Posted by Carl Zimmer
The Atavist is no stranger to this site. In fact, we've set up a category for the ebooks that come from this innovative ebook publisher. Yesterday, The New York Times's David Carr broke the news that it has gotten $1.5 million in seed money from some of the biggest names in technology, such as Eric Schmidt of Google. So this afternoon I Skyped Evan Ratliff, the chief executive of the Atavist, to talk about how they do what they do, why they end up publishing so much science, and what lies in the future for their operation. I recorded our Skype conversation on a Macbook that's really only good these days as a walkway tile. But for some reason the video file turned out to be fairly viewable, and the audio very audible (I think an office dog chimes in late in the conversation). So I've uploaded it to YouTube and embedded it below. I've posted the audio below, too.
If you're fonder of the written word (which would make eminent sense for people who come to this site), I can give you the lowdown. Ratliff comes to the Atavist as a seasoned journalist, writing mostly about technology and science. Like many journalists, he loved writing long pieces but struggled to find many opportunities to write them. He then had something of an epiphany while working on a story for Wired for which he vanished and dared readers to find him. He took a lot of video while on the run, which he wished he could have used somehow. And he also did a lot of promotion for the story on television, which got him thinking about what it would be like to get a royalty every time someone read his article.
As Ratliff describes it, he groused about it until his friend Nicholas Thompson, then at Wired and now at newyorker.com, suggested they do something about it. So they co-founded a company to publish long-form nonfiction augmented with video, audio, maps, timelines, and other features.
The Atavist and a few other publishers have recognized the value of stories that used to fall between the cracks. Magazines may put a ceiling on stories at 5,000 words, while book publishers may set a floor at 50,000 words. But that doesn't mean that a 20,000-word story is, by definition, a bad story. In fact, it can be quite compelling. Making a place like the Atavist work also requires good taste and an ability to see the potential for a story where other editors might see a wall of boredom. Some of the Atavist's most successful stories started out in life as magazine stories that were rejected for what, in hindsight, can only be called stupid reasons.
I asked Ratliff to take me through the production of a piece. The pace feels more like a newspaper office than a book publisher. To hit those frantic deadlines, the Atavist depends on its software. Ratliff & Co. can put their text and other elements into the software, and out come files ready for the many venues where they sell their pieces, from Amazon's Kindle Store (straight text only) to their app on the iPhone or iPad, where all the bells and whistles can play at maximum volume.
Science is heavily represented at the Atavist, and it's not just due to the journalistic background of its founders. Science often benefits from great illustrations, and video--when used judiciously--is the best illustration of all. Science also does well at length--there's room to tell a great narrative and weave in the concepts that the scientists in the story are exploring.
As Ratliff explained in our talk, the software has shown great value of its own. The Atavist has licensed it out to conventional publishers and other companies, and this summer they're going to roll out a public version anyone can use to self-publish their own books. The Atavist is also going to offer a marketplace that may resemble a kind of literary Etsy. As I mentioned in our talk, Etsy doesn't market its own clothes. Ratliff admitted that was a tricky canyon for the Atavist to navigate. But he feels it's worth the trip, because he's become a strong believer in people getting hold of tools to make interesting stories.
I expect some of those stories will make their way over here.
Video:Carl Zimmer writes frequently about science for the New York Times and is the author of 13 books, including A Planet of Viruses