Last September, when it was announced that media mogul Barry Diller, film producer Scott Rudin, and former Picador publisher Frances Coady were forming a multiplatform book publishing company, Coady promised it would be “not the usual model.” A year later, she seems ready to make good on that promise.
On the eve of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Coady and Christian Smythe, v-p of business operations, gave PW a first glimpse of their upcoming list, a mix of digital, enhanced digital, and print works from writers like Karen Russell, Raj Patel, and Hari Kunzru, journalist Gary Younge, and the multimedia storytelling team known as the Goggles. As founding publisher of Vintage Paperbacks in the U.K. and then, for 12 years, the publisher at Picador, Coady is well known as a pioneer of at least one literary format—the trade paperback. In her latest venture, she hopes to break some new ground as well.
“After spending a year doing business plans, P&Ls, hiring staff, I feel very lucky that we got to start from scratch,” said Coady from the company’s offices in the Frank Gehry–designed IAC building in Manhattan. “Any CEO today would love to start from scratch. I don’t have an aircraft carrier to turn around here.” According to Coady, the old assumptions about the publishing business—“about publicity, media, print numbers”—no longer pertain. She believes that digital remains under-resourced. “We have to stop treating digital as the bastard offspring of print. Digital is its own format and should have its own resources and its own uses and purpose.”
Originally launched as Brightline, the renamed Atavist Books will leverage its partnership with Atavist, the Brooklyn-based digital startup, in producing various digital products, from standard e-books to enhanced and interactive digital properties, to promotional mixed-media events. But print will also be part of the mix. “Print is not going away,” Coady stressed, noting that Atavist Books recently reached a distribution deal with PGW.
Atavist Books’ first title, coming in March, is an out-and-out coup: Sleep Donation, a novella by Karen Russell, the 32-year-old Pulitzer finalist and 2013 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. Sleep Donation takes place in an America that has lost the ability to sleep. Russell’s agent, Denise Shannon, said that Sleep Donation came in as a 22,000-word short story. “Karen felt that she’d have to cut it down for a magazine, but I thought it was wonderful,” Shannon noted. She and Coady negotiated for a digital-only, novella-length publication.
Atavist Books plans to do one book a month throughout 2014. In April, novelist Chris Adrian and award-winning app developer Eli Horowitz will collaborate on The New World, a digital novel “about love, grief, memory, and cryogenics.”
Other titles on the Atavist list: Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone, set in Turkey and Pakistan (e-book and print); Gary Younge’s A Day in the Death of America (enhanced digital and print), in which the Nation and Guardian journalist tells the tales of eight young Americans killed by gun violence in a single day. Raj Patel, in Generation Food, asks how we can change our food systems and feed our children in sustainable ways. It will appear in digital and print with a companion documentary by Steve James, of Hoop Dreams fame. (The full Atavist list can be found at www.atavist.com/atavistbooks/.)
“The onus is on us to be highly creative,” said Coady. Each title will have a three-month period of promotion and marketing, she explained. “Where we do print, we will do digital first. We will put a lot more resources into creating original digital marketing than a traditional house, and so keep word of mouth moving. By the time you get to print there’s already a platform. Instead of sending out a galley, seeing the advances for a book, and signing the print order, we will already have traction, a serious presence. The print book will publish into that.”
Coady has also given some thought to what kind of print books to produce. “We will do one format only, something between a hardcover and a paperback, with all the quality of a hardcover, but with a paper jacket, a variation on the French flaps, and priced at $20.” Smythe added that the company doesn’t intend to bundle e-books with print—at least not yet. Coady is also changing up another element of the business: digital royalties. “We’re dividing the money differently,” she said, noting, “Our digital royalty is considerably higher than the standard 25%”—though she didn’t specify a figure. “Frances is shaking it up,” said Shannon. “She has nice support for these projects and it is very exciting.”
Coady said she asks herself and her staff—Smythe, who was formerly at Penguin and Sony; Ryan Chapman, director of marketing; Derrick Schultz, digital production and design manager; Kianoosh Hashemzadeh, editor and producer—“to imagine what the book will look like in the future.”
“We will keep experimenting,” she said.