The Atavist, which is changing the way nonfiction stories are created and sold. Co-founder Evan Ratliff told the audience at the AdAge Creativity and Technology conference yesterday that The Atavist was created to fill a hole in the publishing market.As media consumption devices evolve, so too does the form content takes on those devices. A great example is a new iPad and iPhone app called
The Atavist sells multimedia enhanced nonfiction stories. In length they're about halfway between an extended magazine article and a book. It's similar to the content in Kindle Singles, where simplified versions of stories from The Atavist are also made available. In The Atavist iPad app, which I tested out, each story (there are 5 available currently) is packaged into a rich, immersive experience. As well as text, there are photos, videos, audio, links which pop up contextual information, sharing options, and more.
The genesis for The Atavist came from a story that Ratliff, a freelance writer and editor, had written for Wired magazine in late 2009. The resulting story, about how he 'disappeared' for 25 days until Wired readers tracked him down, was a 9,000 word article and became very popular. However, two things bothered Ratliff. If he wanted to build on the success of the article, writing a book seemed like the only option. But he didn't think there was enough in the story for a full-length book and he didn't want to pad it out (no pun intended). Also Ratliff had collected a lot of media around the story, such as videos that he'd shot while in hiding.
"There's another way to tell a story like this," concluded Ratliff. So he teamed up with Jefferson Rabb and Nicholas Thompson to build The Atavist.
Hear a Story Told With Emotion
The latest story available on The Atavist is one called My Mother's Lover, by author David Dobbs. It's an account of a World War II romance that Dobbs' mother had with a flight surgeon. To write the story, Dobbs went on a search for the man six decades after his mother lost him. The story includes old photos, layered information and a video.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of how the story is presented is Dobbs' audio reading of it in the app. As Ratliff noted yesterday, the audio conveys the emotion of the story due to the author's personal involvement.
How The Atavist Works & its Business Model
The structure for The Atavist is similar to a magazine at first glance: create an assignment for a freelance journalist, who goes out and writes a story. However, The Atavist is much more involved in the creation of a story than a traditional magazine publisher. While the writer goes out and gets the core story, The Atavist gathers other media around it and creates a multimedia package for their apps.
As Ratliff explained, "we actually have control over the [publishing] environment. We can build our own way of seeing the story."
The result is like a combination of documentary and magazine article. For example, Ratliff noted that "video isn't to the side, [it's] an integral part of what you are reading."
Indeed this ties into a key publishing principle behind The Atavist. According to Ratliff, if you hook a reader into the story then they will read to the end. An Atavist story about a robbery, called 'Lifted', opens with a video. This was "better than any lede I could've written for the story," said Ratliff (referring to the introductory section of a story).
The business model for The Atavist is yet to be proven. Stories currently sell for $2.99 in the iPad/iPhone and $1.99 in Kindle Singles and Nook. Revenue for each story is shared between The Atavist and the author. Ratliff intimated that Kindle Singles (which offers a reduced experience of Atavist books, featuring text and photos only) is currently their main revenue source.
Rich Experiences Are the Future of Magazine Publishing
Although The Atavist is providing stories that are longer than those found in magazines, these same formats can just as well be applied to magazines. Devices like the iPad enable stories to be told using multimedia and Internet features such as sharing. The likes of Wired and National Geographic have been actively experimenting in this area, but The Atavist has one of the best multimedia reading experiences on the iPad that I've yet come across.
Indeed, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see The Atavist acquired by a magazine publisher pretty soon. This type of technology is going to be crucial to the survival of magazines in this multi-device Internet era.