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-Helena Cobban, founder, Just World Books
The following is an interview that Katie Monroe conducted with Just World Books founder Helena Cobban in January 2012, covering the company's history and philosophy. In this conversation, the aptness of “Timely Books for Changing Times” to describe the company’s ethos becomes apparent. Harnessing both a nuanced understanding of the many changes in the arenas of international news, journalism, publishing, and technology, as well as a flexible responsiveness to these changes, Helena is certainly keeping up with the times! Just World Books provides readers with timely access to texts that really help all of us to better understand our world.
Q. How has your experience as a longtime blogger at Just World News informed the philosophy of Just World Books?
Helena: Well, I loved blogging from the moment I started doing it back in early 2003. I was doing it then during a period where a lot of people started blogging about international affairs, and it became a global community. There’s this wonderful guy, Reidar Visser, who’s Norwegian, who writes about Iraq, and there’s Juan Cole in Michigan, and then there are people in the Middle East, in China, in Africa – all around the world – writing about international affairs in a completely new way: almost real-time conversations about what’s going on.
As I was doing this, I noticed that there was some fine analysis and writing on blogs: really up-to-the-minute, immediate, vivid, and well-informed. [But] you read it and then it gets packed down in the archives…So one of the things that I did when I founded Just World Books in 2010 was to make some of that fine writing more easily accessible to people by pulling it out of the archives, putting it in a forward chronological order, and actually working with the writers themselves to “curate” their work. I think I’m one of the first people in the world of text to use the term curating for what my writers do, which is exactly analogous to what the curator of a museum exhibit does. You take a series of pieces and compose them, either thematically or chronologically, and add a little explanation of what’s going on, that frames and gives meaning to the texts that follow...
I found this to be really powerful – as soon as our writers started rearranging their pieces in a chronological order, then you got a narrative, a sustained argument that is not necessarily easily discernible if you just read one of the pieces, or if you read one piece today, and one piece tomorrow, and a piece next week. In each case, we’ve ended up with a wonderful final text that is a whole lot more than the sum of the parts... And it also encourages writers to take their own blogged oeuvres more seriously.
Q. Can you tell us some of the responses you’ve gotten to the books you’ve published so far?
Helena: Well at this point I’ve published eight books, and some of them have been adopted by college professors and used in college courses, which I think is exciting because it gives the college students access to materials that I think are much fresher and more immediate than most academic texts. Laila El-Haddad’s Gaza Mom has definitely been widely used, not only in Middle East courses, but also women’s studies courses. Because she is a veiled Muslim woman who is an active journalist, engaging speaker, and working mom, she challenges a lot of stereotypes that people in the West have about veiled Muslim women. Her book got a very nice review from a radical feminist publication in Los Angeles called make/shift. That these sort of radical feminists can appreciate what Laila is writing about and what she’s presenting, I think really speaks to the bonds that you can build if you talk about women’s issues in public, in a very honest way.
One of the books that I was particularly fond of was a little volume that I rushed out in the summer of 2011 for the fifth anniversary of Israel’s attack against Lebanon in 2006. It’s an on-the-ground account of what it was like to be in Beirut and South Lebanon during that 33-day, no-holds-barred Israeli assault on the country, by Rami Zurayk, who’s an agronomy professor at AUB. Originally, it was going to be the final chapter of his book, Food, Farming and Freedom, but as we were pulling the book together in early 2011, the Arab Spring was erupting, and it was erupting overwhelmingly in these countries where rural communities had been destroyed and rural livelihoods had collapsed because of the onslaught of western neo-liberal trade and aid policies. This is exactly what Rami had been writing about in most of Food, Farming and Freedom, so his writing had a real relevance and immediacy. We agreed to take out that last chapter of the original book and publish it separately, as War Diary: Lebanon 2006, and put in a new chapter on the Arab Spring instead – so the big book is now called Food, Farming, and Freedom: Sowing the Arab Spring.
Q. What kind of publishing model do you use, to achieve such a degree of flexibility?
None of this would be possible without the current, 21st-century printing technologies. It used to be the case, in traditional book publishing, that you would pull together a book on the editorial side, with a huge investment of time and resources, and then you would have to make a big decision about how many copies of this book you were going to print – a huge commercial risk that a publisher would take. But with modern printing technologies, you can do either print-on-demand, which means the moment you click “buy” on our website, that’s the moment at which the book gets printed, or do digital short run, with smaller and easily repeatable print runs. As a new publisher coming into the business, what this meant for me was that I didn’t have to sink a lot of capital into inventory. That allowed me, within the first two years, to bring out eight books, which I could never have done otherwise!
It’s also enabled me to be much more agile – in terms of pulling that last chapter of Rami’s book out in response to breaking events, for example. In the case of Reidar Vissar’s book A Responsible End: The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005-2010, events were breaking as well there while we were working on the book, and we were putting new material into the text up until 7-10 days before it was available for sale. With traditional printing technology, you just couldn’t do that!
