It’s a Long Story | Innovation | Smithsonian
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It’s a Long Story

In a Facebook world, you'd think there wouldn't be much of a future for nonfiction storytelling. But several startups are trying to keep the long narrative alive.

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digital storytelling

The Atavist is refining multimedia storytelling. Image courtesy of The Atavist

These are tough times for storytelling.

While they’ve proven that brevity is not always the soul of wit, Twitter and Facebook have transformed what it means to communicate. We now write in quick bursts, sometimes completing thoughts, often not, with the goal always of cutting to the chase. No need for nuance or complexity. No reason for meandering twists to add flavor and depth or slow builds that unfold a story rather than eject it.

What hope in this world is there for the great long narrative, such as Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” or even more so, John Hersey’s 31,000-word epic, “Hiroshima,” which sold out the August 31, 1946 New Yorker within hours after the issue hit the street?

Actually, there’s a glimmer of hope, maybe even a glow.

Two relatively new companies actually are trying to make a business of saving long-form non-fiction, a quest that might seem to make as much sense as attempting to apply the rules of grammar to texting. Yet both are convinced that a lot of people still like to settle in for a long read of real-life stories.

Have I got a story for you

One, called Byliner, is taking a more traditional approach, albeit with a touch of social networking and personalized recommendations thrown in. The other, The Atavist, is experimenting with multimedia enhancements, adding video, music and other extras, without, hopefully, distracting the reader from the tale being told.

Byliner launched in San Francisco less than two years ago with a goal of collecting in one place, the best literary non-fiction and narrative journalism out there. It links out to articles on other magazine sites, but also publishes what it calls Byliner Originals–pieces such as author William Vollman’s “Into the Forbidden Zone,” a 20,000-word narrative about life after last year’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan and Jon Krakauer’s “Three Cups of Deceit,” which focuses on the myths and deceptions at the heart of Three Cups of Tea, the best-seller by Greg Mortenson. If a story takes off–they sell for $2.99 for download on iPads, Kindles and Nooks–a writer can earn considerably more than he or she could make selling the piece to a magazine.

Because their stories are online, writers can be much more current than in a book, and they can add updates, something rarely done in magazines. Byliner also provides recommendations to visitors based on other stories they’re read and liked–it’s been dubbed “the Pandora of non-fiction writing.” A few months ago, for “making literary nonfiction and journalism hip,” Byliner made it into the Top Ten of Fast Company’s list of most innovative media companies.

Mixing in maps and timelines

But it’s The Atavist, based in Brooklyn, that’s working closer to the cutting edge. It too champions longer nonfiction, but its iPad and iPhone app also invites readers to veer outside the text if it feels the story can be clarified or strengthened by adding video–a story, for instance, titled “Lifted” about a bank heist gone bad in Sweden, starts with security video of the robbers in action–or music or sound effects. Timelines, maps, and background info on the characters are also available, although they’re flagged through subtle gray arrows, the goal being to allow the narrative to flow, with minimal disruptions.

The Atavist publishes one major piece a month and each includes a feature through which you can easily toggle between the text and an audio version read by the author. A story for an iPad costs $2.99 and comes with the bells and whistles. Versions for Kindle and Nook, which are only text, cost $1.99.

But the real revenue engine at The Atavist is a custom-designed content management system that makes it fairly simple to not just create and publish multimedia stories, but also automatically adapts their format to the platforms on which they’re appearing. So the content for an iPhone will be optimized for a smart phone. The same goes for an iPad. And for a Kindle.

That’s potentially a game-changer in the storytelling business and it’s no surprise that the bulk of the Atavist’s revenue comes from licensing its software to other publishers. Later this summer it plans to release a free version to the public that will enable people to start self-publishing their own multimedia books.

And that shiny tool is what makes The Atavist much more than another digital publisher. It undoubtedly was a a big reason the company was able to raise $1.5 million in seed money a few weeks ago. And if you still have doubts about the potential of this venture, consider some of its new investors: Eric Schmidt (Google’s executive chairman), Marc Andreesen (one of Netscape’s founders) and a group called the Founders Fund, which is led by the likes of Peter Thiel (a founder of PayPal) and Sean Parker (co-founder of Napster and the first president of Facebook).

Not bad company to be in. Not bad at all.

Telling tales

Here are other recent takes on how and why we tell stories:

  • Your life is a lie, actually many lies: A recent book by Jonathan Gotschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, elaborates on the reasons we tell stories, not the least of which is to bring meaning and order to the chaos of life. Also, as Maura Kelly pointed out in a recent review in The Atlantic, we tend to lie a lot to ourselves as we fine-tune the narratives of our lives.
  • Here’s my brain’s story and it’s sticking to it: Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga talks about how research has found that a part of the left brain always wants to explain actions we’ve taken after they’ve occurred, the purpose of which is to turn behavior into a story that makes everything feel coherent.
  • A wag of tales: In a fast-paced TED talk, storyteller Joe Sabia uses an iPad to trace the history of storytelling from the first interactive element–the pop-up book–to the re-versioning of Shakespeare on Facebook.

Video bonus: Here’s a little tutorial on how The Atavist tries to wrap extras through the thread of a narrative.

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