Publish it Forward: Q & A with Atavist

I'm really excited to introduce you  - especially the nonfiction writers among you! - to Evan Ratliff, co-founder of the fabulous digital venture Atavist.   A serious nonfiction writer, Evan is dedicated to using technology in service of telling the richest, most layered and interesting stories possible.   He is a serious writer helping to shape the future of publishing.  Nothing makes me giddier.


Tell us about yourself:

I'm a former freelance writer for magazines, now a co-founder and editor of Atavist who writes in my spare time. On the writing end, I worked for Wired for a long time, and then a bit for The New Yorker, and freelanced for everyone under the sun who would pay, from New York Magazine to National Geographic, to Men's Journal. Of my pieces, the one people are most likely to have come across was for Wired, about how I tried to disappear from my life for a month, adopting a new identity and offering $5,000 to anyone who could find me. (They did.)

Um, we need to know more about you disappearing, is there a link to the story?

Sure, here you go:

So now, the Atavist, what is it?  

Atavist is a combination publishing company and software company. We produce what are often known now as "e-singles": stories that are longer than magazine pieces or shorter than books, sold individually as ebooks or by subscription through our web site and app (called The Atavist). Everything we do is narrative nonfiction—journalism and memoir—and we're known for producing heavily multimedia versions of the stories that weave in video, audio, and interactive graphics. We also produce a software platform, called Creatavist, which enables anyone to publish any kind of multimedia magazine, story, or book for tablets, smart phones, and the web. Folks can publish into the Creatavist app and web site (starting in the next month), or upgrade to create their own publishing app if they wish.

What inspired the idea?

It grew out of a desire of myself and my co-founder, Nick Thompson, to find a place for longer pieces that exceeded the page counts of magazines. I'd written a bunch of stories that felt like they could've benefited from more length, but there wasn't enough in them for me to write a full book. I'd also sometimes shot video and collected other media that didn't have any place in the story. We started thinking: What would a narrative nonfiction piece look and feel like if it were designed digitally from the beginning?


What's excites you most about it? 

We think the digital world is creating opportunities for new kinds of storytelling, ones that retain the fidelity of a strong narrative but play with different media to do it. We're doing that with The Atavist, and we've already seen other people build amazing new things with our Creatavist platform. It puts a huge amount of technology in the hands of writers and editors, who don't have to know anything about programming to make something amazing. All they have to have is a great story.

Would you give us links to recent projects  which do a good job of telling a multi-media story? 

The Creatavist projects aren't yet public, and we're just getting that going. On the Atavist end, here are some ones that make varying use of multimedia:

Lifted (surveillance footage):

Baghdad Country Club (animation):

How can our writers plug in?

For Atavist, writers pitch us stories like they would a magazine, and those that we assign, we pay a fee plus royalties. For Creatavist, anyone can use the tool to build and publish their story. It's free. You can even create a whole book and export the ebook files to sell on Kindle, Nook, etc. In the next couple of months, you'll be able to sell stories and books through us as well.

Are your editors looking for any kind of stories in particular?

For the Atavist,we're looking only for narrative nonfiction - and by "narrative," we mean something very particular, that story is driven by the narrative.  In other words, we don't care what topic the story is about so much (we've published on murders, heists, abortion clinics, and much more).  But the piece has to be driven by characters and events, not by the topic.  They should contain both tension and surprise.  A story about a mean who tried to circumnavigate the world by land and sea in an amphibious jeep?  That's for us.  A story about the growing use of surrogate mothers that is illustrated by a couple of characters? Not for us. We also publish memoir, which is of course inherently narrative, but we have a pretty high bar for how great/surprising/different the story needs to be in that case.

Thank you so much, Evan!  Next time you're in Boston, please visit Grub.  




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About the Author

Eve Bridburg is the Founder and Executive Director of GrubStreet. After leaving to work as a literary agent, Eve returned to GrubStreet in 2010. Under her leadership, the organization has grown into a national literary powerhouse known for artistic excellence, working to democratize the publishing pipeline and program innovation. An active partner to the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, Eve was the driving force behind establishing the country’s first Literary Cultural District in downtown Boston and securing chapter 91 space in the Seaport to build a creative writing center. The Barr Foundation recently named her a 2019 Barr Fellow in recognition of her leadership. Having graduated from its inaugural class, Eve remains active with the National Arts Strategies Chief Executive Program, a consortium of 200 of the world’s top cultural leaders, which addresses the critical issues that face the arts and cultural sector worldwide. Eve has presented on the future of publishing, what it takes to build a literary arts center, and the intersection of arts and civics at numerous local and national conferences. Her essays and op-eds on publishing, the role of creative writing centers and the importance of the narrative arts have appeared in The Boston Globe, Huffington Post, Cognoscenti, Writer's Digest and TinHouse. Eve serves on the Advisory Board of The Loop Lab, a new Cambridge-based nonprofit dedicated to increasing representation in the Media Arts. Eve worked as a literary agent at The Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency for five happy years where she developed, edited, and sold a wide variety of books to major publishers. Before starting GrubStreet, she attended Boston University’s Writing program on a teaching fellowship, farmed in Oregon, and ran an international bookstore in Prague.

See other articles by Eve Bridburg
by Eve Bridburg


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