Influx interview- evan ratliff- atavist
February 2, 2011
Publishing and journalism is being radically shaken by new technologies and new forms of consumption. While on one hand- it seems as if the whole industry is being challenged, it’s also an era of opportunity.
One venture that’s looking to the future positively, is The Atavist, who has a new take on long-form non-fiction.
I sat down with one of the founders, Evan Ratliff to learn more about the venture.
1. What is the background of your team?
The two main folks running it are myself and Jefferson Rabb. I’m a longtime freelancer for magazines like Wired (where I’m a contributing editor), The New Yorker, National Geographic, and other glossy-type rags, and co-author of one book. Jefferson is a coder/designer of web sites, games, and apps, and he’s best known for creating amazing book Web sites for famous authors like Laura Hillenbrand, Murakami, and others. The third main partner, who is less involved in the day-to-day, is Nicholas Thompson, who is an author and an editor at The New Yorker.
2. What are your inspirations?
Our contemporary inspirations involve, in part, the growing interest in long-form writing — when presented right — in digital form. Projects like Instapaper and Readability, and organizations like Longreads and Longform.org, are really finding that there is an audience who is interested in well-researched and well-told nonfiction stories. I’ve also been inspired by my participation in PopUp magazine, a live event in which we present stories from all different mediums live onstage. It has been wildly more successful than we’d anticipated, and helped convince me that there’s an audience out there looking for something unique and thoughtful. More generally, we’re just inspired by great nonfiction, from The New Yorker to Lapham’s Quarterly to great recent (bestselling) nonfiction like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and going all the way back to the great longform journalism and New Journalism of the 60s and 70s.
3. What evidence do you have that people can cope with long-form content- when most are talking about bite size chunks and info snacking?
Some of it comes from the success and popularity of the projects I mentioned: Instapaper, Longform.org, Longreads. We can see the kind of community that forms around those efforts. Some of it is just deduction: It’s not as if people have stopped reading nonfiction books; in fact millions are sold each year. It’s not as if people have stopped reading magazines like The New Yorker, and Wired, and Esquire. In some cases the business models behind publishing have become more challenging, and certainly people are getting their news in smaller and more instant bites. But there is clearly an audience that wants deeper reading experiences on their devices. The question is only: how large of an audience can you reach, and how big an audience do you need to pay for great stories. And beyond that, I suspect (although I can’t prove) that there are a lot of people who are feeling overwhelmed by how much small, disposable information they are consuming—and may be turning back to spend time with more substantial texts and stories.
5. What do you believe tablets and digital devices can do for you, that paper can’t?
I’m not (and we’re not) tablets-will-replace paper people, I should say first off. I carry a hardback or paperback almost everywhere I go, and they’ll pry it from my cold dead hands. But there are clearly a lot of readers who enjoy the reading experience on tablets and e-readers. They like being able to carry a lot of books/texts of various kinds around with them, and they like the prices, among other aspects. And that number is growing hugely every year. For us, it’s a chance to both get in front of that audience, and to try and present text stories in a way these readers have never seen before—with the multimedia and interactive features woven deeply into them, instead of tacked on. We can really create our own, new kind of reading experience, which is difficult to do on paper. You can have a map in a book, of course—and again, I love books, and I love flipping back to the old map in the front, for instance. But on a tablet, you can call up the map with any word, right where you might need it to understand something in the story, then be able to explore around it before going right back into the story where you left off. That’s something new, and it’s not something that takes away from the power of the story itself.
6. What kind of marketing/advertising support are you thinking about- how could it be more interesting than static placements?
We’re still weighing advertising, and of course static placements are still possible with us. They may make some sense, who knows. But I’d say we’re more likely to look at something that is a “presented by” or sponsorship model, where you see it before you dip into the story but then aren’t interrupted while you are inside it. Again, though, we’re not sure. We’d like to get a readership and community going and then try and suss out what they would be comfortable with.
7. iPad magazines seem to have gone off the boil after some early promise- what’s gone wrong there?
I generally try to leave all that discussion to the professional media critics. I find a lot of the magazine apps pretty impressive, considering that they were moving really established publications into a whole new medium for the first time. There’s just a lot of complexity that swirls around them, that has nothing to do with how great they are: subscription issues, maintaining a consistent brand, circulation numbers, pricing. We feel like we have it a lot easier, in some senses, because we don’t have a brand to translate or a look and feel to maintain. We can just experiment, see what people like, and go with that.
8. Give us some examples of some subjects that you would love to cover and would be a perfect fit for your format?
Topic-wise, you name it: Crime, of course, we’ve got one of those already. Science. Adventure. Sports. Biography. Arts. Probably everything except celebrity culture (although I suppose we should never say never; there’s always the right approach). The defining feature of our pieces, we hope, is not the topic, but the nature of the story—indeed, the fact that it is a story, not an article. We want (nonfiction) narratives that pull people in, that describe human drama, that give readers memorable characters. The perfect story for us is one where you realize you are in the last chapter and wish that you weren’t.
As far as the medium itself, there’s almost always a smart way to use music, video, photos, maps to improve the story. But of course, something where a piece of video plays a central role (as Lifted, one of our first two pieces), or music (as in Piano Demon, the other) is a really out-of-the-park kind of piece for us.
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