Obviously, we’ve worked hard to keep our editorial standards high, and I’ve developed teams of really fabulous editors, only a few of whom are in our home base of Charlottesville, Virginia. To manage these teams, I use a variety of web-based tools (Dropbox, for example), and it’s worked beautifully. Right now I have an editor who is actually in Cairo, Egypt, I have a marketer in Turkey, I have people all over the United States... It also frees me up to manage the business from anywhere – the web is an amazing, empowering tool for doing collaborative, cooperative work.
Q. Do you see any kind of common theme running through the types of books that you publish, besides the blogging aspect?
Helena: I’m a Quaker, so I see everything that I do professionally and personally as having to be consonant with Quaker values. I want these books to reflect as much as possible people’s actual experiences rather than to be abstract analytical works. I think that’s a very important stress that Quakerism places, that lived experience is the most valuable source for knowledge and understanding.
The name, “Just World Books,” can obviously be read that in a number of ways – I took the name from my blog, which is called Just World News… So obviously, I want to build a “just” world. You can also see the word “just” as a limiting modifier: the books don’t really deal much with domestic issues here in the United States. However, the United States is part of the world, and I’m very open to the possibility of publishing books about domestic issues, in particular the death penalty, in the future. But my comparative advantage is in non-U.S. parts of the world, because that is the disciplinary area that I have devoted most of my work to as a journalist, analyst, and researcher. I’ve done most of my work in the Middle East, which is definitely reflected in our list of titles so far, but I’m eager to expand beyond that.
The books all have some relationship to issues of war, peace, and social justice. I want the books to make available to readers in the United States and other western nations very honest and truthful and vivid representations of the actual effects of warfare on people in countries that are afflicted by it. I have lived in a war zone – I lived for seven years in Lebanon during the civil war, and it was an absolutely formative experience for me, and one that I’ve reflected on a lot since then. It’s clear to me that in a war zone, everybody’s human rights are majorly abused, and their lives are under constant threat, whether that is from an actual bullet or a mortar or a missile, or whether it’s from the degradation of absolutely vital infrastructure and services.
As I’m publishing these books, they have a strong anti-war message, I think. Not always a direct message, and I don’t only publish books by pacifist writers, because I think some of the people who understand war and its effects most thoroughly and most intimately are people who have been in war. Chas Freeman, author of America’s Misadventures in the Middle East, in addition to being a very distinguished foreign service officer who culminated as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was also Assistant Secretary of Defense, in the 1990s. He is certainly is not a pacifist, but because he understands the nature of war, he brings to it a realistic understanding that war is the worst way of solving your problems, and diplomacy has to be tried in every possible way... Another commitment I have is to publish as many non-American writers as possible, who can speak about their experience at the receiving end of U.S. diplomacy, or of the failures of U.S. diplomacy, and really bring Americans into a global conversation that already exists about these issues.
Q. What new titles can we look forward to from Just World Books?
Helena: First, the book The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine by a writer named Miko Peled who is an Israeli-American who grew up in the bosom of the political elite in Israel. Later in life, he came back to his connections to Israeli political life after his niece was tragically killed in 1996 by a suicide bomber. At that point, Miko asked all the questions about why this happened, and came to a very deep understanding that, although it was a tragedy for their family, there were also a lot of other tragedies on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that the way to stop this cycle of violence is to seek peace between the two peoples. He’s done a lot of work, including with Palestinian-American friends and colleagues, to raise awareness and to ease the suffering of people on both sides. Miko really has a great story to tell!
We are also planning to reissue a classic book, originally titled Going All The Way: Christian Warlords, Israeli Adventurers, and the War in Lebanon. The writer, Jon Randal, had been a leading Washington Post foreign correspondent in Lebanon, when he published this book in 1983. Our reissue will include a preface in which he reflects on the meaning of this experience that he had had at that point, and then a little bit on subsequent developments in Lebanon, and on the continuing relevance of some of those actors movements today, not just in Lebanon but internationally...
We have another book that’s coming out in the summer by a wonderful writer called Matt Zeller, who was with the U.S. infantry in Afghanistan. His manuscript is a very honest account of his training in the military, his time in the military, and then his reentry back into civilian life afterwards, in the course of which he had some serious PTSD episodes. Matt Zeller is someone whose lived experience I think is very important for Americans to be able to understand.
And then we’re going to have a book of curated blog posts by Rabbi Brant Rosen, who is a wonderful social activist in Evanston, Illinois. His blog is called Shalom Rav, which means “Peace Rabbi.” The book, a compilation of his blog posts from 2008 until now, will trace his continuing personal journey on the Palestine-Israel issue.
In the longer term, Issandr El Amrani, the writer behind arabist.net, is working on a book based on his blog posts going back to 2004-2005, in which we will actually see the development of the whole pro-democracy movement in Egypt back before what happened in 2011.
Another exciting publication for the Fall of 2012 is the Gaza Kitchen cookbook. It’s written by two authors – Laila El-Haddad, the author of Gaza Mom, a great anthropologist who lives in Spain named Maggie Schmitt. The book is really rich, but based on a really strong respect for food heritage, and the unique food heritage of the people of Gaza... There is no Gaza cookbook in English, so I think this one is going to be fabulous!