A Conversation with Evan Ratliff

By William Hillyard

Evan Ratliff’s got juice.   He’s the founder and editor of The Atavist, that slick e-reader-cum-magazine-cum book imprint-cum-publishing platform that everyone—and I mean everyone is talking about.  You’ve heard about it, it’s saving long-form journalism by publishing downloadable novella-length, multimedia-packed nonfiction.  Get the app and for $2.99 you can grab a 15,000 to 30,000 word article embedded with video, photos, maps and gizmos straight to your iPhone.  And The Atavist splits all the proceeds of the article’s sales with the writer. 

The Atavist celebrated its first anniversary in January after the publication of its twelfth story.  Evan spoke with The Coachella Review from his office in Brooklyn.

Tell me about the name, The Atavist.  How does it relates to your philosophy as a—I’d hate to say magazine—as a publishing entity.

We use the term magazine sometimes.  When we apply for the National Magazine Awards, we very much call ourselves a magazine.  And when we are talking to book people we talk about books, so we can kind of go either way. We use these terms basically interchangeably because none of them actually fit precisely. 

But in terms of the name, an atavistic trait is a trait from biology that disappears in a species and then reemerges later.  The classic example is leg bones in whales.  Whales lost their legs but every once in a while they’ll dissect a whale that has leg bones.   Our general translation of that concept into what we do is that the long-form storytelling like we do is something out of the magazines of the 1960s.  Think of the great Esquire stories and even “Hiroshima” in the New Yorker, things like that.  The idea was to try to revive that form of writing for the digital age—without being too terribly pretentious about it.  We have all this space [on the internet], we have infinite space, let’s use it, let’s use it to tell the stories that don’t get told in print because they’re either too long for print magazines or they’re too short to constitute an entire book. 

But there’s also this incredibly practical side of using the name The Atavist.  It’s not a word that many people use, so when readers look for us in the iTunes store, they will find us--if they know the name, they’ll find us.  They won’t find anything else, they won’t get confused. 

The stories that you publish, what are they exactly?  Are they short books for those of us with short attention spans or really long magazine articles? 

That’s the question that gets to the heart of how we end up playing both sides, even if we don’t want to.  If I go to a book conference where everyone is talking about the future of books, for example, I get skewered because I’m the person representing short attention spans—as in nobody wants to read long books anymore.  I’m not that up on the overall book market and where it’s going, but those people are all doom and gloom.  From my end, though, we fall on the side of people having longer attention spans, we trust that readers have the ability to read something that’s 30,000 words.  I think our argument is more that a story that’s 30,000 words may not deserve to be 100,000 words, so actually you’re just wasting your time layering in chapter after chapter.  I think a lot of nonfiction books are entirely too long, that they’re basically overstuffed magazine articles anyway.  

But we do think of [the stories we publish] as little books in many ways.  The section break in a magazine story is not as strong as a chapter in a book, for example.  Our stories are chapter driven, so structurally they feel a little bit more like books.  And in some design ways we do approach them as books.  In our editorial process, however, we approach them more as magazine stories with fact-checking and the way we edit.  We edit more heavily probably that most nonfiction book editors do. 

Doesn’t what you do with The Atavist fly in the face of the conventional wisdom that we Americans are reading less and that internet content needs to be shorter and not longer?

We founded The Atavist explicitly in reaction to that. It is something that we have been fighting against for years.  People like saying things like ‘attention spans are getting shorter’ and ‘Nobody reads the long stories.’  And, yes, we all have these [electronic] devices and all your time is atomized into these things, so there’s truth to it.  But it’s not really established, data driven truth that people don’t like reading long stories.  The question is, are you giving them long stories that they actually want to read?  Whenever you talk to anyone—for instance, we talked to a former editor of The New York Times Magazine and he said that the stories that are the most read on their website are almost always the longest, with the most depth, with the greatest story.  As a reader, I always felt that way too.  I’m the person who would tear out the front of the magazine with all the short stuff in it and only read the long stuff—so I’m totally biased, I guess, but I don’t think the people saying that everything has to be shorter know what the fuck they’re talking about either.  We are all just going on what we see around us, and I think there’s plenty of evidence that if you tell a good story, and it’s compelling, a lot of people will read it.  There’s not a huge, mass audience for it, but there is an audience and I don’t think it’s shrinking.

