DISCORDIA: ebooks in the hour of chaos


DISCORDIA – words by Laurie Penny, illustrations by Molly Crabapple – is out worldwide today. For me it’s a key milestone in one line of publishing that I’ve been concentrating on since I joined Random House at the start of 2011.

I first came across Laurie during the student protests of late 2010 when she was sending out urgent and visceral 140-character dispatches on Twitter from the red-hot core of the kettle. Her tweeting, blogging and reporting during that period fired her to prominence as an important young voice in journalism. And falling as it did between the popular uprising in Iran of 2009 and the Arab Spring, I was convinced that digital publishing could provide an outlet for a similarly urgent and dynamic kind of ebook which showcased the type of reportage these difficult times demanded.

Call it short-form book publishing, or long-form journalism, but this way the new medium and the new message were one and the same, affording an opportunity which had largely died out since the days of widely distributed pamphleteering.

The Summer of Unrest series was the result (a sub-set of the Brain Shots imprint set up by Kay Peddle at Bodley Head), six pieces looking at the key political issues and events of an extraordinary 2011 – the debt crisis, the Arab Spring, the Riots. I’d approached Laurie about writing for the series but she couldn’t find the time with other commitments, so when I got an email from her this June mooting a trip to Athens with New York artist (and key figure in Occupy Wall Street) Molly Crabapple, it felt like unfinished business.

They flew out in early July and we’ve published at the start of October. It’s this three month turnaround which feels optimum for this mode of writing. I knew they would return with good material, after all they were promising a ‘feminist-art-gonzo-journalism project’ as a tribute to - and subversion of -  the classic Hunter S Thompson/Ralph Steadman creative anarcho-partnership.

Molly actually created most of the art first and Laurie wrote after it. I explained to Molly that the majority of readers would be using black and white e-ink devices, so she focused on black line-drawings with the only colour really being the red bloodstains of the violent anti-Golden Dawn protests.

She created a mix of predominantly finished pieces and sketches to communicate the in-the-moment nature of the reportage, sketching as Laurie did notes. We’ve ended up with 36 pieces in the finished ebook, which weighs in at 24,000 words – and if anyone complains about that being priced (under) £2 ($3), they don’t deserve it.

I wanted Laurie to feel like she could stretch herself with DISCORDIA. As a journalist, even in comment pieces, there’s a certain discipline necessary to adhere to deadlines and word limits, whereas here I asked her to really go for it: to be personal, to riff at length, and simply feel free to express herself and really own what is a nascent format. I think she’s more than delivered.

When the words came in, it was tight to hit the 1st October pub date (I wanted to avoid the US election by a good month), and we did a couple of passes at the text together and then a copyedit like you would with any decently-produced (e)book. Molly had a strong idea about the placement of images and we stuck to her outline. Paul Mason generously did a foreword which framed it in terms of the mission they’d set out on, with Tom Wolfe’s edition of THE NEW JOURNALISM he'd given them firmly in mind.

The agility we're capable of now as publishers was evident after it appeared the ebook was locked down and was in conversion. Molly got arrested on the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street and Laurie was able to write a coda on 17th September which was dropped in during Quality Checking, along with the final tweaks to the text, which was finally polished off with a couple of statistical corrections on the Thursday it was fed out to the e-retailers (before publication this Monday).

Simultaneously, Greece and Spain were hitting the news again in a renewed way and it struck me that non-fiction (ebook) publishing can potentially operate on a new type of cycle which insists on its relevance and helps set the news agenda, not chronicle it a year or two later. 



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