On a second year of frequent publishing

Dec 5th, 2013 by aragorn in Ardent

Have you ever made a mind map? What is the difference between a project (in the project management sense of the word) and a project (in the anarchist sense of the word)? What is marketing? Is Dragon Naturally Speaking software a good investment? These questions, and many more, fill my days.

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Not exactly what one would anticipate anarchist publishing to entail but by-and-large my responsibility for LBC Books (the publishing arm of Little Black Cart) is to make sure that it continues to be viable into the future. This means making sure it has a book to publish this month (and every month) and that we can afford to do so. It also entails thinking about the big picture a lot. Too much. (Is the publishing industry dying? Is the small press doomed? Does publishing to a very small niche increase or decrease our viability in the long term?) Consider me plagued with questions that have no answers. But here are some experiments that are developed enough to report on.

Imprints

Among the big questions of publishing is one around quality, quantity, and audience. Who are we writing (publishing) for and what are we trying to say to them? Are we doing it best when we say it once, slowly and completely, or in a dozen different ways with as many different approaches as possible? What about the fact that the things we say aren’t heard because we are using print/books to say them? What compromises are we willing to make, or interested in making, to be heard by new/more people?

Related to this big problem is the additional quirk that almost every radical position is occupied by a set of people who have somehow come to their position in the understanding that it is the only correct position to have. As ridiculous as this claim may be… it makes working closely with other people difficult.

Our solution for this issue has been the creation of a vibrant set of imprints. Rather than use our first and most prolific publishing imprint (or brand)–Ardent Press–to publish all of our books we only use it to publish material that fits certain conditions. For our other content we use different imprints. Our in-house imprints include LBCBooks, Ardent Press, Pistols Drawn, and Repartee. Each of these imprints has a different motivation.

We can now collaborate with (editorially) experienced individuals and groups so as to make their projects happen without having to negotiate with them on the values that we would find relevant if the project were on our own in-house imprint. This means that we spend less time arguing about editorial details that, while important to us, aren’t necessarily important to the people we’d like to collaborate with. Isn’t necessary to produce something interesting and worth existing but impossible by most real world practicality measures. Collaboration becomes a meaningful, and perhaps appropriately limited, form of interaction.

The downside to this strategy is that while we do measure ourselves to the task of publishing a book a month (our 24th in two years will be titled “I saw Fire”) the perception may be that we do much less because our branding doesn’t reflect our participation.

Iterative Publishing

One of the more depressing moments in publishing came when we received a pallet of Enemies of Society only to determine that we had messed up the Table of Contents (something incredibly easy to do). A part of your mind just wants to say “scrap them!” to all one thousand copies. Ridiculous, but a real urge when your mistake is of this magnitude.

However, most mistakes (especially like the Enemies one) are much larger in your imagination than they are in reality. While it is inconvenient for the content listings to be off by a few pages, if you are really looking for something you will find it.

I have found that mistakes like this one are mostly entertainment for the copy editor set (a category I have general respect for and fear of). These are the people who devote real time and energy to correcting the misspellings, typos, and homonyms that creep into any text. The CES include vicious variety, who will then proceed to inform the creators of this text that they are stupid, lazy, and sloppy. Often times the creators will believe them and feel bad. This lifecycle of the edit has existed since the printed word began (and is only in danger due to the total disrespect that the Internet has engendered to editing as a category).

When we determined that we would publish more, we also knew that our production cycle was going to be soul-crushing. So much content for so few people to review was going to kill people. We don’t want to kill people. Honest!

In my other life I work with computer systems. The project life-cycle problem is well-known and documented there. It’s also not a solved problem but that is a discussion for another time. Publishing books closely mirrors the waterfall model of software development. The criticisms of the waterfall process closely mirror those of publishing books:

  1. Problems are not discovered until system testing.
  2. Requirements must be fixed before the system is designed – requirements evolution makes the development method unstable.
  3. Design and code work often turn up requirements inconsistencies, missing system components, and unexpected development needs.
  4. System performance cannot be tested until the system is almost coded; undercapacity may be difficult to correct.

