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Experimental Book Publishing: Reinventing Editorial Workflows and Engaging Communities 

The publication of experimental, digital work engenders different roles and relationalities, requiring “a kind of collaboration among authors, editors, and technical staff that is quite different from the traditional publishing process
Published onNov 15, 2022
Experimental Book Publishing: Reinventing Editorial Workflows and Engaging Communities 

Experiments with academic books can take various forms. They can include experiments with the book’s format and the way it is created, from multimodal publications to books that are processual or versioned (Adema, 2021). But they can also take the form of a critical engagement with the collaborative processes and relationalities that are part of scholarly communication and book publishing.

For example, think of experiments focused on extending interactions around books through open peer review, social annotations, or collaborative writing and editing, all offering ways to open out from the book object and from individual proprietary forms of authorship and towards more communal forms of scholarship.1 However, there is still a lot to be done to stimulate, explore, and practice the full range of book interactions made possible by open access and digital publishing, especially since strategically within the open access movement the focus has been on extending access to books, where reuse, remix, and other more interactive and experimental elements, as well as a “rigorous critical exploration of the form of the book itself” have seen less uptake (Adema and Hall, 2014). These different types of interaction and experimentation also have direct implications for the editorial workflows of publishers, and they require a reconfiguring or reimagining of publishers’ standard, still predominantly print-based publishing processes (Ball and Eyman, 2015).

This is perhaps one of the reasons why most experiments with academic books have been conducted by either scholar-led or university presses, while larger commercial publishers have been reluctant to explore more experimental and collaborative forms of publishing. This reluctance might be related to the fact that many larger presses have bought into expensive proprietary editorial management systems that tend to work via standardised workflows and are generally not very flexible or adaptable.2 However, at the same time, many (often modular) open source tools, technologies, software, and platforms are now available or in development, from Manifold and Scalar, to and PubPub. These offer scholar-led and university presses enhanced opportunities to engage with experimental book publishing, specifically also with more horizontal, interactive, and collaborative forms. 

Within the COPIM project we are conducting several pilot projects to further explore these opportunities and to, together with presses and authors, create experimental books with the help of existing open source tools, software, and platforms. As part of these pilot projects we are adapting publishers’ existing (or creating new) editorial and publishing workflows, so that they can continue with publishing experimental books after the pilot ends. One of the pilot projects we have been conducting has been with Open Humanities Press (OHP).

Two screenshots side-to-side of the website of Open Humanities Press, one showing the book series and one showing the book titles

OHP is an international open access publishing collective in critical and cultural theory. It was founded in 2006 as a scholar-led press, an independent volunteer initiative involving open access journal editors, librarians, and IT professionals. OHP’s organisation and its editorial workflow for its journals and books is itself already breaking new ground in scholarly publishing as it is inherently community-led, involving multiple self-governing scholarly communities running book series and journals that together operate as a heterogenous publishing collective. As such, OHP was set up according to a peer publishing model in which hundreds of authors and editors (both internal and external to OHP) support one another and share knowledge and skills.

Together with OHP and members of COPIM’s Experimental Publishing and Re-use work package, we developed the Combinatorial Books: Gathering Flowers Pilot Project, developed as a new book series. It sits under OHP’s Living/Liquid Books series and it is overseen by its editors, COPIM members Janneke Adema, Simon Bowie, Gary Hall, and Rebekka Kiesewetter. This series and pilot project explores and encourages the re-use, remix, and rewriting of books within OHP’s catalogue as a means of generating radical new responses to them. As part of this pilot we have been developing an editorial and publishing workflow that enables the creation of new combinatorial books3 out of existing open access (OA) books (or collections of books on certain topics, such as Climate Change). This in an effort to promote more social and open ways of performing humanities scholarship and its relationalities — beyond the prevalence of single authored, closed books — while experimenting with editing and publishing workflows that could support this engagement. By focusing specifically on the reuse of existing OA books, this pilot moves from interacting with these books through, for example, annotating them, to collaboratively creating new combinatorial books in response to them (Adema, Hall, and Mendez Cota, 2021a).

Designing this series and pilot, we were very conscious of not falling into the trap of thinking that implementing technological solutions would be enough for OHP to start publishing combinatorial books. Rather, socio-cultural adaptations to the editorial and publishing workflows were also needed (including creating more flexibility around timelines and processes, and time to engage the various communities involved) that are perhaps less discussed within the context of experimental book publishing. Therefore, to reflect on the process of developing and implementing this pilot and accompanying workflows for OHP, and to share our experiences and findings of the inhibitions, barriers, and potentialities we encountered when creating experimental books, we have developed a documentation method around the first book that will be published as part of this pilot. This documentation consists of a series of multimedia blogposts published on PubPub. 

A screenshot of a PDF of the book The Chernobyl Herbarium with inserted annotations highlighted in yellow and a side-pane showing the connected annotations in the plugin.

Annotating The Chernobyl Herbarium online with the aid of the plugin.

The first book in the Combinatorial Book series is being produced by a collective of researchers, students, and technologists from the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, led by Dr Gabriela Méndez Cota, who are engaging with a title from the OHP back catalogue, The Chernobyl Herbarium: Fragments of an Exploded Consciousness (2016), by the philosopher Michael Marder and the artist Anaïs Tondeur. The book-length response that Méndez Cota and her co-writers are creating is called Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation: Situated Engagements with the Chernobyl Herbarium.

