Editor’s Note: Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with their Winter 2011 issue,”Writing the Book,” which focuses on the new relationships between journalism and the evolving book publishing industry. Over the next few days, we’ll highlight a few stories from the issue — but go read the whole thing. In this piece, David Wolman writes about his experience publishing on the platform of The Atavist.
In the final days of Egypt’s revolution to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak, I was in the snowy mountains of Colorado for a vacation with the in-laws. There was no way I was going to unplug, though. Like most, I had been captivated by events in the Middle East. I also had something of an inside line. Every few days I received short correspondences via email or text message from two activists in Cairo I had gotten to know in 2008 while reporting a story for Wired about young people using social media to organize against Mubarak’s regime.
Two and a half years later I was stunned to learn that many of these same activists from the April 6 Youth Movement were now at the center of the revolution — organizing marches, coordinating efforts with other anti-Mubarak groups, and spearheading efforts to communicate a message of nonviolence. When the uprising began, I started contacting them to check that they were safe. By the second week I was writing a few short items for Wired.com and TheAtlantic.com.
On February 10 I received a text message from Ahmed Maher, cofounder of the April 6 Youth Movement: “Mubarak will go now. LOL.” By the next day Mubarak’s reign was finished. It was then that I knew I needed to go back to Cairo to write a fuller account of how Maher and his cohorts had transformed from rabble-rousers into full-fledged revolutionaries and chronicle what they had experienced in the lead-up to and during the uprising.
I banged out a pitch and sent it to editors at four or five prestigious magazines. The rejections came in rapid succession: “This is a great proposal, but unfortunately we already have some Egyptian coverage in the works.” “It sounds like a fascinating and timely story, but it’s not one we can use right now.” “Thanks for giving us a shot. Given other things in our lineup, turns out there’s no way.”
Digital publishing startup The Atavist had been on my radar; two of its founders are Wired alums, and I’d read a short piece about the project in Bloomberg BusinessWeek. The Atavist commissions and publishes long-form stories as ebooks for various devices — Kindle, iPad, Nook, etc. — or to be read on computers using e-reader software such as Kindle for PC. It’s strictly digital. No paper. If that fact makes you prickly, you should probably quit reading this essay.