The Atavist’s Evan Ratliff on founding a digital publishing agency

You may or may not have heard of The Atavist. The publishing agency opened for business in early 2011, and has since reportedly landed $1.5 million in funding and teamed up with media clients including The Paris Review and TED (the latter uses The Atavist for the TED Books app). Founder Evan Ratliff has written for publications such as Wired, The New Yorker, National Geographic and other publications. He’s also the story editor for Pop-Up Magazine.

We spoke with Ratliff for an inside look at this new digital platform.

Ratliff said The Atavist was inspired by a desire “to create a new place, a new home for long-form narrative journalism.” So far, The Atavist has published 16 stories (the newest one was published this week) and commissioned more than a dozen more.

Unlike traditional magazine and online outlets, The Atavist works with writers in a profit-sharing relationship. The publishing agency assigns or commissions a story to a writer, who is then given an upfront fee similar to an advance and usually gets paid half of the revenue from sales of the story. Ratliff said The Atavist makes money from selling the stories and pays authors a royalty. The Observer explored the pros and cons of this business model in an article published last fall.

One of The Atavist’s current projects is a free beta version, which is offered to freelance writers, authors, and photographers.

Ratliff explained some of the projects that could be launched on the free version: “It could be a book, a collection of blog posts, a photo essay, a travelogue, a newsletter, a textbook. We’ve had a wide variety of people come to us looking for this kind of platform.”

The beta version is currently available to a limited number of individuals, but it could be opened to the public in the future.

Many digital publishers are concerned about piracy cutting into profits, but that possibility doesn’t faze Ratliff. “I don’t really care about piracy,” he said. “A lot of publishers are really concerned. I’m sure there’s a good reason for it. We’re concerned about getting people to read our stories, I don’t really think that we’re gonna sink or swim if people are BitTorrenting a 15,000-word book.”

When asked about the future of the publishing industry, Ratliff was reluctant to make predictions. “I’m generally not much of a prognosticator on publishing, we’re just trying to do our own thing,” he said. “All I can say is that it’s a great time for experimentation, and for small outfits that may have not previously found a foothold in publishing to try their hand at producing quality work.”

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