The Atavist is in the in-between business. Not quite books, not quite magazine articles. Not entirely a software maker, not exactly a publishing house. But it’s a business that is flourishing. This summer, The Atavist snagged $1.5 million in new funding that will help the Brooklyn-based publisher continue to expand.
When I spoke last week with CEO and cofounder Evan Ratliff, he said their next step is expanding their audience, both readers and authors publishing on the platform.
A version of the core Atavist software — which lets authors create ebook-esque multimedia stories for devices like iPhones and Kindles — will soon be offered for free alongside the licensed version. With an increasing number of devices available to read books or longform journalism, Ratliff said the most important thing The Atavist can do is give people options to read however they like.
We got to the point where we were pretty strained with all the things we were trying to do. And we didn’t want to stop experimenting with our stories. Essentially, we’re doing a lot of things at the same time, and we were coming up to a point where maybe people were working too hard — harder than they should. It’s about bringing in enough people that we can feel like every part of the business is moving forward at the same time.
Hiring Charles is really about getting organized in a way that we can feel like: “All right, we know what’s in the pipeline, we know what’s coming, we can get the stories on time.” And it leaves space for me, for him, and for our tech team and everyone to be a little more more thoughtful about what it is we’re doing and where do we want to take it — as opposed to always saying, “Okay, all we have to focus on is getting something out.”
I think increasingly people do have opinions about where they want to access things. So we want to be available wherever they happen to access it.
So, that means, as of our next story, which comes out a week, week and a half, we’ll be selling it directly on the web. So, rather than just selling through devices we’ll be selling it on the web and you can read it on devices. We really want to move to a setup where you’re buying the story from us and you’re able to read it wherever you want. So it’s really not driven by whether you have an iPhone or anything else — it’s actually driven by whether you want to read this story and then you can sort of pick your venue. We’re kind of moving things in that direction.
Another aspect of that is figuring out subscriptions. So we’re gonna start experimenting with some different subscription types — probably we’ll start with something very simple in a few weeks, where it will be just for the iPad and the iPhone. But you’ll be able to subscribe to the stories we have coming for the next few months, get some access to the back catalog of stories we’ve already produced, and have that way of getting readers in.
Offering people, people who like what we do in a more general sense besides just hearing about one particular story and saying, “Oh, I really want to read that ‘D for Deception,’” or “I really want to read that ‘Baghdad Country Club‘” — people who want more than one, we have technological ways to give them access to more than one at reduced prices. So it’s not strictly pulling a magazine model, but trying to say there’s multiple ways to get at what we do and if you really like it you’re better off buying this.
I happen to really like reading on my phone and I read on my phone all the time. I buy Kindle books and I’ll read them on my phone. Obviously our app is on my phone. But people love the Kindle. People love their old Kindles. You have to get to a situation where you don’t care where people read it. If people want to buy direct from Kindle Singles, that’s fantastic for us — we love that, we’re a huge fan of that store. If they want to buy it from us and sideload it onto their Kobo, that’s also fine with us.
Really, where it ends up makes no difference to us. What we really want to do is reach as many people as possible. And I think increasingly people do have opinions about where they want to access things. So we want to be available wherever they happen to access it.
I think to the extent they’re responding to what clearly seems to be a demand for this, there are only going to be more people reading on these devices. Now, that said, part of the reason we want to provide web access is we do want to make sure we can reach people might not have those.
We were building something for us. We weren’t building something saying, “I bet there’s a market out there for this, so if we make it, people will come use it.”
We’re really excited about the investors we have, and we’re happy to have gone through that process, although we’re still kind of closing it out right now. It took a tremendous amount of time.
At some level, raising money — obviously it’s connected to what we want to do, but it’s not doing what we want to do. So it’s not something that’s easy to celebrate. We can really celebrate when we put out a story, or we have someone new to the platform and they launch their app, or we’re getting people into the beta and they’re creating something really interesting. But “Hey, we went out and raised a lot of money” — it doesn’t feel like we did anything, because we didn’t do anything. We got the resources to do something.
If you look at the software, it’s really built around the needs that we had and continue to have. And now we have other clients and people who use it who we can ask what they need as well. But really, I think that was an advantage: We were building something for us. We weren’t building something saying, “I bet there’s a market out there for this, so if we make it, people will come use it.” It’s actually intended to create.
The other advantage is we were both freelancers — Jefferson and I were freelancers, and we were used to running everything on a shoestring and working odd hours.
If we can achieve that, it feels like there’s a lot of pressure around that. If you say “We’re gonna try to help people make a living,” then you’re on the hook for actually doing that. But we’ve seen some really encouraging things. It’s not necessarily as direct as they’ll sell their stuff and make a living.
But I do think there is a space in there — and now it’s more than us in there — that didn’t really make sense in the pre-digital world. And now it does make a lot of sense. And now there’s a way to make at least — it’s still a little hit-driven — make enough money to say people can keep doing this. That’s where we are now. The question is can we move it further from there?
Conversation lightly edited and condensed.