In the final days of Egypt’s revolution to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak, I was in the snowy mountains of Colorado for a vacation with the in-laws. There was no way I was going to unplug, though. Like most, I had been captivated by events in the Middle East. I also had something of an inside line. Every few days I received short correspondences via e-mail or text message from two activists in Cairo I had gotten to know in 2008 while reporting a story for Wired about young people using social media to organize against Mubarak’s regime.
Two and a half years later I was stunned to learn that many of these same activists from the April 6 Youth Movement were now at the center of the revolution—organizing marches, coordinating efforts with other anti-Mubarak groups, and spearheading efforts to communicate a message of nonviolence. When the uprising began, I started contacting them to check that they were safe. By the second week I was writing a few short items for Wired.com and TheAtlantic.com.
On February 10 I received a text message from Ahmed Maher, cofounder of the April 6 Youth Movement: “Mubarak will go now. LOL.” By the next day Mubarak’s reign was finished. It was then that I knew I needed to go back to Cairo to write a fuller account of how Maher and his cohorts had transformed from rabble-rousers into full-fledged revolutionaries and chronicle what they had experienced in the lead-up to and during the uprising.
Pushing Past Rejections
I banged out a pitch and sent it to editors at four or five prestigious magazines. The rejections came in rapid succession: “This is a great proposal, but unfortunately we already have some Egyptian coverage in the works.” “It sounds like a fascinating and timely story, but it’s not one we can use right now.” “Thanks for giving us a shot. Given other things in our lineup, turns out there’s no way.”
Digital publishing start-up The Atavist had been on my radar; two of its founders are Wired alums, and I’d read a short piece about the project in Bloomberg BusinessWeek. The Atavist commissions and publishes long-form stories as e-books for various devices—Kindle, iPad, Nook, etc.—or to be read on computers using e-reader software such as Kindle for PC. It’s strictly digital. No paper. If that fact makes you prickly, you should probably quit reading this essay.
E-publishing was still rather foreign to me. I don’t even own an e-reader or tablet computer. But I liked the idea of being part of something new and something that attempts to reinvigorate the field of long-form journalism by re-engineering the business model that pays for it. That, plus I really wanted to get after it with this Egypt story.
I sent my pitch to Evan Ratliff, editor of The Atavist, and after a little back and forth, he said yes. He could even pay me. It wasn’t a huge amount, but it was respectable, particularly when measured against other upstart publications that so often expect writers to work for a pittance.
How The Atavist Works
Ratliff and his fellow cofounders have also devised a curiously attractive profit-sharing arrangement with writers that can best be described as a kind of hybrid magazine-book deal. When you write a book, your publisher gives you an advance, and only when you’ve earned enough in sales to pay it back do you start to earn royalties—generally on the order of 15 percent of bookseller price per (hardcover) unit, which roughly works out to a dollar per book. The margin is even thinner for paperbacks. The Atavist, in contrast, shares profits 50-50 with writers (after Amazon, Apple, and the like take their cut, which is about 30 percent, although it varies depending on the platform and whether sales are domestic or international). True, The Atavist stories only cost $1.99 or $2.99. But the sharing kicks in from the first sale, and there’s potential for decent after-publication earnings. Not so with magazine assignments, even if an article you write turns out to be wildly popular.
On the nearly empty flight from Amsterdam to Cairo last March, I realized that I’d never written anything like this before. With digital publishing, there is no word-count limit. That obviously doesn’t necessarily make for better writing, but the real estate concerns that sometimes plague magazine stories and lead to the death of whole scenes or sections just don’t exist with e-books. I could swing for the fences in terms of material gathered, backstories reported, and scenes recreated. From the get-go, Ratliff and I had in mind that this could easily be a 10,000-word story. After whittling away about 4,000, the final version came in around 10,500.
What I couldn’t appreciate about e-publishing until we were near to closingwas just how much other information we could weave into and around the piece. While I was doing what I normally do—reporting, writing and rewriting—Ratliff and Atavist producer Olivia Koski had been scheming ways to enliven the reader experience. They commissioned a graphic artist to draw the scene of a tense meeting that occurs in the opening section. They pinpointed places mentioned in the story on a Google map of Cairo, which readers can jump to with a click. They embedded a video clip of the protests and sprinkled some of my photographs from Cairo and Alexandria into the text. They commissioned an infographics wizard to put together an elaborate timeline of events, and we also decided to pay for an Arabic translation, which we give away for free.
Some people have mixed feelings about all this augmentation. Don’t the bells and whistles detract from the prose and reader engagement with it? To that concern, I would say: Take 30 seconds to look at the software. You can turn off all the extras with a single click. But if you ever change your mind and decide you do want some added information about a character in the story or you want to see a photograph of one of the revolutionaries’ hideouts in Cairo, it’s all there waiting for you. As one generally technophobic friend of mine put it: “It’s a totally different kind of reading!”
“The Instigators” was published in early May, about seven weeks after I returned from Cairo. Early reactions were encouraging, with some favorable write-ups in a couple of publications and even positive customer reviews posted to Amazon by people who aren’t my cousins.
What hasn’t been so sunny? For one thing, I don’t know what to call it. Among e-book enthusiasts “single” (or Kindle Single) is shorthand for a work that is generally too long to be a magazine feature but too short to be a book. For much of the world, though, the lingo of “singles,” “e-books” and “e-readers” still causes confusion, akin to talking about CDs in 1985. (A few months ago, I tried referring to “The Instigators” as a “mega-feature,” but that’s clunky and makes me sound like an appliance salesman.)
It has also been a bit of a challenge to make more people aware of the story’s existence—it’s not on any real-world bookshelves, and Atavist doesn’t have an army of publicists working on my behalf. Even people who want to read it sometimes need guidance on how to get it. Since publication, I’ve written the following far too many times:
You don’t need a tablet computer or Kindle to read it. Just download the (free) Kindle-for-Mac or Kindle-for-PC software, install it—it takes all of 80 seconds—and then you’re off!
I’ve been happy with sales, which continue steadily, but make no mistake: There is no zippy sports car in my future. And it’s difficult to determine what marketing strategies helped, hurt or were just a waste of time. For example, we sold an excerpt to TheAtlantic.com. It’s impossible to know if that translated into a substantial number of sales or whether people who read the teaser found it to be a sufficient dose of inside information about Egypt’s revolution, and decided against coughing up the $2 or $3 for the whole piece. Still, the attention this new marketplace is getting keeps me optimistic. As of late November, “The Instigators” was still a top rated Kindle Single, which should keep the sales coming. I hope.
Only occasionally do I encounter someone who voices suspicion about the form, as if to imply that I’ve either produced a B-rate product or somehow betrayed literature itself by publishing straight to digital. What those people fail to recognize is that e-publishing in The Atavist model or some future iteration of it offers a new way of supporting professional writers and stands in contrast to the prediction that narrative nonfiction can’t survive in the age of Twitter. I like physical books and magazines as much as the next guy. What I like even more, though, is long-form storytelling. If its future is in the digital realm, so be it.
David Wolman is an author, journalist and a contributing editor at Wired. “The Instigators,” his e-book about Egypt’s revolution, can be found at www.Atavist.net. His book, “The End of Money,” is to be published by Da Capo Press in February 2012. More information is on his website, www.david-wolman.com. He tweets @davidwolman.