Last week I received an e-mail from my friend and New York Times contributor Chris Colin inviting me to his book party. But there was a catch. There would be no books at this party. Stranger yet, the book he had written was just 11,000 words and cost only $1.99 or $2.99 depending on where you bought it. Had it not been for his description of the book, I may not have bothered to visit the App Store to buy a copy the minute it was released:
“It’s the remarkable-but-true story of a Hollywood producer who, in 1994, was driving to dinner with his wife. She mentioned something about her boss, and those turned out to be her last words. Without giving anything away, I’ll say the story involves horrific tragedy. A Rip Van Winkle-like hibernation. Impossible turns of fate. A killer at large. Miraculous medical oddness. Otherworldly powers. Time itself rearranged. You will tell it at campfires!”
The book is called Blindsight, and I waited with baited breath for its release. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up a bit—to the origin of this new trend of longform journalism.
It started when Byliner.com—a website that both publishes original works and points to works in other publications—released Jon Kraukauer’s exposé of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea titled Three Cups of Deceit on April 18 of this year. Available for free for a limited time, the story later became available as a Kindle Single for $2.99. (I read the free version, and it was fantastic, even for someone who hasn’t read Three Cups of Tea.)
Meanwhile, Longreads, founded back in 2009, had become a popular online journal for gathering longform stories—both fiction and nonfiction—from publications like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post. To nominate a story to be a longread, tweet a link to it with the hashtag #longreads.
Then came the Atavist. In case you haven’t brushed up on your GRE words lately, an atavist is a throwback, in this case, to long-form journalism. Like on Byliner.com, the stories are nonfiction, but unlike on Byliner, they are multimedia. If you purchase the story through the Atavist app on your iPhone or iPad (which you can download for free from the app store), you get a whole lot more than a story. You get a storytelling experience from the future.
Example: Let’s say you start out reading Colin’s story in bed, but halfway through decide to go for a jog. No problem. Just touch the audio button and the story switches over to audio—read by Colin himself—at precisely where you left off. Want to know what the subject of Colin’s story looks like? Click on the photos. Want to watch clips from the cheesy movies the guy produced in the early 90s? Tap to see embedded videos. A timeline, written details about events … it’s all right there at the tap of a finger.
So is this the new trend in book publishing? Are shorter attention spans leading to shorter books? Colin thinks not: “I still have a book proposal I’m working on, and I still do magazine articles. But there’s a whole raft of ideas that don’t work as articles and don’t work as books, and usually you just throw them away because there is this in between space. I never would have done this as a book. I would have just told it to people at bars.
“Another thing that the Atavist allows is telling a certain kind of story, and here’s how it’s different from Byliner. The Atavist set out to take advantage of all the multimedia forms that are out there today. My piece is about a Hollywood producer. It’s about a brain that’s been dramatically altered. Those two things alone really invite some creative forms beyond just writing. We have video. We have some really interesting audio. You can read it just as text. It’s also an audio book. Basically it’s just really fun to read.”
To hear more from Chris Colin about the Atavist, tune in to Forum with Michael Krasney this morning at 10:30 a.m. on KQED radio, or catch it in the archives after the show.
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Chris Colin is the award-winning author of What Really Happened to the Class of ‘93, which GQ magazine called “essential reading,” and the National Press Club selected for its 2004 author awards. He’s a frequent New York Times contributor and a contributing writer at AFAR magazine. He’s written about chimp filmmakers, Slovenian ethnic cleansing, George Bush’s pool boy, blind visual artists, solitary confinement, the Yelpification of the universe, mysterious scraps of paper and more for the New York Times Magazine, Wired, Smithsonian, Mother Jones, the Atavist, Conde Nast Portfolio, VIA, McSweeney’s Quarterly and several anthologies. He wrote the long-running On the Job column for the SF Chronicle, was an early writer/editor at Salon.com and is the co-author of The Blue Pages. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, Amy Standen, and works and teaches at the Writers’ Grotto, a writers’ collective.