The Terror and Treasure of Editing a Giant Book on Global Jihad
A couple of years back, who knows when exactly, I decided to put together a book project. William is actually my middle name so my mum insists but it probably should be Naivety. Well a few years later, and a lot of hours of hard, painful graft and the books (yes plural!) are now on the bookshelves selling like academic books do – slowly and expensively. Its been an odd ‘journey’ with positives and negatives that I hope may be of use to other colleagues doing or contemplating similar enterprises.
The genesis of the book rather unsurprisingly came from my PhD – so far so standard. But rather than turning my doctorate in to the monograph with Routledge as is the standard practice (no judgement) I was always pulled in another direction. My PhD focused on the ‘jihadist insurgencies’ in Thailand and the Philippines and examined how connected they were to wider jihadist movements and conflicts. (Spoiler alert: they aren’t, well its complicated, not connected materially anyway). I always knew there were similar case studies in different geographies where similar studies could be done and I was hooked on the idea that the jihadist phenomena was most interesting – if not most pertinent – beyond the middle east. Other academics had noted that the ‘periphery’ was where it was at, but that needed testing and comparing. Lots has been written (and filmed) which sensationalises and exoticizes jihadism as some sort of cosmopolitan, globetrotting menace and while there is an oddly diverse and welcoming element to jihadism - it can also be awfully parochial.
Any decent attempt to answer these questions properly (and a few more too) would be beyond one or even a few co-authors it felt. I wanted to hear from experts in the countries and nations in these exotic hinterlands of the periphery. The study of terrorism is blighted by generalists who have never done fieldwork and who don’t acutely understand the local pockets of violence been linked to a nebulas network of global jihad under the guise of brands like Al Qaeda and ISIS. So, I set out to make a list of the other nations and regions I needed to compare, the list grew and grew, much of Europe deserved various chapters, as did Africa and Asia. In the end we covered 4 continents with 23 chapters using… 28 different authors.
Assembling a Team
I had a strong premise, but I needed a lot of experts. And I was picky. They had to get the premise. They had to understand that we needed critical appraisals of just how global jihadism was in their particular geographies. And so, I started doing the research, identifying experts and sending emails. Long – friendly but persuasive – ‘Hi, you don’t know me but…’ type emails to folk who had published before on similar issues asking for them to contribute a chapter. Rarely I’d get a quick positive reply – ‘Sounds great – I’m in!’ more often than not - I got no reply. I sent chasers, and eventually I moved on to the next candidate. Eventually I assembled my squad and a strong proposal for publishers. Somewhat mirroring the jihadists, we were discussing it was a diverse group in every sense and crucially I had a blend of established and emerging academics and a few brilliant PhD students.
I blatantly played the field with the various publishing houses (which annoyed some!) and quickly sensed that IB Tauris (taken over by Bloomsbury mid project!) was the best fit for the project. A decision I do not regret at all. When contributors ghosted me and pulled out and chapters needed significant revisions, and we had to delay by almost a year, they were supportive. They also wisely recommended that this would be best served in 2 volumes given the length and scope. When I had the book contracted I soon panicked though. My own workload would no doubt take a hammering here but I also knew they’d be bumps in the road and contributors would drop out. I quickly decided to enlist the help of two co-editors, one for each volume. For Volume 1 covering Africa and Europe I enlisted African Security guru Hussein Solomon from the University of the Free State, who was already authoring one of the difficult chapters on the Sahel Region. For Volume 2 covering Asia and North America I was delighted when the London School of Economics’ brilliant Indonesian expert Kirsten E Schulze agreed to co-edit that volume with me. They both went on to assist in everything from the editorial minutia to bigger decision making and I could not have done it without them. Key takeaway lesson – when you need help – admit it and ask for it!
It feels to me that edited volumes are unfairly maligned in the current REF-with-everything landscape we are consumed by. You could say they have a bad press… but an excellent edited volume can be incredibly worthwhile to the research. Some of the most useful texts I know are edited volumes. And as with this book, it might be the only option to do the job properly. Obviously, every decision comes with an opportunity cost – but it is also not a zero-sum choice – I can still do the monograph if I want/can. However, it is important to recognise that the way we prioritise our publications is becoming increasing pressurised. My advice to the senior brass in the university and fellow colleagues is to treat every case on its merits, blanket decisions against certain types of publication are myopic and will come back to bite us all. More people have read my articles in the Guardian and alike than will ever read my 4* journal article. While readership isn’t everything – or anything in REF terms – it is a huge factor we must consider along with a host of others when we determine what type of output.
Was it worth it?
I don’t know. You should judge for yourself. There were times when I would have said no. Such as when we had to drop one contributor because their chapter was not good enough and they had the nerve to email my Pro Vice-Chancellor Research and complain about me. Suffice to say I did not complain to their opposite numbers at various other institutions when contributors ghosted me or pulled out VERY late in the day leaving me very low and frustrated. Or when a contributor said they couldn’t change the referencing style in their chapter by the deadline – so muggins here did it for them! Humans are fallible, I get it. But they are also amazing. I am now better connected to a global network of jihadist experts then many others much more senior in my field. This is more valuable than perhaps the book itself. I am already talking to various contributors about future collaborations and the fruits from these labours will hopefully manifest in years to come. I also have the experience of managing a huge project from inception to completion under my belt, not really for my CV but for my own self confidence for the next overly ambitious challenge ahead.
If you are plotting a similar edited volume or struggling with one – drop me a line – I may have a useful idea or bleak anecdote to share.
Dr Tom Smith is a Principal Lecturer in International Relations based at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell and can be reached on email@example.com
Both volumes of Exporting Global Jihad are available to buy now.