So is this kind of the Slow Foods of the literary movement?

Yeah, it’s kind of like that.  But it’s not just artisanal— there’s a practical side to it too.  If you want to go do short pieces, you’re competing against a world of writers, many of whom are doing it for free.  You just can’t sell that stuff, so if you want to try and make money off of this, and pay writers, the thing to do is to do the things that other people aren’t.

You must be inundated with story pitches.  How do you find your writers? 

We do get pitches from people who have just found out about us and they pitch us completely cold.  We have a pitch meeting once a month, and we throw those in and we do look at them.  But they tend not to be right--not because they’re bad, but because the writers tend not to look at what we are doing.  We get a lot of pitches that sound like magazine stories: they want to go on the campaign trail and profile Newt Gingrich, or write a story about the political situation in the republic of Georgia.  These are very fine magazine stories, but they’re not what we’re doing.  We’re doing things that are narrative first. We want a really compelling story, a story that you would tell someone in a bar and they’d be really engaged.  That tends to narrow it down really quickly.  A lot of the pitches, though, come in from writers that we know, or we know through two or three steps away.  These are professional writers we’ve reached out to or who are in the world of our editors; they tend to have a better grasp of what we’re doing. 

Now, that said, we do reach out to journalism schools and younger writers to say look at what we do and send us pitches.  We’ve run a couple of stories—one story and we have another coming out in a couple of months—by people who are very green. But they found these incredible stories, so we were happy to sign them up. 

And a third thing, we do come up with our own ideas and then farm them out to writers.  We’ve done that on a couple of occasions.  And that could be a fiction writer or a nonfiction writer depending on how heavy the reporting is (you wouldn’t want to give some really heavy investigative piece to someone who has never done any reporting), but if something is going to lean more on the skill of the writer, then we’ve thought we’d like to go to fiction writers and take their ability to craft a story and utilize it in this realm. 

I’m sensing that you guys as editors are very involved in the creation of a story from the beginning. 

We’re pretty hands on.  I’d be interested to know what our writers thought about it.  I mean, some of them are probably happier than others in terms of how much we meddle with their story. 

We don’t have a house voice; it’s not like a magazine where someone gets forced into writing a particular way.  The stories are fairly different in terms of their voice, but from the beginning we try to be involved in how the story is structured, and talking to the writer, and they’re going to do a bunch of drafts just like they would for a magazine.

The multimedia aspect is one of the coolest things about Atavist stories.  Who produces that? How much responsibility for that is on the writer?

We do it all in house.  I think, ideally, we would like the writer to take on more responsibility for it because it’s hard for us to do.  If we’re out trying to gather video connected to the story, we’re going over ground the writer has already gone over.  It always goes more smoothly when the writer takes an active role in it because the writer knows the story best.  The best ones are where the writer says from the beginning, I have an idea we can do, so we try to get them to think about it.  But because it’s so new, it’s sort of hard; writers just aren’t used to taking that approach.  And it’s extra work.  To deliver a 15,000-word feature is no joke in terms of work.  So right now we just want to get them to think about multimedia more.  We’re happy to gather it and edit it, but we’re hoping the concepts will increasingly come from the writers, and as early as when they pitch the story. 

Are people buying these things? What kind of sales are you seeing for The Atavist stories?

It’s like with books.  A really good one [sales-wise] is in the tens of thousands and a not so good one is in the thousands.  Some of our writers are unbelievably happy—I think all the writers are happy with the money they make because we pay them a fee [in addition to the 50/50 revenue split]—but some of them are just blown away by just how well they can do.  Other ones are like ‘All right, well it didn’t hit, but I got paid OK for it.’

What determines the number of digits in the end of a story’s sales is somewhat publicity driven, somewhat luck, and somewhat the story topic and the cover and all the other things that go into books.  And that’s what we spend a lot of time trying to figure out.  There are technical things we can do to increase sales, and publicity things we can do, and so we’re experimenting with a lot of different things.  We have a publicity person who does that stuff for our authors, but I think the things that work better are the non-traditional ways of getting the word out.   Our story “Bagdad Country Club,” for example, has this animation we created of one of the chapters.  We sent it out and it’s gotten a lot of attention.  Way more people watch a video that looks really cool and they’re more likely to act on it than people who read an excerpt on Slate.com or something like that—which is also great and we do that as well. 