In order to negotiate and define the nature and scope of their reuse and re-writing, the  authors annotated the OA PDF of The Chernobyl Herbarium available on OHP’s website. They did so with the aid of software, then moved to a collaborative writing pad (on HedgeDoc) to start writing out their annotations into a larger response. The book itself is currently going through an open editing, review, and publishing process, and will be published as a bilingual publication on PubPub, while the documentation of the pilot is evolving in parallel. 

A screenshot of a HedgeDoc pad whsoing a table of contents for the Rewriting of the Chernobyl Herbarium in Mexico

Collaborative rewriting of The Chernobyl Herbarium in HedgeDoc

Reflecting on the process of publishing this experimental book-in-development as series editors, we want to share three preliminary lessons learned—based on our experiences so far—that have directly impacted the editorial process.

Non-linear Workflows and Flexibility around Timelines

Conducting this pilot, we found that conventional notions, practices, and temporalities of editing and writing were disrupted. As the publication developed openly on different writing and publishing platforms (through the often simultaneous engagement of several collaborators performing tasks such as writing, translating, and editing  in a non-linear, parallel or meandering, fashion), the boundaries between research, writing, editing, and publishing stages became less clear. At the same time, we wanted to make sure there were various connections back to the various source texts and texts in development as part of any ‘final’ publication, for those wanting to retrace these processes and the context of the responses (which we are enabling by putting in bi-directional links between the source-text PDF and the responses on PubPub using and PubPub’s annotation function). 

Consequently, we wanted the editorial and publishing workflows to be able to accommodate a shape-shifting, multi-vocal, and open-ended process, where we specifically designed them to be modular, flexible, and recursive. For example, copy-editing and peer review can happen at various stages of the project in development, to ensure this happens at the points most useful for the authors and for the project itself. To allow for the flexibility of timelines and workflows is especially important when different institutional contexts, research cultures, and disciplinary and linguistic backgrounds are involved, which often require (non-linguistic) translation and negotiation, which is something that we needed to acknowledge and accommodate. In this respect the modular and flexible workflows we developed during the pilot ended up being highly situational and relational, yet at the same time they needed to be able to incorporate more standardised and established online book production, dissemination, and preservation systems.

Changing Roles and the Importance of Transparent Community Engagement and Care 

The publication of experimental, digital work engenders different roles and relationalities, requiring “a kind of collaboration among authors, editors, and technical staff that is quite different from the traditional publishing process” (Wittenberg, 2009, 37). In  many cases, it even involves a blurring of these roles, specifically when editorial and writing practices and divisions of labour are rethought along the lines of more horizontal and open collaboration. The rewriting of a published text, by a collective of authors, also challenges traditional ideas of proprietary and individual authorship, as well as the concept of originality. These were renegotiated and reperformed as part of this pilot, where the authors were keen to position their rewriting not as appropriation, but as a disappropriation, “exposing the incomplete, processual nature of any text” and its inherently collaborative nature (Adema, Hall, and Mendez Cota, 2021b; Rivera Garza, 2020)

Beyond authors, editors, and publishers, experimental book publishing also often includes other agencies. In our case it additionally involved working with a multi-lingual set of technologists, developers, platform developers and hosts, situated in different disciplinary and geographical locations (Kiesewetter, 2022). The agency of the platforms used also needs to be acknowledged in this constellation, and how they shape what relations can be enabled through and as part of the publication. In our pilot, specific forms of community engagement were engendered through the use of open source software and platforms.  For us as editors this included, for example, ongoing conversations with the developers and designers behind the various tools and platforms (such as PubPub) we have explored for this publication or drawing on the resources available for their users.

From an editorial point of view, engaging in this process enabled us to reflect on how to develop situated practices of community-care, building, and interaction for the various agencies involved in this specific publication. This included overseeing, making transparent, and continuously adapting as editors the publishing end editorial timelines and workflows the collaboration evolved around in direct exchange with the communities involved. For example, we designed an open peer review process for this pilot, which is focused around ongoing guidance, (over-) communication to, and conversations with the authors and reviewers, ensuring that these various groups remain informed and engaged around the project. Much of our communication as editors with the authors around workflows, timelines, and peer-review went through the lead author. This allowed us to a certain extent to share some of the responsibility and workload as editors, but this also put strain on the lead author as a mediator. The labour that comes with community involvement in experimental book publishing does need to be acknowledged therefore, however, with this pilot our aim has always been to develop workflows that help distribute this labour and simplify this as much as possible.

Editing and Reviewing on the Platforms Used

From the outset it was clear to us, as our research has also indicated, that “content and form are entangled (i.e., media forms, workflows, and infrastructures are never ‘neutral’)” (Helms, 2018; Adema, Mars, and Steiner, 2021) and ‘you cannot separate form and content—or the written content from its design’ (Ball and Eyman, 2015). Hence in our pilot both the editing and (content and technical) reviewing happens on the platforms that are used for writing and publishing themselves. This requires the editors, authors, and reviewers to familiarise themselves with the platforms being used (in this case PubPub and, and for us as editors additionally to provide guidance and support, and feeding-back experiences to the platform providers. Such a process also involves an awareness of the drawbacks and benefits of the platforms used and how editing and reviewing expectations and practices might need to be adapted according to the platform used.4

Through this article, as well as through the aforementioned series of blogposts, we have and will continue to document our implementation of the Combinatorial Books: Gathering Flowers workflow for OHP as well as lessons learned along the way. We hope this effort will not only help other presses, editors, and authors experiment with open, horizontal editing and publishing workflows for experimental books, but will also help publishers in general rethink their print-based standardised workflows towards more communal, collaborative forms of knowledge production.

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