Evan Ratliff is a well known reporter and author, having contributed regularly to the pages of the publications like The New Yorker and Wired. Most recently, he co-founded and became the CEO of The Atavist, a boutique publisher of creative nonfiction for mobile digital devices. In the process, the company developed a proprietary online publishing platform that it now licenses out to other publishers. I had a chance to sit down with Evan to discuss his personal evolution from writer to writer and tech entrepreneur. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
Question: Atavist really seems like the perfect example of a company that bridges the divide between content and technology.
Ratliff: Yes, we’re in there somewhere. We usually say we’re a media and software company. The media side produces digital form journalism between five thousand and thirty thousand words between magazine length and book length.
We’re sort of known for doing that in a very multimedia way. All the stories are injected with video and audio, maps and timelines and also sort of things that make them come alive. On the software side we produce a software platform that allows people to publish across a lot of different environments.
It’s the platform that we did for ourselves to publish onto phones and tablets, in the web, in e-books all simultaneously. We also make that available to other publishers and even individual authors to use for their own publishing.
Question: how did you come up with the idea for Atavist? How did it start?
Ratliff: I was working as a freelance magazine writer and one of the cofounders was my editor at Wired magazine and now is at The New Yorker. The third cofounder had been building websites for books.
Originally we were looking for a way to do a type of narrative-based journalism that at the time wasn’t getting done a lot online. Everything online was more oriented towards blogs and shorter pieces. So, we decided to start a publication that does that exclusively.
From there it morphed into to the software side because we needed to develop some technology to enable us to do it. We started finding stories and designing them and it turned out that there weren’t any tools of the type we needed.
We really wanted to do one hopefully great long form story amongst them and that’s what we do now. We ended up doing a lot of other things too.
Question: How do content producers or writers approach you? Is it a selective thing? Are you getting submissions from all over the place?
Ratliff: Usually they’re pitching us stories. We do sometimes develop our stories then we commission writers that we know. Usually we’re pitched by professional writers the same kind of writers who would be writing for the New Yorker or Wired or GQ, those type of places.
They’ll pitch us a story. If we decide to take it we’ll contract them for a piece that can range anywhere from five thousand to thirty thousand words. We pay them a fee and then we give them a split of the royalties of the story.
That’s our compensation about all these sort of mixes magazines and books because we have the fee part which is more like a magazine and then we have the royalty part where they can benefit from sales down the line that’s more like a book model.
Question: What are your feelings about having been prior to this exclusively a writer a content creator to moving more into the business realm? I read one of the articles that covered you that said now you’re dealing a lot with attorneys, accountants bankers people like that. Is that a role you took on gladly or the cost of doing business?
Ratliff: [Laughs] I would not say it’s a role took on gladly or even hold gladly today. Sometimes I was running a business because I was a freelancer. When you’re freelancing you’re basically running a very small business. The organizational challenges are not the ones that I dealt with before or that interested me
It just starts powering up for us especially because we were very small for a pretty long time. It was really up to us to take on that stuff rather than hire someone to do it. We just didn’t have the resources to hire someone to do it.
Question: Do you think that print is on its way out? You also mentioned that as a freelancer you were a small business owner basically prior to this. Do you think that changes in the printing and the publishing environment have made it necessary for freelancers at every level to take on more of a business role to become more entrepreneurs than they had a few years ago?
Ratliff: Yes, I think so. I mean I think there’s a lot more entrepreneurial element to freelancing partly because there are a lot of different options now that maybe didn’t exist before in terms of how you’re going to try to get paid for your work if you’re a writer.
When I started it was basically you get an assignment from a magazine and you get paid for it. Now, there’s things like us and we occupy a small niche. There’s things like going to directly to Amazon through a program Kindle Singles and they occupy another niche. That’s another way you can go.
There’s different ways that you sell you work. You can sell it direct yourself there’s ways like putting it on your website and sell it. There’s all these different things that you’re balancing the fundamental aspect of freelancing which is a hustle. You got to go out and track down your paycheck which never really changes.
Question: What advice would you give to content producers, freelancers in this case, who are thinking about taking on a new challenge outside what’s been their comfort zone? From your experience is there anything that you’ve learned the hard way that you would do differently the second time around?
Ratliff: My best advice and the biggest problem challenge that we have, are the flip sides of the same thing, which is to define the best and most ideal collaborators. One of our founders wrote all the codes for anything we did.
Really we couldn’t have done it without him. It wasn’t just that he wrote it and we hired him to do it, he was interested in books. He cared about what we’re doing because when you start something like this the financial return on it is pretty long term if at all.
The people involved actually have to give a shit about what you’re creating. If you can find people who care and they’re great colaborators and they bring these other skills you don’t have that’s the ideal.
Question: What’s the circulation like?
Ratliff: We don’t give out numbers part of it because we’re not like a normal magazine. Our circulation based on the amount how much our authors are getting paid. We don’t usually release those. All we said is that we sold over one hundred thousand copies last year before last so 2011 and then 2012 we did better than 2011. It’s the only thing we’ve been saying.
Question: Now that you have some high profile investors, are they in it for the long term or they would like to see a traditional exit, either a sale or some sort of other monetary event?
Ratliff: I’m sure anybody who invests money in something long term they have mostly the same goal which is to get their money back and earn some. We’re obviously aware of that.
That’s such a long term thing compared to where we are now which we’re focused on growing in different ways and growing the editorials side but mostly growing the software side to where we’re really making the software like something that’s widely used.
If that happens then all of that other stuff will take of itself. If it doesn’t happen then we need to solve that before we think about any of those other issues. For us that’s really a far, far distant topic.
Question: Evan, thanks for your time, and good luck!
Ratliff: Thanks for having me.