Monday, October 31, 2011

Evan Ratliff: "You're Supporting the Authors by Buying Stories."

Evan Ratliff was a long-form, narrative-style magazine writer who increasingly was assigned shorter and shorter stories.

"That was really frustrating to me," he said in class last week.

He knew there were people out there who wanted to read longer stories. So he developed an idea for an Internet product that did long-form journalism. He applied for a grant ... but he was rejected.

Then one day, he was talking to one of his editors at Wired magazine who said, "Why don't we just start it?"

They spent one year developing the product, working with a friend with technical skills and forming partnerships with a number of organizations.

In January, they launched The Atavist, a multimedia storytelling service that features long-form non-fiction work that is shorter than book length but longer than mags usually run. It works best on an iPad but stories are also available as singles from Amazon.

Most of their titles are available for $1.99 or $2.99, and the multimedia versions have maps, videos, music, art, graphics and other features.

Their writers, for the most part, are freelancers (except Ratliff) who receive an up-front payment and then receive half the sales revenue. In theory, a writer who pushes a story to a wider audience can reap a healthy profit.

"We didn't have any idea what we were doing when we started," Ratliff said. "And we still don't, to a large extent."

Their main goal when they started the venture was simply to continue operating. They now have six people on staff. One of their stories sold more than 40,000 copies, though most average around 10,000 copies.

It's a magazine approach with book publishing sensibilities. Authors pitch stories. They are vetted, selected and assigned. Stories are fact-checked and edited. And the revenue is generated by sales rather than advertising.

"You're supporting the authors by buying stories," Ratliff said.

Here are a few other details that stood out for me:

• They did no market research prior to launching.
• What they offer as a product is not available elsewhere, Ratliff claims. They provide "deeply reported, gripping" stories that fall between books and mags.
• They look for stories that are full of action. They've documented the Egyptian revolution, the story of Manute Bol, the disappearance of a Hollywood producer, and the search for a tree kangaroo in Papua, New Guinea. ("What I really like," Ratliff said, "are mystery stories.")
• They would consider video-heavy stories or anything, really. "There are no rules to it," Ratliff said.
• They are working on a graphic novel with animated panels.
• They aren't really in competition with magazines. "Magazines offer a different proposition, an ethos," Ratliff said. "When you buy a magazine, you're buying a collection of ideas."
• Rather, they are creating books for the short-attention span generation, a one-hour read that will only cost you $2.

• When they launched, they told all their media friends and they received coverage from many news outlets, including the New York Times, New York Observer, Gizmodo and Business Week.
• They developed a content management system that they also sell as a product of The Atavist.
• In the future, they may consider a print anthology of the year's stories. But for now, they are branding themselves as a digital innovation in storytelling.

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