A View from Christopher Mims
One eBook Platform to Rule Them All
A company known for long-form journalism democratizes tablet publishing.
The Atavist Platform for publishing enhanced ebooks is what Apple’s iBooks Author program should have been. Out this spring, this Web-based tool for transforming any collection of words, images, sound, video, and other media could be the key to unlocking ebook publishing for the rest of us. Which is either the Ragnarok of traditional publishing or the dawn of a democratized, blogified new age of books-as-apps.
I got a more or less exclusive look at the Atavist Platform last week at Science Online (which is kind of like Burning Man, but for science journalists) and the ambition and potential scale of the project just about popped a blood vessel in my brain.
When Apple made its big announcement about creating software that would make it easy for anyone to publish an enhanced ebook, I tweeted that Cupertino had just dropped an H-bomb on the business model of companies like the Atavist, which currently generates a significant portion of its revenue by licensing its competing platform to publishers and other institutions.
My preview of the Atavist Platform illustrated just how wrong I was. In contrast to Apple’s iBooks Author software, which will only let you publish an ebook in the iBooks store and comes with a content license so draconian it makes Dear Leader look like a doting uncle, the Atavist’s solution will work for any computer with a Web browser.
The Atavist is best known as an app that sells enhanced long-form journalism, and the Atavist Platform is the company’s effort to make its internal publishing content management system available to anyone.
Here’s the crazy part: This system will publish any enhanced ebook you make with it to just about any platform you can imagine, including the Web. Here’s a screenshot of the still-very-much-in-progress platform back-end. Check out all the options to the left of the red arrow.
Here’s the full list of platforms The Atavist’s consumer-facing platform will publish to:
- iBooks Enhanced
- iOS App Store
- the Web
Let’s put that in context: Right now Adobe and WoodWing are charging magazine publishers something like six figures just for a system that will transform their magazines into apps that can be sold through Apple. And magazines are basically just enhanced ebooks. Meanwhile, companies like OnSwipe are trying to become the de-facto system for publishing content to tablets—but only on the web. Companies like Arcade Sunshine, whom I’ve written about before, are also limited to Apple’s App store.
The Atavist Platform, meanwhile, promises to do all of that, and then maybe turn its competitors’ bones into bread when it’s done.
Granted, this isn’t at all the way the folks at the Atavist characterize their business—it’s just my interpretation of the disruptive potential of what they’re up to. I spoke with Olivia Koski, a producer at the Atavist and one member of its tiny, five and a half person staff, and she said that “we want to make money, but we also just want to share our tool with people because we’re really excited about it.” Silicon Valley plans to upend every business model five minutes older than theirs and business cards drenched in status-seeking, this ain’t.
The Atavist Platform is a classic example of a team coming up with a solution to their own problems and then figuring that other people might want to use it, too. The company’s founders have magazine and publishing backgrounds, and include Evan Ratliff, a contributing editor at Wired, Jefferson Rabb, a programmer and designer who built sites for top-shelf authors, and Nicholas Thompson, a senior editor at the New Yorker. Most people know the Atavist as a publisher of long-form journalism, and that aesthetic pervades their platform.
The Web view version of eBooks published with the Atavist Platform, which I only saw briefly, has a clean design and seems to stick to the river-of-text-plus-interstitial-multimedia format that characterizes a lot of what the Atavist has published so far.
I suspect that the Atavist’s format is in a way the secret sauce of the Atavist Platform, and one of the reasons that such a small team has been able to create a system that can push to content to nearly every device you’d like. While Adobe has had to contend with publishers wanting to faithfully reproduce complicated print layouts on tablets, the Atavist is obviously committed to the text itself—hence the availability of many articles from the Atavist, sans multimedia, for a buck less as Kindle singles.
The Atavist is actively seeking beta testers for its platform, says Koski, and they can sign up at atavist.net/beta.
If the team can pull it off, it doesn’t seem like the Atavist Platform will be remain limited to authors who would like to use it to sell Atavist-style enhanced eBooks and long-form articles. The system can handle a variety of content, from timelines and maps to full-page images and audio soundtracks—even custom HTML5 widgets.
“We’re excited to release [our platform] out into the world because people will do things to it that we could never imagine,” says Koski. Those things might include eBook versions of “Our Trip to Disney World,” but that’s kind of the point. When a team transitions from building tools for itself to building a platform, it’s got to be easy enough for anyone to use it—just like Twitter, blogs, and every other medium that has been perfectly suited to a particular class of devices. That Twitter flourished because of the dawning of smart phones, and blogs the spread of the web, just illustrates how high the stakes are as the Atavist and its competitors jockey for position on the latest device to redefine how we consume media—the tablet.
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