Michael Dwyer studied African history and began working for Christopher Hurst at Hurst Publishers in 1985. Since then, Hurst has become one of London’s most important independent publishers, known for its wide-ranging books that go against the grain of consensus and take a global view of international affairs. Tank sat down with Dwyer to discuss Hurst’s astonishingly rich catalogue.
Interview: Thomas Roueché/Portrait: Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie
Thomas Roueché How do you choose your list?
Michael Dwyer One of the key points as an independent publisher is to remain independent. Part of that is about being unpredictable. There’s a lot of controversial material on the list. I think that hedges us a bit in the wider publishing world; it builds our distinctiveness without seeking controversy for controversy’s sake. I think we do also take on books that other publishers have been a bit too squeamish to consider, and sometimes seek books that we think will undercut the consensus intellectually on key issues. I suppose Faisal Devji is the classic example of the type of author we like to publish.
TR Has that always been the Hurst approach?
MD That’s our thing, trying to publish books with integrity which tackle other consensuses head on, whether those concern colonialism, racism or politics of various stripes. We’re not afraid to go against the academic or the intellectual grain if we think the book is a real contribution, it’s saying something fresh and is backed up by sources. We publish many books about the evils of colonialism in Africa and African history, we published books in the 1970s and 1980s against the apartheid regime, histories of places like Namibia, but we’ve also recently released two books that are very fierce critiques of the ANC in power, one by Stephen Ellis and another by R. W. Johnson. What we try to do is be entirely frank with the material and the analysis and not look over our shoulder. We don’t have a mission statement, we try to surprise people.
TR Small independents seem to have a lot of flexibility and quickness on their feet at the moment.
MD You have to be nimble. Most big publishers still get their books through their agents. Whereas we acquire a few books a year through agents, but they’re mostly authors we’ve approached ourselves with a book idea or seen something they’ve written and want to expand it. I think it’s now a better situation for the small publishers than at any time in my career. Very bluntly, just email makes an enormous difference. Fifteen or 20 years ago we were sending manuscripts all round the world by courier, huge lumps of paper. The cost, the time, the overhead was phenomenal. Ebooks have also been another important innovation in that we can evade censorship in many key markets by selling electronic editions – the GCC countries are a good example. Consolidation among the big publishers has allowed more space for niche publishers to do what they do maybe a bit more aggressively. I think in the past we always used to be a little introverted in what we did, but I think certainly with a younger team upstairs they’re keen to go toe to toe with big publishers, and we have more resources at our disposal to push them now, we are publishing 70 or so titles a year.
We published Poetry of the Taliban, and the only biography of a Taliban leader to date [My Life With the Taliban by Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef]. Both of those, especially the latter, required an enormous amount of legal and bureaucratic preparatory work with the U.S. government to make sure that no proceeds from the publications would find their way to the authors or to the authors of those poems. I also thought it was really important to publish those books and we were quite roundly criticised in some quarters, but the positive responses I’ve had have come mostly (apart from people who just like them intellectually) from members of the British and American armed forces, whom I’ve met through work and who have said, “Thank you for publishing those books, because we’ve been fighting there for years but never been given a single book to read to try to understand what made these people tick.”
TR I’m intrigued with what you say about ebooks and censorship.
MD Ebooks sell very well in places where normal channels are not open, like conflict zones. We don’t consciously push or publish books we know will be banned, but in the GCC countries it helps make accessible books which are banned or unobtainable there. I gather even the Chinese, with their great firewall, can’t stop everything. So we always know that people can find and read our books and we have published a few that had a big impact on the real world. We published one on Charles Taylor of Liberia, the former president who’s now in prison serving 50 years for war crimes [The Mask of Anarchy by Stephen Ellis]. The book was drawn upon very heavily by the prosecution and the author acted as a witness for the prosecution in the Hague tribunal. Stephen sadly died a few weeks ago, but before he did, his last manuscript, equally honest, frank and pugnacious, hit my laptop: This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organised Crime. We also published Who Killed Hammarskjöld? by Susan Williams Beckhorn, about the death of the UN Secretary General in 1961. To cut a long story short, that led to a private legal enquiry financed by some philanthropists in which our author was a lead contributor and investigator. Now the UN has reopened an official Swedish-mandated inquiry into his death because of the book. And that reported back to Ban Ki-moon recently, proposing further investigation.
If I can give you another example from Africa, we’re releasing a book in January called Eat the Heart of the Infidel by Andrew Walker, on the rise of Boko Haram. It’s not security studies or a journalistic reporting of what they’ve done, their kinetic impact, it’s rather an extremely sensitive and I think beautifully written cultural history of the hinterland from which they spring. The author is absolutely appalled by what they do, but I think it will be the first book that treats empathetically the predicament of the people who join Boko Haram. I think that will be another book we hope is not deliberately provocative but that tries to understand, as other actors on this planet, why these people do these things. There’s a very long tradition and trajectory of people flocking to such movements in times of social and economic crisis. It deals also with the way those people in north-eastern Nigeria have been preyed upon for decades, if not even longer, by various elites.
TR How did The Audacious Ascetic: What the Bin Laden Tapes Reveal About Al-Qai’da come about?
MD Well because of Faisal Devji. He held a conference at Oxford on new jihadi ways of thinking and Flagg Miller was one of the people I met there. It was serendipitous, but also such a blindingly obvious hot topic to publish. It will surprise people that Bin Laden liked Jewish music and that he was a fan of Gandhi. Interestingly, Faisal was pilloried in some quarters for suggesting in Landscapes of the Jihad that Bin Laden also had a quiet fascination with Gandhi’s anti-colonial strategies. This was revealed by the tapes – he was lecturing his cohorts, talking about Gandhi, in Afghanistan in 1983. §
The Audacious Ascetic: What the Bin Laden Tapes Reveal About Al-Qai’da is out now.