Publishing: From 140 characters to 150,000 words

I haven’t blogged much recently, I know. I’ve been incredibly busy. Primarily with the book-publishing but a bit with family things and also, increasingly, with planning for the trip I’m currently on. (This blog post comes to you from London. On Saturday, I’m going to Cairo… )
Also, I’ve been tweeting quite a bit. That stuff can get quite addictive if you let it. But it also, certainly, has many excellent uses.
It has been quite an interesting experience, all in all, to have been doing so little ‘regular’, blog-post-length or oped-column-length journalism over recent month but to have spent so much time instead either working with the Just World Books authors and the editors as they bring their 100,000-or-so-word opuses (actually, opera) into existence, or just flitting around the Twittersphere, seeing what’s going on there, and contributing some of my own Tweets and Chirps.
I’m still in love with this book-publishing project. I am so happy about the five (very soon to be six!) books that JWB has published so far. Honestly, not a single one of these books would have even existed in anything like its present form unless I had worked with these talented and always-busy authors to help them to pull them together. And now they are there and available as resources for anyone around the world who cares to use them. Plus, equally importantly, they will sit in libraries around the world forever, ready to be consulted by members of the coming generations. That’s what I love about books!
Sure, the near-instant gratification of blog-post publishing gets my adrenalin running good and fast. But blog posts are evanescent. Yes, they may sit in the blog archives– and blog archives are fabulous, let me make no mistake about that! But, and this is a big but, blog archives are not organized in a way that allows for the posts easily to come together into a sustained narrative or a sustained argument. That is the big difference made by the “curating” process that my authors undertake when they pull their material together into book chapters.
Last month, we published Rami Zurayk’s fabulous book Food, Farming, and Freedom: Sowing the Arab Spring. Rami is an agronomy prof and a dedicated social activist in his native Lebanon who blogs at Land and People. The book tracks how the aid and trade policies pursued over the past 25 years by Western governments and their ‘free market’ acolytes in many Arab countries ended up wrecking the livelihoods, lives, and societies of the members of so many millennia-old farming communities throughout the Arab world– thus, over time, helping to “sow” the Arab Spring.
And this, in the part of the world where– as Rami points out in the book– farming first began.
His critique of how the “development” (or in the end, too often, “de-development”) policies pursued by pro-western governments went hand-in-hand with their repression of all dissenting voices at home and their pursuit of foreign policies that ended up kowtowing to the “West” and to Israel is a very serious one that helps to explain the root causes of the “Arab Spring”.
Food, Farming, and Freedom has a fabulous Foreword by Rashid Khalidi. You can read an excerpt from it, and other praise from the book’s advance readers, here.
We had an excellent launch event for the book in New York! It was hosted by the NGO Food & Hunger Working Group at the U.N. We’ll have some video of it to share with you, very soon.
This month, we have now gotten our e-book publishing program off the ground, with the release of the Kindle version of Joshua Foust’s Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. I figured the Kindle version would be good to begin with, both because so many people now have Kindles and because there’s a very handy (and free) iPad app that lets you read Kindle e-books on your iPad.
We’ll be putting our other titles into e-book formats soon, too.
Another big thing I’ve been doing with JWB in recent weeks has been to negotiate a strategic cooperation agreement with OR Books of New York. I’ve admired OR since I first became aware of their work last year. They have just about the same general view of how to make a go of publishing within the technological and market environment of the 21st century that I do– that is: Focus on speedy turnaround of great, timely manuscripts; focus on producing (and selling!) paperbacks and e-books rather than hardcovers; rely on Print-on-Demand so you don’t have to sink money into inventory and inventory management; focus on web-based operations rather than bookstores, etc. They are further advanced in building their business than I am, having started in 2009. The company’s co-owners John Oakes and Colin Robinson have a lot more experience in book publishing than I do. And last but not least John and Colin seem to be really nice people who share a huge amount of my political sensibilities… So this whole cooperation thing looks fabulous from my point of view.
And the final big thing I’ve been doing in the JWB context has been to complete (let’s hope…) the work on Manan Ahmed’s amazing book, Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination. Manan is a thoughtful and brilliant Pakistani-American historian who blogs at Chapati Mystery. He wrote most of the blog posts and other short texts that are curated into the book during the period from 2004 until, well, just last month… For most of that time he was finishing his Ph.D. in history at the University of Chicago, so he had a front-row seat from which to gaze upon the deformations that American society and politics underwent during the height of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld years and the huge damage inflicted on both American and Pakistan under the rubric of the “War on Terror”. (He ain’t too kind to Obama on this score, either.)
