January 24, 2005
The news last week that Doubleday has acquired a book based on the writings of the al-Qaeda braintrust has reverberated through the industry, as nearly everyone has something to say about the house’s daring move. A publishing attorney called it dangerous, a retailer was anticipating a big sale and a competing house said the material may be underwhelming.
The news, broken in PW NewsLine last Wednesday, has Doubleday editor-at-large Adam Bellow buying a book tentatively titled The Al Qaeda Reader. It’s actually a synthesis of two books: one in which al-Qaeda chief strategist Ayman al-Zawahiri lays out jihadist ideology; the other featuring published teachings attributed to Osama bin Laden about the Islamist revolt against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
The project, which sold for a reported low-six-figures and is scheduled for release no sooner than 2006, had those involved with it buzzing.
Doubleday publisher Stephen Rubin predictably called it a “a major book” and agent Glen Hartley described it like “listening in on internal conversations” on the topic of radicalism between powerful jihadist leaders.
But like al-Qaeda’s videotaped messages, the book dances on the line between free speech and incendiary speech, and both publishers and retailers have to assess their willingness to cross it. One bookseller, Barbara Meade at Politics and Prose, in Washington, D.C., said she thought “the book will sell really well just because everyone’s trying to figure out what al-Qaeda is all about.” For his part, Rubin said that Doubleday is “fully prepared” for a controversy, but that the house wouldn’t be deterred from what it sees as its social mission. “This is a portrait of the mind of our enemy, and it’s important for us to know the enemy’s thinking.”
As it happens, another portrait has already been drawn. North Atlantic Books last year published What Does Al Qaeda Want?, a series of communiqués from Al Qaeda leaders with commentary by a doctoral student, Robert O. Marlin IV. North Atlantic publisher Richard Grossinger noted that, “Some channels have not taken the book,” but that the sales have been “pretty broad.” However, he called this book a “very different undertaking,” referring to the fact that his book is a collection of communiqués rather than a manifesto.
Doubleday’s Al Qaeda Reader will be translated and annotated by Raymond Ibrahim, a library technician for Near East Studies at the Library of Congress who is conversant with Arabic dialects. It has an unusual history: the two books upon which the Doubleday venture will be based were discovered by Ibrahim when they were sent to the institution for registration purposes. After coming across the titles, Ibrahim, also a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins’s Middle Eastern Studies program, took his findings to a professor, conservative author Victor Davis Hanson. Hanson sent him to his agent, Writers Representatives’ Hartley.
The new book raises the question of ownership, and rights and money. If, for example, proceeds from the book were to find their way to terrorist groups, legal experts said that the publisher could be culpable under the Trading With the Enemies Act, which prohibits financially aiding a known enemy of the U.S. Money issues aside, an expert said that the house runs the risk of violating the copyright of a legitimate press that acquired Arab-language territorial rights. “I wouldn’t touch this with a 10-foot pole,” said the expert.
Last Wednesday Doubleday said it dealt exclusively with Hartley, and Hartley said the securing of rights will be left to Ibrahim. On Thursday, however, the house released an official statement saying that given the “rare circumstances, we believe the law affords us an exceptionally broad privilege of fair use. We would never pay royalties to Osama Bin Laden or any other international terrorist.” Sources noted that this included not talking to the originating Arab presses.
Both books were published before 9/11. Al-Zawahiri’s, titled Bitter Harvest, was originally published in Jordan, where it drew the attention of both the U.K. media and the CIA, the latter of which investigated the book for indications of future attacks, according to reports in 2002. The bin Laden book, titled The Battles of the Lion’s Den of the Arab Partisans in Afghanistan, which appears to have been self-published in Egypt by an entity called Jihad International Press, is also known to American intelligence authorities; they actually did their own translation of it when it arrived at the Library of Congress several years before 9/11.
Hartley said legal and governmental concerns were a problem for some publishers he approached, and he applauded Doubleday for what he called a “noble” act in deciding to publish. But even if all the legal issues fall away, some have ethical concerns.
“Every publisher is entitled to pay his rent,” said PublicAffairs president Peter Osnos, who has published a number of unfiltered political documents like the Congressional reports on 9/11. “And there’s a great and honorable tradition in a society like ours in publishing dissident documents, [but] the publisher has to decide whether it wants to infuse its bottom line with the profits.” He suggested that he’d only be comfortable putting the money back into publishing other books that provide context on al-Qaeda. “If you’re simply a pass-through between Osama bin Laden and his friends and the American consumer, that strikes me as a fairly narrow definition of what a publisher should do.” As PW went to press, Doubleday said it would donate all net income from the book to a soon-to-be-disclosed charity.
But the publication by the country’s largest publisher of a book by the West’s biggest enemy may turn out to be less complicated than expected if the book isn’t compelling. One editor who saw the proposal but decided against making an offer said that the small amount of translated material–only 10 or 20 pages were shown to publishers–and the fact that the material is old, made it difficult to get excited. “The problem is, you don’t really know what you’re buying,” the editor said. The logical fear is that the final book would be too inflammatory, but based on sources’ accounts, Doubleday could have the opposite problem. The editor said that what they had seen “actually seemed kind of tame. I don’t know if anything in it surprised me.”