Paginated publishing is back. When we originally turned away from print in favour of the digital world, web formats ruled the roost. But sales of touchscreen devices have boomed in recent years, and the knock-on effect has been to return the most natural format for reading to the ascendancy.
This arrival at full circle has triggered a brand new kind of platform — the e-publishing CMS. We may be just three years into the tablet revolution, but there are already numerous options for the journalist or novelist wanting to self-publish digitally. Apple’s introduction of iBooks was followed by the launch of near-frictionless services such as Origami Engine, ReadyMag and Type Engine, and many more have arrived since. It is a seriously competitive market.
Yet, I think the outlook for Creatavist, a new “web-based storytelling platform,” is actually quite good. A mammoth array of content options awaits potential users of this beta offering, and it also has the backing of Nicholas Thompson, the editor of The New Yorker’s website — he co-founded the developing company, in fact. So, can this new kid on the block make a meaningful impression?
Creatavist feels and looks like it means business. The interface is unflashy, but packed with settings and options — hardly surprising given the focus on serious long-form content, both in this platform, and the parent company’s original iOS app, The Atavist.
As you prepare your new publication, you can upload cover images (or Jackets) to suit every imaginable screen size, include the names of multiple authors, add a purchased ISBN number and publish to iBooks, Kindle, Kobo, Nook, ePub and web. Sadly, Creatavist does not yet provide the option to sell your work (coming soon) — directly via the platform, at least — but the depth of Creatavist’s adjustability makes it clear that top-class professional journalism and fiction-writing is the long-term target market.
You might not be able to sell publications, but the products that Creatavist is capable of outputting would certainly be worth paying for.
Creatavist projects are broken down into chapters. These are not the clusters of pages you might be expecting; rather, they are individual pages which extend downwards to match the length of the content they contain. Creating a chapter is simply a matter of choosing the primary form of media, and Creatavist provides an extensive selection to pick from.
The first option is text. The in-built composition area is like a basic, restyled version of TinyMCE. It does, however, also offer some nifty features.
Precise control over your content is attainable thanks to the provided access to the HTML source code, and you can also add extras. These are very much like the in-context links that were pioneered by Marco Arment in his digital publication, The Magazine. When a reader taps on one of these links in the text, a pop-up, which contains extra information or an additional media file, is triggered. An unoriginal feature it may be, but it adds a whole new dimension to the narrative.
Text, images (including galleries and slideshows), videos, sound, PDFs and plain old web links can be delivered via this method, but more unusual options are on offer, too. The geography extra presents a point of interest within an interactive map, the timeline extra brings an important date to life, and the character extra displays a mini wiki-like bio of a person critical to the story.
Impressively, every type of extra apart from the geographic and slideshow types can be included in ebook exports, should you wish to publish in this format.
In comparison, the image-based chapters seem rather dull, but that has more to do with the depth of the controls mentioned above, rather than any deficiency in Creatavist’s image handling.
You can make a chapter out of a single image, slideshow, or gallery, adding captions as you go. These are not terribly sophisticated presentations, and neither are they particularly visually refined, but they are competent enough at illustrating a story.
Video chapters are created either with an uploaded file, or via Vimeo or YouTube, and support for comics, complete with frame-by-frame navigation, is an interesting inclusion in Creatavist’s feature set.
The incorporation of PDFs into your project allows for a more traditional approach to digital magazine layout design, and websites can be embedded as chapters, too.
In addition to all of the above, Creatavist-made reading matter can, optionally, be accompanied by a soundtrack. As an author, you can upload audio files to set the scene, choosing how and where they should be played, and should you wish to record an audio-book style narration of your content, that can be included as well.
There isn’t enough room here to expand fully on what is possible with this functionality, but suffice it to say that dynamic data, custom bookstores and interactive infographics are just some of the known uses.
Design, for the non-coder, is one area in which Creatavist is, at present, rather one-dimensional. Only the default layout is available (apart from chapter-specific variables) and the opportunities to adjust fonts and colours are few and far between.
However, those familiar with selectors and floats will have a field day, both with the overall layout and, quite separately, on a chapter-by-chapter basis.
The web version actively impresses, incorporating pretty web fonts, parallax scrolling effects and a beautiful, hover-triggered timeline-cum-index along the top of the screen.
It takes some time to tweak and tune a story to the ideal specification, but when you do finally finish, Creatavist makes it pretty simple to deliver your story to the world.
Hovering over the word “Publish” in the top-right reveals a drop-down menu, which contains every type of export option available. From here, you simply select the directions in which you want your content to flow. All of the formats are produced within a minute — to recap, these are iBooks, Kindle, Kobo, Nook, ePub and web. You can also publish to the Creatavist iPad app, though, which is a reader-oriented marketplace for storytelling. In time, this will no doubt become to journalism what the Kindle store is to books, perhaps mirroring the kind of self-publishing model utilized by Matter, with its science-related essays.
Once your request has been processed, Creatavist provides a link to the web version, and direct download links for the other versions. This does mean that you’ll need to distribute your work manually, but given the intense level of support Creatavist offers in every other department, I think most folks will be able to cope with this minor inconvenience.
Unless you want your own iOS app, or you need more than the allotted 150MB of storage, the building and publishing of your first story on the Creatavist platform is free.
After that, a very reasonable $10 per month subscription kicks in, bringing with it unlimited story creation, password protection, the ability to use a custom domain, and a larger 5GB storage limit.
For serious publishers, there is also a $250 per month package, which allows the sale of periodicals by subscription, the automatic inclusion of a store of publications, and unlimited storage.
Speaking as a writer and a journalist, I’m simply astonished by Creatavist’s attention to detail, usability and outright functionality. Despite dedicating over fourteen hundred words to the platform, I’ve only really scratched the surface here, such is the almost pedantic level of control on offer.
Is it perfect? No, not by any stretch of the imagination. For the time being, you can’t sell your work via the Creatavist app, and any true visual originality is currently impossible without a good portion of CSS knowledge.
But I expect these kinks will be be ironed out — it is still a beta product, after all — and considering the remarkable abilities with which Creatavist is already equipped, it may be destined to dominate the future of e-publishing.