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Implementing a Workflow for Combinatorial Books

In the fourth blogpost documenting the first book coming out of the Combinatorial Books Pilot Project, we share conceptual and practical insights around the technical, editing, and publishing workflows we created for this pilot.

Published onDec 01, 2022
Implementing a Workflow for Combinatorial Books

This is the fourth blogpost in a series documenting the COPIM/OHP Pilot Project Combinatorial Books: Gathering Flowers. You can find the previous blogposts here, here, and here.

Our aim in the Combinatorial Books: Gathering Flowers Pilot Project is among other things the development of a research, editorial, and publishing workflow that enables the creation of new combinatorial books out of existing open access books (or collections of books) in the Open Humanities Press (OHP) catalogue that are available for reuse. To support other publishers interested in establishing and maintaining similar workflows for combinatorial book publishing projects, we have been exploring how these kinds of books sit within more standardised or established print and online book production, dissemination, and preservation systems. The workflow we have created for OHP’s Combinatorial Books book series is available here:

In this blogpost, the publisher Gary Hall (OHP) and the Combinatorial Books series editor and developer Simon Bowie (COPIM) will share, via audio contributions, conceptual and practical insights around how we have created this publishing and technical workflow and how we have adapted it for Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation. Situated Encounters with the Chernobyl Herbarium, the first book coming out of the Combinatorial Books: Gathering Flowers Pilot Project. Furthermore, we reflect on the socio-cultural adaptations to the editorial and publishing workflows that were needed to allow for more open and horizontal forms of community engagement.

An important element of the pilot projects we have been conducting is the employment of existing open source tools, software, and platforms (for example, PubPub or The reason for this choice is that open source tools, in principle, support the emergence of more experimental, collaborative, and horizontal processes of knowledge creation and dissemination.1 These tools and platforms act performatively upon the content and the form of the publication, as well as the processes, practices, and relationalities emerging around them in the course of a project (Adema, Mars, and Steiner 2021; Ball and Eyman 2015; Helms 2018).  It is important to acknowledge however, that  the use of open source platforms and tools alone does not per se leverage more equal and diverse participation. Rather, socio-cultural adaptations to the editorial and publishing workflows are 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.

In the previous blogpost, we underlined that shape-shifting processes of horizontal and inclusive community building and collaboration cannot always be institutionalised or systematised: they are highly situated and involve organic and continuously developing socio-material relations. Designing a workflow for this pilot project and adapting it to fit the requirements and needs of Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation, enabled us to reflect in a structured way on how to develop situated practices of community-care, building, and interaction for the various agencies involved in this specific publication. It also enabled us to consider how to incorporate these elements into the more standardised and established online book production, dissemination, and preservation systems the publisher has been working with.

Rather than representing a systematic methodological “how-to,” the workflow that we have devised for OHP as part of this pilot project,  should therefore be understood as a tentative guideline, with suggestions and prompts to be adapted according to the specific contexts in which this type of experimental reuse gets performed.

By sharing the workflow (in development) devised for OHP and within COPIM’s Combinatorial Books: Gathering Flowers Pilot Project via this blogpost, we intend to make our insights and processes available to other presses and author communities. As part of OHP’s Combinatorial Books book series will soon invite other readers/writers to submit proposals for combinatorial books based on (a) book(s) in the OHP catalogue and the devised workflow might give them greater insights in the processes involved and how they (might) differ from existing publisher workflows

Creating and publishing 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). Sometimes, it even involves a re-consideration of these roles – specifically of their narrow definition along rigidly separated functions succeeding in a sequential manner.  Such a reconsideration is necessary for example when editorial and writing practices and divisions of labour are rethought along the lines of more horizontal and open collaboration (Adema & Kiesewetter 2022).

In the context of Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation, we have aimed to give the various collaborators the possibility to engage with the project at their own pace and on their own terms: for example, by moving through the publishing process in a way that accommodates their different schedules and their work in different institutional and disciplinary contexts, while taking into account the timelines for both the editorial and technological development. Consequently, the publication developed fluidly and openly on different writing and publishing platforms. Several collaborators engaged in writing, translating, and editing – often simultaneously, in a non-sequential and non-linear way. The same platforms used for writing, editing, and reviewing also are used for publishing themselves. The boundaries between the stages of research, writing, editing, design, and publishing, during this process, have become, to a certain extent, blurry.

Gary Hall from Open Humanities Press shares his thoughts about adapting existing technical and “socio-cultural” workflows, as well as publishing timelines in the course of publishing experimental books; about the need of having flexible technical and publishing workflows while working with diverse authors and other communities (such as designers, editors, and reviewers); as well as about possible new and different roles, tasks, and responsibilities for publishers in designing and maintaining shape-shifting workflows.

For the editorial and publishing workflows to be able to accommodate this shape-shifting, multi-vocal, and open-ended process, we 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. The central position of open source platforms and tools in Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation, required us (as editors), the authors, and reviewers to familiarise themselves with the platforms being used. For us as editors this implied additionally to provide guidance and support, and feeding-back experiences to the platform providers. Much of the labour related to technical workflows and providing guidance around them has been taken over by the developers involved in the project, Marcell Mars (at the start of the project), Simon Bowie, and Rancho Electrónico.
Our engagement with open source platforms and tools also has involved a heightened awareness of the drawbacks and benefits of the tools and platforms used and how editing and reviewing expectations and practices might need to be adapted according to the platform used. For example, PubPub is not an editing platform in the traditional sense: it does not allow for colour-coded track changes or specific ways of markup. This implies, among other things, that mayor changes made by editors have to be made transparent for and communicated to authors in an alternative way: for example, via annotations.

Simon Bowie, developer at the COPIM project, reflects about connecting (or making connections between) open source tools and platforms as part of a publishing workflow: What are the challenges around interoperability in this context and how did you resolve this when working on the technical workflow for the Combinatorial Books: Gathering Flowers Pilot Project?

Our way of working – in a non-linear, open, and horizontal way responding to different institutional contexts, research cultures, and disciplinary and linguistic backgrounds - implied that the workflow as well as the timelines for both the editorial and technological development of the book have to be shifted over time. The process of adapting and re-adapting the publishing end editorial timelines and workflows happened 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 (Adema & Kiesewetter 2022). Trans-cultural and trans-disciplinary multi-actor processes also require (non-linguistic) translation and negotiation. This is something that we also wanted to accommodate. Much of our communication as editors with the authors (for example, 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 but this also put strain on the lead author as a mediator, linguistic- and non-linguistic translator.

It is important to acknowledge and account for the labour that comes with open and horizontal community involvement in experimental book publishing. However, we hope that by developing, adapting, and sharing our workflows we can help others distribute this labour and simplify the conversations and negotiations emerging around this distribution as much as possible.

Simon Bowie, most projects do not have a developer they can draw upon to help them develop workflows for experimental publishing. Would it be easy for other publishers to implement the technical workflow we have developed for this pilot? What kind of things will publishers need to think about mostly when doing so, from a technical perspective, and what, in your experience as a developer working in this project, from a socio-cultural perspective?

Gary Hall, a piece of advice: what would you recommend other publishers that would like to engage with more experimental projects to consider regarding their workflows?

In the next blogpost in this series, we will share and discuss various open source technologies, tools, and platforms we tested and used during the Combinatorial Books: Gathering Flowers Pilot Project.

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