XOXO: Evan Ratliff - The Atavist

Evan Ratliff is a Wired journalist who became a startup founder, creating The Atavist to help longform writers profit from their own work instead of selling it to magazines.

The Details

Evan Ratliff


Company: The Atavist

XOXOing: Journalism and Indie Publishing



Evan is a working journalist who is quite surprised to have become an entrepreneur, and given the XOXO audience’s literacy in this topic, he wants to tell us a story.

Chapter One: In 2009, Ratliff wrote his Wired piece about vanishing. He faked his own death, and Wired agreed to go along with it. He took it quite seriously, and shot videos which nobody has ever seen before.

The story was enormously popular, despite being 9000 words in print, and it raised questions about why this sort of thing couldn’t have happened in digital media. Evan and Nick wanted to tell long stories and tell them in a digital-first way. They found a technical cofounder/designer to create their app.

Two basic principles: Writers would be paid, and paid well, from the beginning, and they would get 50% royalties on sales. The second principle was that stories should be very narrative, since people were paying for these 10,000 word stories. Atavist went live in January 2012.

[Video clip from security camera at depot]
Their story of the depot robbery opened with the footage of the actual robbery. But publishers’ first question was “how do you guarantee the quality of the final story?” The publishing industry expects a relationship between size and quality of output. But Atavist licenses photos and videos, pays fact-checkers and copy-editors, and does everything else a big publisher can do, just with less overhead.

And: Isn’t this just like CD-ROMs? That could be true, but they’re able to capture things like a child’s handwritten notes to add resonance CDs couldn’t.

Chapter Three: Brian Wilson began working on Pet Sounds, and a writer named Jules Siegel was there to witness the descent into madness. The story was published in a magazine which disappeared months later, but Atavist was able to recover the piece and annotate it with audio from tapes, including snippets that Wilson had since destroyed in his original recordings.

By extracting the content management and publishing features from the process they were already using, they made it easy to publish stories with rich media across apps, ebooks and the web. Then, licensing that publishing engine formed the foundation of the business model that will let them turn their project into a company.

One of the challenges that keeps people from trying to make a real company is the temptation to stay as a small informal project, because failing as a small project doesn’t have the same stigma as having to actually fire people. But you have to be brave enough to do it anyway.

Chapter Four: Storytelling as a fundamental human experience. Licensing of their platform led to people saying they had stories to tell, even if they looked more like a church newsletter than a traditional narrative longform journalism piece. But in the process of making a real business, they’ve spent many months trying to figure out how to serve those independent storytellers.

Evan asks XOXO attendees to tell him what they want to be able to do in storytelling as well.

Chapter Five: An Ethiopian boy sold into seritude was able to get free and make his way to the United States. His journey has been documented by a Chicago reporter and comics artist, which will debut later this week as a graphic story on the Atavist platform. They think this is another step towards being able to tell long stories despite being in an era where everything is short. And this new story is the first piece that they’ll be selling on the web, instead of just on mobile apps.

Evan believes there’s a world that’s interested in more than just the 90-second version of stories, and that there is a chance to create the world we want to live in, where talented people can tell stories that are far longer than 90 seconds.

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