My involvement in editing Manan’s book was a little episodic. I was relying on a couple of my excellent contract editors to work with him to whip it into shape. (And it had several challenging aspects in that regard.) And then, as the final step, we’ve been doing the page layout… and it turns out the text is so complex and rich, what with epigraphs in English, epigraphs in Urdu, poems in English, poems in Urdu, headings, and subheadings, and sub-sub-headings, and there have been some great graphic elements to incorporate as well (including small b&w reproductions of paintings by the gifted Daisy Rockwell and a table correlating various Pakistani leaders’ facial hair with whether they instituted martial law, etc)… As Manan himself would doubtless write at this juncture:
Well.
(Readers will love Manan’s dry wit and great style, as well as the originality of his thought and the depth of his understanding of all the relevant histories.)
The Foreword writer for WTWFA is Amitava Kumar of Vassar. Amitava was also kind enough to publish a great little interview with Manan on Bookslut. You can read it here. And be sure to read the fabulous endorsements the book got from Juan Cole and others, here.
… After wrestling with many typographical and technical gremlins, I finally got the PDFs of WTWFA’s interior and cover uploaded to the printer’s website this morning… so I’m hopeful it will be available for sale on Amazon within the next 4-5 days. (Keep your fingers crossed.) I’ll be sure to let you know when it is finally available for purchase!
Each of these latest two books has turned out, at the end, to be a real quick-turnaround challenge. Rami’s book, we added a whole additional chapter to, about the Arab Spring. And Manan’s contains as an Epilogue the wry observations he blogged a couple of days after the U.S killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.
“Timely Books for Changing Times” ~ that’s my motto at Just World Books! (TB4CT)
So anyway… when I’m working really hard at something, using twitter becomes a far too easy-to-use mind-clearer. Well, something between a relaxing mind-clearer and a potentially dangerous addiction, more like… Another “problem” I have with Twitter is that I do it in two guises. One is @helenacobban; and I try to keep to that one for personal observations. The other is @justworldbooks. I’m trying to use that one only for JWB-related items; but it’s been a bit harder to find the right tweeting “voice” there… Well, either that, or sometimes I just forget which account I’m tweeting on and get ways too mouthy on the corporate one. (I’m not sure that anyone apart from me even cares about this? Maybe having the two accounts is just all-round confusing and I should consolidate them?)
Here’s what I love about Twitter: The amazing power it gives you to connect with new tweeps through hashtags, and with new hashtags through the tweeps whom you follow. During those exciting days of the height of Egypt’s Tahrir Square revolution, it suddenly seemed as if I could connect with English-speakers (and to some extent with Arabic- and French-speakers) from all around the world as we watched all the breaking-news events and their media representations in an important way together, commenting on them as we viewed them…
One of the things I loved about OR Books was that six weeks or so ago they brought out this amazing little book, Tweets from Tahrir, a small book that in 21 chapters presents a day-by-day view of what was being tweeted from the heart of (and to a lesser extent, about) the anti-Mubarak action in Tahrir Square from January 11 through February 14. The book was edited by Nadia Idle and Alex Nunns, from London.
What an amazing thing to do.
On p.394 (I think) of Laila El-Haddad’s book with JWB, Gaza Mom, Palestine, Politics, etc…, we have a short “Tweetstory”, which is a compilation that someone made of the tweets Laila was sending out on that occasion, back in April 2009, when she got held up at Cairo airport for 32 hours with her two small kids, as she was on her way trying to get to Gaza to see her parents… The guys holding her there in the airport didn’t realize she had internet access and was tweeting for all her time there!
But OR Books made a whole book out of Tweets. Neat!
Twitter is like blogging from the point of view that your most recent tweets get put at the top while all the earlier ones get crammed ever further down beneath, meaning that– as with most blog archives– you end up having a slightly disorienting, reverse-chrono arrangement to the text. But three weeks ago I discovered this great new tool called Chirpstory that lets you very easily compile your own tweets– or anyone else’s– into forward-chrono collections that can thereby gain some real narrative heft as they proceed.
Anyway, I’ve now pulled together three or four short ‘stories’ using Chirpstory (check them out here), and see a lot of potential for its future use– particularly during periods of very significant and rapid action…
So that– and some good family things– are kind of what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks. As noted in the title here: dealing with texts of all lengths from 140 characters through 150,000 words… But at the end of the day, I still have a reporter’s heart. So that’s what I’ll be doing for the next couple of weeks.
Oh, that and continuing to do a bunch of things for the book business, of course!

One thought on “Publishing: From 140 characters to 150,000 words

  1. KDJ

    Bravo, Helena! Why not send Author’s or Publisher’s Announcements to me at H-Net Middle East Politics, so we can inform our subscribers about these important contributions?
    Thanks,
    Kevin

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