To put these problems differently (or more appropriate for the makers of books), books require a lot of time and money even before figuring out what is wrong with them. Correcting mistakes can be as resource intensive as starting from scratch. One does not know what they don’t know and by the time they do… they’ve already committed to the project.

Our solution is tentatively drawn from the same conceptual space as the world of software development. We call it iterative publishing and it basically means taking advantage of the fact that digital publishing is more flexible than printing press. The short version is that we can release a book into the wild, get feedback from the CES, roll that feedback into an improved book, and release the improved book as the (more-or-less) next book we print.

From a process point of view this solution hasn’t been a natural fit. To take a simple example, people outside of the land of software development don’t find sequential numbering of product to be natural. The world doesn’t find radicalbook.1.1.pdf to be the natural name after radicalbook.1.0.pdf errors out. This puts us in the uncomfortable situation of relying on timestamps rather than naming conventions. Aggravation all the way around.

However, it does allow us to avoid that horrible sinking feeling of a huge problem that will not disappear until the last book has left the building…

PRDM

If I were to be generous to consensus decision making I would say that it has morphed into such a globular and amorphous monster that it no longer has any of the specific problems that one tends to criticize it with. Most anyone who has worked with consensus has modified it, in some form, to make it usable for their context. Fair enough.

When I was younger and dumber I used to declare the deviations from consensus by (for instance AK) demonstrations of their deeper (non-anarchistic) motivations. I was wrong.

Consensus is a fairly new technic of the anarchist space. The idea that anarchistic decisions should be made in the way that is process-centric rather than product-centric makes sense in the post-68, or post-workerist, era. The connection between anarchist practice and daily life (as in the need to eat, work, live) has grown slimmer, as a result the need to make most decisions has decreased accordingly. As a result the actual process of making decisions can be seen as the goal, and practical aspect, of many anarchist groups. This is an innovation.

PRDM (proximal to resources decision making) is our early attempt at thinking about this problem differently. If consensus drives its momentum by an ideology of principles (Agreement Seeking, Collaborative, Cooperative, Egalitarian, Inclusive, Participatory), PRDM is driven by using the smallest unit necessary to appropriately make a decision. For LBC this looks like (as one example) a weekly meeting between as few as two but as many as four members of the distribution group and the print shop group to determine the workflow for the next week. The publishing (or outreach) group are not necessary for this meeting and are, therefore, not invited.

Our response to the “big circle” aspect of consensus is a series of Venn diagrams (only rarely calling on the big circle).

The spiritual motivation for consensus is as a way to frame a (religious, activist, or anarchist) project by a shared feeling of community. The opening circles, the twinkle fingers, the vibe of tolerance and acceptance are all parts of a set piece. Participation in consensus-based organizations is supposed to feel good, especially for outcasts and losers, and for the naive ones who believe that love and harmony are still meaningful labels to describe human activity. Consensus is a way to practice a humanistic spiritual practice that can be tolerated by the secular left.

PRDM should be framed as a scalpel used to dissect the humanism from decision making. (This is not to say that the two are entirely incommensurate but are conflated to such a degree as to practically be so.)

Final Words

It took me twenty years to develop the skills necessary to publish books. Obviously there might have been a number of shortcuts I could have taken to do this project, if I knew that this was where I was heading but it’s hard to imagine how I could have known ahead of time that this effort would feel so meaningful, even if mostly to me, without having put together the skills and people and then making some fucking books.

It took twenty years of reading and stumbling around before I had the capacity to make this experiment. This has given me a great deal of pause with regard to judging other people’s projects or their own stumbling efforts towards figuring out what their thing is going to be.

Similar to how I feel about non-monogamy (a practice I’ve participated in my entire adult life), I would not recommend my particular choices to anyone else BUT there is something about the effort that is absolutely worth distilling into a form others can utilize. I don’t know if it’s the desire to experiment with how one lives, or an insufferable pleasure in making embarrassing mistakes, but this is an infection I’m happy to share.

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