And there are people who buy our stories who don’t want that stuff. They should be able to not have to deal with it, and just read the story as it’s meant to be read. We’re also publishing on Kindle, and so the text itself is an intact story; it’s the same on both versions. The Kindle one doesn’t have videos and all these extra things, but the idea is that people just want to read a great story. That’s what we’re going for.
What kinds of stories work best in “The Atavist” format?
I should preface by saying that we’ve only been around for a few months and we haven’t published that many stories, so our expertise is based on a very limited sample size. But our philosophy is that the stories should be really immersive, and they should be kind of like “yarns” and tales that people can get really wrapped up in.
Partly because we’re asking people to pay for something. We’re saying “Pay for this story in the same way you would pay for a book, except it’s a lot cheaper, and it’s shorter, and you can probably read it in a single sitting.” So we have to make an argument that it’s different than what they can get on the web. If we were just publishing news stories, I feel like that’s a difficult argument to make. But if we’re promising people that it’s going to be a different experience, because it has multimedia and all these extra things, and also it’s going to be a very engaging story, those are the kinds of arguments that we want to make to readers as to why they should pay for it.
You probably get asked a lot about “the state of reading today” or “the future of reading.” In your opinion, are our attention spans really lower now than they were in years past, or is the way that online content is being marketed to people changing because publishing is changing? Maybe it’s chicken and egg situation. Which one of those do you think came first?
I think my opinion would be in line with the premise of your question—they drive each other. Everybody starts saying that attention spans are lower, so they produce things that are shorter, and then people read things that are shorter, and then everybody says, “See? Attention spans are lower.” So my usual answer to this is: I have no idea. I honestly haven’t looked into the science and research of whether attention spans are getting lower.
It makes sense that they would be. But the people who are making decisions based on that, I don’t think they’re doing it based on actual research, either. I think they’re all doing it based on anecdotal experience. And my anecdotal experience is that lots of people still read The New Yorker magazine, and lots of people still read nonfiction books. And if we could get even a fraction of people who read the bestseller nonfiction books to read our stories, we’d be very happy and we would have a very nice sustainable business of producing long-form journalism. So I don’t really care if attention spans are going down in the world overall or not.
That is a great answer. When you visit news websites, do you have an opinion about how they could do a better job with multimedia, based on what you’ve learned working on The Atavist?
People use multimedia in different ways. I actually think The New York Times has incredible multimedia. With their interactive graphics, I don’t even know how they make that stuff so quickly. There are so many examples of really great stuff out there. I think the curse of publishing is that you’re just trying to bring as many people as possible to the page. And if I had a complaint, it would be clutter—they’re just offering all these different things in your field of vision at once and you don’t know where to click. But that’s just bad design; that’s almost a truism.