Hitting That Tablet Sweet Spot: The Atavist

The idea is a such a simple one that it’s no wonder that everyone who has tried it before has made a hash of it: create a ideal format for mid-length storytelling that recalls the better long form magazine journalism while making use of the possibilities of the multimedia age. Much like it took over a decade for people who actually TALK on their cellphones in public to be treated like the social lepers that they are, with the tablet and mid-length writing (more than an article, less than a book) the technology has preceded its appropriate patterns of usage.

Enter The Atavist. 15,000 words, give or take. $2 a pop. The writer gets paid a flat fee plus a percentage (likely less than Apple’s 30% cut… ouch!) Stories launch simultaneously for the iPad, iPhone, Kindle, Nook, and soon, Android tablets (“We are working very hard on it, we promise…” says Atavist’s tech page.)

The writers of the Atavist’s debut offerings–Wired regulars Brendan Koerner and Evan Ratliff–were kind enough to give me a demo on their iPads. “This one’s a loaner,” Koerner admits, dropping a non sequitur about the difference between his and Will Smith’s lifestyle.

The debut stories are a joy to read. The format definitely encourages linear reading but doesn’t prohibit the sort of skimming and jumping around that internet-trained brains are prone to do. A button offers intuitive chapter selection, another shows or hides footnotes with audio, text, maps and timelines. The timeline features the clever option of hiding any spoilers by shrouding later events when accessed from early pages.

So what’s the biggest change for the writers in crafting a story for this format? “The notes,” Koerner asserts. “In a book, you assume no one will read them. When they’re in-line, everybody will.” Because of the size, as compared to a full-length book, “I tried to keep things zooming along,” sometimes giving short-shrift to details of the setting–World War II-era India–that the average reader might not have the best acquaintance with. While an in-depth exploration of the Bengal famine or the nitty gritty of U.S. and British troop deployment policies wouldn’t work in something designed as a mid-size read, having inline notes available for background keeps readers on the same page while keeping the main narrative moving along.

To best exploit this new form, Koerner’s plotting approach also changed. Koerner compares it to his recent experience adapting Now the Hell Will Start, his book about the jungle manhunt for soldier Herman Perry, to a script. Having archival photographs and scans of original sources not only integrated as inline elements but given pages of their own required a more visual approach to plan out the piece’s flow. “Kind of like a storyboard with text.” Because of the format, “I tried to keep it as visual as possible‚ us[ing] photos to create the atmosphere of that era.”

Having such an expanded set of channels with which to tell a story gives the authors expanded options but also another hazard: reader overload. “You don’t want to overload the reader with links,” Ratliff says. With such intricate stories as a helicopter assisted multimillion-dollar heist in Sweden and the life and times of Asia’s preeminent WWII-era jazzman, there could be novels worth of footnotes luring the reader off into the weeds. It’s a process of managing the reader’s trust in the author, keeping them assured that what makes it into the main text and what makes it into the notes and media sections are specifically selected to create a cohesive story.

The back end of the Atavist is a content management system built by Creative Director Jefferson Rabb. Ratliff showed off the control panel, emphasizing its versatility and basic writer-friendliness. “[Rabb] built the CMS to make it as easy as writing a blog post,” Ratliff says, adding that the interface would be manageable for anyone who had ever used something like WordPress, but with presets and options fit specifically to a certain Atavist style.

That’s what’s striking about this debut: a feeling that a lot of thought went into what works and what doesn’t work in mid-length storytelling on a tablet. Where will people be reading these stories? What size chapters best meet a tablet reader’s attention span? What sort of options will build and support the narrative without distracting? From there, the Atavist team crafted a very compelling user experience.

Case in point: both stories not only come with an audio version, but the reader can switch between audio and reading seamlessly, picking up with either right at the point in the story where they left off. Think of reading on a subway or bus as it fills up or taking your reading from the breakfast table to the car. It’s little details like this that signal that the minds behind this app understand where their user experience fits into the real world.

The Atavist app and three chapter previews of Koerner and Ratliff’s stories, complete with extras, are available for free on the iTunes App store. Note that getting the full-length of each requires an in-app purchase, a tricky proposition for those of us who jailbreak their iOS devices. The stories are also available, in somewhat more limited form, as Kindle or Nook singles.

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