And then there’s ways of using the magazine model.  We’re launching subscriptions in a month or two where people can actually subscribe to all The Atavist stories that are coming this year, or a certain number of Atavist stories.  That’s a way to create a baseline of sales so it’s not just all single copy sales like books. 

I think that a kind of side note to that is that for the authors, the ones that do best for us, are the ones who get out and do their own promotion.  That’s the worst part of writing today.  You have to do all this bullshit promotion of yourself and your work, and you really shouldn’t have to, but that’s the way it is.  The writers who do that are really valuable—that’s why we split it the sales proceeds 50/50 with them, because we want them to do that. 

Many of our contributors and readers are readers of short fiction, do you guys have any aspirations to publish fiction?

I don’t really.  The outfit that has a similar publishing model to us, called Byliner, they just got into fiction. They launched this Amy Tan sort of novella--something between short fiction and a novel in length--and it seems really great and it seems to be doing really well from what I can tell.  I’m excited that they’re doing that; fiction writers should have this type of outlet as well.  Personally, I just don’t know anything about editing fiction.  We’d have to hire a fiction editor, and we feel we’re a little over burdened with all the things we’re trying to do right now.  I would just be afraid of doing crappy fiction; that’s that last thing I’d want to be associated with.  Down the line, I could see a possibility of us doing it, but it’s not in our plans right now. 

The one thing that we have been talking about lately, however, is doing nonfiction children’s books.  Multimedia children’s books are really amazing. If you’ve ever seen a kid pick up an iPad, it’s amazing to watch.  But it’s strange how few nonfiction children’s books there are, so we were thinking about doing something like that.  Fiction is maybe out of our realm for the moment. 

The buzz around The Atavist is incredible.  You guys are riding this huge publicity wave, but is your model sustainable?

I do think it’s sustainable.  I think that the big challenge is to avoid it being an entirely hit-driven situation.  The book industry is just so hit-driven, you know.  What happens is you turn your book in, it gets put out, it doesn’t get that much buzz, it doesn’t take off and then the publisher completely abandons it and you never hear from the publisher again.  That’s what happened to me.  We don’t want to end up in that mold—we’re not trying to recreate the book publishing industry in our little tiny way.  We’re in it together with the author.  We want to establish a baseline, X number of copies sold, everyone does well, and then we can have certain other ones that are hits.  For us, that’s the main thing we’re trying to do. 

As far as growth then, I imagine there’s a point when you can be too big, too diluted, and have too many stories out there.  Have you decided where that point is, how many stories you want to put out a year?

I think your point is a good one, which is that if you just start piling them one on top of another, you lose the ability to give each one the attention it needs, to at least try and give it a head start.  It’s hard enough; our production process is so heavy.  For instance, the stories get fact-checked very thoroughly--that takes a lot of time and resources. We try and keep up, but the more titles we get, the harder it gets, and certainly if you start spitting them out one after another you’re basically just throwing them at the wall, you’re not giving them time.  We might bump it up to once every three weeks, that might be as quickly as we would end up putting stories out.

When I first saw The Atavist, I was left with the impression that I had seen the future, that five years from now all online magazines will look like this.  Do you walk away at the end of the day thinking you are inventing something big, that you’re like the Steve Jobs of online publishing?

I think someone would have backed up a dump truck full of money at our office if that were true! No. Well, only in a sense.  It’s only if somebody says, ‘Oh nobody reads multimedia, nobody reads multimedia books, I don’t want to see a video in the middle of my book’ and these sorts of things. I’ll say, this is really early.  This is all brand new and these are experiments and we don’t have any idea of where it’ll go. In ten years things are going to look a lot different than they do now.  It may not be us, but someone is going to be creating new forms of these things we thought of as immutable forms.  To me it’s kind of fun to experiment where it can go.  But our stories are hit or miss too.  Not all of them work in the ways that we want them to work.  And as much as we get a lot of press—and we are of course happy and thrilled that people pay attention to us—we’re tiny.  So the attention we get is way out of scale with how much we actually do.  The idea that we’re changing anything, sitting in our little office, it’s a little hard to believe. 

Does that mean you’re not saving long-form journalism twelve writers at a time?

Right. At this level, we’re not saving anything.  It’s laughable that we are saving something or not saving something because we haven’t really produced much.  We just can’t possibly do enough.