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26 February 2011

Notes in the Margin: Free the word

Radical publishers need to become more responsive to the pace of modern protest.

By Dan Hancox

In the week before Christmas, I had the pleasure of calling the most 21st-century of publishing meetings. With Anthony Barnett, founder of openDemocracy, the New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny and other members of the “editorial kettle”, I spent over an hour on Google’s instant messenger service Google Chat, engaged in a frenetic, six-way, typed debate about the merits and demerits of different articles on the student occupations.

The product of two months of debates such as this was Fight Back! – a 350-page reader on the winter of student occupations, demonstrations and anti-cuts actions, published as a free, Creative Commons-licensed e-book on 1 February. It has been a success already. More than 5,000 copies were downloaded in its first five days online. Felix Cohen, our tech supremo, is repurposing the 80,000 words of writing into any software he can get his hands on and, for those who love things with spines, the physical book launches on 24 March at a non-profit, print-on-demand price.

Information wants to be free, or so the theory goes. Our role is to liberate it from the sometimes musty corners of the blogosphere. Freeness is a recurring theme. Fight Back! was produced by a talented team of writers (43 in all), editors and designers working pro bono, moving stray commas and crunching HTML into the small hours of the morning.

With events unfolding at breakneck speed on Twitter, radical publishing needs to become quicker to keep up. Others, such as Verso, whose protest book Springtime arrives in March, and Random House, which is planning its own e-book series called The Summer of Unrest, are being similarly responsive.

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The power of the student movement lies in its rejection of conventional leaders and party hierarchies. The online tools for modern protest are available to anyone. We are taking the same attitude to its documentation. Perhaps it is not a wildly sustainable model to give away books for free – but let’s worry about monetising it after we’ve brought down the government, shall we?

Dan Hancox, editor of “Fight Back!” Download the book for free here

“Notes in the Margin” is a new weekly arts diary column in the NS Critics pages