Phoebe Clapham, commissioning editor for current affairs books at Yale University Press London, gives us an insight into the fast-paced world of current affairs publishing.
Article by Phoebe Clapham
One of the joys of commissioning books about current affairs and economics is that it’s impossible to run out of material. News stories rush hard on each other’s heels, and the last few years – with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the global economic crisis and the Arab Spring, not to mention the rise of China, Putin’s refusal to relinquish his grip on Russia and the vicious drug wars in Latin America – have been exceptionally interesting times. The spread of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle has also brought about an unprecedented interest and knowledge of global affairs, although as publishers we also have to contend with the fact that many people can find all the information they want for free online.
The skill as an editor is working out what people will still be interested in a year or two from now – since it takes at least that long to put a decent book together – and finding authors who are capable of writing with the necessary depth, insight and vigour. Jumping on bandwagons is always dangerous (as many of the publishers who rushed out books on the Arab Spring have been reminded) and it’s generally more valuable to guess what countries and issues will hit the headlines in the future – we’re not always right, but the occasional bull’s eye (like Victoria Clark’s Yemen in early 2010, and Tarek Osman’s Egypt on the Brink in January 2011) makes up for the books that – however impressive – just don’t capture the mood of the moment.
As I write, the French presidential elections have brought the Eurozone crisis back to the front pages; in June we’re publishing ex-Economist editor Bill Emmott’s Good Italy, Bad Italy, which casts a penetrating gaze over the political and economic failings of this beautiful but deeply flawed nation. In August follows a book (commissioned by my colleague Heather McCallum) about an equally beautiful but even unhappier country: Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, written by David Lesch, once a supporter of President Bashar Assad and deeply saddened by the regime’s swerve to violence.
Meanwhile I’m trying to work out what will be the hot topics of 2013 and 2014. We’re hoping to publish Investment in Blood, Frank Ledwidge’s follow-up to his enormously successful Losing Small Wars, to coincide with Britain’s withdrawal from the ill-fated Afghanistan intervention; further ahead I have books coming on Burma and Iraq, both written by authors from the country in question who will dig deep to find out what is going on at the heart of these opaque ruling regimes.
In my job it’s easy to develop an unhealthy fascination with chaos and disaster, since the sad fact is that bad news sells many more books than good. However, this morning I received some unequivocally cheerful tidings: a Tripoli bookseller has just ordered fifty copies of Alison Pargeter’s Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi, which less than a year ago would have been banned outright from the country. Change is happening, often in unexpected places and in unexpected directions, and I feel enormously privileged to have a seat – not by the ringside, but perhaps in the gallery – from which to watch and wonder at the endlessly fascinating and complex world around us.
Phoebe Clapham is Politics, Economics and Current Affairs Editor at Yale University Press, London.
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