Brave new words: Writers and editors of e-publication ‘The Atavist’ discuss the future of long-form writing at N.Y.U.

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Evan Ratliff, Ted Conover, Alissa Quart, and Matt Power (Dan Rosenblum)
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Though The Atavist packages its long-form journalism with an array of multimedia bells and whistles, three writers for the literary website told an audience last night at New York University that words—especially words in very large groups—were still king.

At N.Y.U.’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, about 45 students, alumni and other writers sipped complementary wine and picked at spring rolls and spinach puffs on the seventh floor of school’s modern Cooper Square building.

Writer and professor Ted Conover, who was a Pulitzer finalist for his 2001 nonfiction work Newjack, introduced the three panelists and spoke about how much has changed in literary reporting in recent times. He illustrated his point with an anecdote: after years of writing books, an editor finally asked Conover for photos to accompany his book.

“I knew that something had changed,” Conover said.

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Atavist co-founder Evan Ratliff, senior editor Alissa Quart, and writer Matthew Power all have backgrounds writing for national magazines including The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, Wired, and the Columbia Journalism Review, so they had plenty of ideas on the topic of changes in the publishing world. 

Named after a word popular with Hunter S. Thompson, The Atavist sells books through a custom-designed app that lets readers buy individual stories. The prices range from two to three dollars, depending on the format—Kindle versions tend to be basic text while iPad-optimized stories include photos, videos, and multimedia extras. At one point in the evening, Ratliff said that there were some other improvements on the way, including a laptop reader (right now readers need a Kindle, Nook, or iPad).

An article released today by Joe Kloc on a moon rock tracker is The Atavist’s twelfth since the publication launched in January of 2011.

Ratliff said the site was inspired by a love of long-form writing and the desire to tell the sorts of long stories that used to be featured in magazines, when magazines were something that a lot of people bought and read. Using an iPad, they projected Power’s 15,000-word article about a tree-kangaroo seeker on a remote Pacific Island.

“There’s probably less than ten major magazine stories a year that come out of that length,” Ratliff said.

Though writing is the primary concern, Ratliff said that another goal is to provide multimedia experiences that can thread through the pieces: A profile of long-forgotten jazz musician Teddy Weatherford comes with an interactive timeline and a soundtrack of his music. An animated chapter kicks off a Joshuah Bearman article on the Baghdad Country Club. And all but one of the pieces have audiobook-style narration.

The panelists spoke about The Atavist’s unique revenue model, which pays writers an advance and splits royalties right down the middle. The site also sells its platform to other publishers.

One effect of this D.I.Y. spirit is that it tends to turn writers into what Power called "their own publicists," which he admitted was the aspect of the relationship in this new form of publishing partnership that he was least comfortable with as a writer.

“You don’t like to ask people to write Amazon reviews for you, but sometimes if it will help sell a story, you can do that,” he said.

The rest of the panel pointed to some of the advantages of the new model, and said that because they still run a small magazine, writers have to be part of decisions about cover art and multimedia options.

“There’s a lot of separation for magazines, and book publishing even. When I published, I had no say in the covers,” Quart said.

Ratliff added that the royalty system helps some of the writers make more money than other outlets where they might have pitched the same stories, though he admitted that in some cases, the writers can end up making less. Yet a fee averaging several thousand dollars per story helps establish a baseline.

There were some limits to the experimentation. Ratliff said that they had considered a non-fiction choose-your-own-adventure-type piece with four different perspectives but eventually he realized just how hard it would be to write.

“I’ve actually been telling more people, because I want someone to pitch me the perfect story,” he said.

The trouble with dealing in long-form, and giving writers such latitude, and having a platform free of page-counts and layout limitations, is of course that the stories have to end at some point, and sometimes, for writers, that's the hardest part.

“The unleashed id of a long-form writer is a dangerous thing,” Power said.

Power said he had a friend who routinely turns in 70,000 words for a assignments made for a fraction of the length, something he said was unheard of since Norman Mailer got an entire issue of Harper's Magazine for just one piece.

“You don’t want to completely take the brakes off, but it’s a level of freedom that’s so far beyond what you would normally get in a commercial magazine,” he said. “It’s like, if you love writing, it’s worth doing. The money isn’t even important in a way, because it’s awesome to be able to have that kind of liberty.”

“And we kind of take revenge on them," Ratliff said, "because for every extra word they write, they have to go into the studio and read that."

This on account of those audio narration tracks.

So far, The Atavist's staff members said, by keeping costs low they broke even in 2011. Ratliff said their best-seller has so far sold tens of thousands of copies, but to keep writers’ salaries a secret he was reluctant to offer specific numbers.

“We’ve said that we’ve sold over 100,000 copies last year with 10 stories,” he said.

There were other questions from the audience about sales, how the publication pays photographers, and the politics of e-readers, and a lively discussion ensued, which followed the editors and writers off the stage for the post-panel dinner of pasta and stuffed chicken. Small crowds tightened around the panelists.

Conover said The Atavist seemed like a great venue for one of his literary reportage students and that he was even tempted himself to write for the publication. (Some of the Literary Reporting program’s students are among the roster Capital contributors).

“I think the definition of literary is coming to include other media as well and it’s doing so in fits and starts,” he said. “None of us can quite see the future, but I think something like this is in it.”

Still sitting in the front row were two editors of the online literary magazine Killing the Buddha, a site that focuses on religion and culture. One of their co-editors helped organize the event. Writer and editor Brook Wilensky-Lanford said they were talking about working Kindle Singles into their website to evolve their form, but she and editor Nathan Schneider admitted their site was largely a non-commercial labor of love. Schneider said that he had found the presentation interesting and thought provoking. The new possibilities made him think of the early days of the literary web 11 years ago, when Killing the Buddha launched.

“It just got all this attention,” he said. “It was huge. It got a book deal. It was just such a big deal to have a literary magazine on a website, and it was still kind of fresh and exciting and you didn’t do a whole lot … to draw attention to it. Now there’s just so much that, of course, you have to always be thinking of the next thing.”

Asked about the next step for their website, they joked.

“Horoscopes,” Schneider said.

“We’re going back to the future, here,” Wilensky-Lanford said. “A form worth re-inventing.”