect that the stories will be some kind of loss leaders that will be made up for by licensing the CMS, or are you hoping that the stories will pay for themselves?
It’s all up in the air. It’s too early to say. Our numbers have been really, really good – way higher than the most optimistic projections I made for the first week and a half. What we’re aiming for is for the publishing model that we develop to pay for itself – for the writers to make money, for us to make money. There are lots of different ways that can happen. It could happen through story sales – that the story just sells a lot. It could happen through something else – like a story could get optioned for a movie. We may explore sponsorship, some “presented by” thing that’s kind of like advertising but not exactly traditional advertising. We view that as its own entity that we want to be profitable. And then if it so happens that we make money licensing, and that helps support getting all the journalism off the ground, then that’s great, too.
We think that they both could be businesses, and we’re trying to combine them. We’re a little bit multiple personality in that way.
You said numbers are good. Can you share any numbers?
I can’t share any numbers. [He laughs.]
I have to ask.
I know. It’s really funny for me to be interviewed, because that is what I do, so the question comes and I think, “I’m about to give the answer I hate hearing.” But we’re not putting out anything right now except to say that we’re happy with it, and the stories that we’ve done so far have paid for themselves. It’s a little confusing, though. We’re not going out and saying “We’re profitable on day one,” because Jefferson and I aren’t taking any salary for the time that we put into it, so the calculations would be – who knows how it would calculate out? But as far as story expenses, we’ve paid for the first two stories, one of which was quite expensive to do, because I had to go to Sweden.
You were talking about length, but is there a kind of story that’s not getting done that you hope to do?
Well, I think there are lots of kinds of stories that aren’t getting done. They may not all be ones that we will necessarily do. That’s my one quibble – even though I completely understand it – with this idea that “The Atavist saves long-form journalism” and those kinds of headlines I sometimes see on articles about us. There are all types of long-form journalism. There’s really deep investigative journalism, exposés and things like that, which we are interested in, but that’s not something we have in our early roster of stories.
Our stories are more in the vein of long magazine pieces that are narrative in nature, that are character-driven. Some of them might just be a heist story – a kind of sexy magazine story. The other piece we’ve done is a story that you probably wouldn’t find in any magazine, because it’s not a story that anyone would publish. It’s a wonderful tale of a guy whose story has been lost but who was once well-known throughout the world. We really like lost stories like that, about people whose stories have vanished but they’re really quite remarkable. We have a couple of those that we’re working on.
The main driver for us is not necessarily public-interest journalism or other types of journalism. It’s driven by the narrative. Party because we’re charging people by the story, we want people to feel like they are reading it like fiction and getting lost in it, missing their subway stops – things like that.
Are you looking for writers or stories, or have you already built the stable of contributors you want for now?
We’re looking. We’re in touch with a lot of writers – dozens and dozens of writers that I’ve met with and talked with and emailed and who have gotten in touch with me. We definitely have a lot floating around. We’re a little bit in between when it comes to submissions. We have some people emailing us asking for our publication schedule, our editorial calendar and our submissions guidelines. But we’re not really that kind of place.
We’re looking for this particular type of story because we’re small, and we’re going into business with the writer on the story – we’re splitting revenues with them. So we’re a little more inclined towards people who have experience doing those narratives than we might be if we were a large organization that would, say, take a flyer on somebody who had never done it before. We are open to all kinds of people sending us pitches, but mostly we want pitches rather than someone sending us stories that they’ve written.
Broadly speaking, with or without The Atavist, what do you see as the future of long-form journalism?
Well, I don’t really know. I don’t want to speak for any writer but myself, but I’m sort of naturally a little cynical and pessimistic, so there’s plenty of days where I look around and think, “Where is it all going? Is anyone going to read these stories?” And I know a lot of people who do the same.
But over the last couple of years, I think there are these signs of optimism that there are still readers out there, even if the number has declined in some way – though I’m not sure there’s evidence that that’s actually true, because the number of outlets has declined. There are things like Longform.org and Longreads. They have a very loyal following. Those are indicators of an audience, and so the question is not really whether or not there’s an audience. The question is only “Can you get enough audience to support the kind of stories you’d like to do?” We’re saying we don’t need to support a giant building somewhere with a lot of things under its roof. We actually just want to pay for stories and see if everyone will come out OK, to see if we can find an audience that will let us do that.
Is there anything else about the project that people wouldn’t know by visiting the site?
Some people are thinking of us and have just seen the app side of things. That’s one of the places where we started and we’re really excited about. The Kindle has been incredible for us, too. It was kind of a revelation when they came up with Kindle singles, because it was exactly what we were trying to do. It opens this other door for these kinds of narratives. People who have Kindles love to read; that’s why they have Kindles. So reaching that audience is kind of a dream for us, and that part has been really exciting. We get a lot of attention for the app side of things, but we’re treating them as equals.