Image: Professor Susan Sell by RegNet

Image: Professor Susan Sell by RegNet

Embarking on a Booksprint

20th December 2019

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In an academic climate that emphasises inter-disciplinarity, impact and engagement, one of the more urgent questions facing academics is: how do you bring an interdisciplinary focus to bear on an urgent policy problem and get your work out in a timely manner? Most academic transcripts take years to write, let alone a text with 13 co-authors. But why not write a book from start to finish in just 5 days? Susan Sell takes us through how the text for policymakers and practitioners, Rethinking International Investment Governance: Principles for the 21st Century, came about and what it was like being stuck on an island with her 12 co-authors, a Booksprint facilitator and a whole lot of post-it notes.

How did the Booksprint come about?

The Columbia University Centre for Sustainable Investment invited a group of mostly academics, but also some practitioners, to participate in a Booksprint: a process where a book is conceptualised, drafted and edited in five days. The organisers sent the participants a two-page memo outlining the project. The group included investment, environmental and tax lawyers, legal practitioners, business scholars, economists, and political scientists from every continent. All 13 co-authors gathered together with a facilitator (chief timekeeper and whip-cracker) on Kent Island, Maryland for 5 days. Working across the other side of the world (and different time zone) in New Zealand was the Booksprint editing team.

What did you expect from the process?

Many of us were intrigued, but sceptical, that a group of 13 strangers could get together and write a book (and in five days). We didn’t have any idea about what the structure would be; no suggested table of contents was sent to us in advance. The organisers had worked with each of the co-authors separately, but we knew very little about each other.

What was the process? Who did what?

We were in a room with massive plate glass windows overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, a huge pile of post-it notes, coloured markers and big sheets of paper on every table.

We started brainstorming from a single question—‘what are the top 5 problems with the international investment regime?’. So we all wrote up each of our five problems on a post-it note and ended up with 65 bits of paper on the windows. We were invited to approach the windows—to wander around reading the notes—and we began thinking and talking about how the posted problems might be organised. There were some overarching issues—structural issues; human rights; economic injustice; power imbalances; and those issues that were confronting to environmental sustainability. So we started to group the post-it notes around those different topics. It was an organic process that emerged from these conversations.

The idea was not to have individuals working on particular chapters; everyone was to contribute to every chapter. We were all organised around tables on those topics and were writing sections into the main document on our own computers. The facilitator from Booksprint moved us around according to who was working well together, which disciplinary expertise was required for a particular question, and told us when to stop debating and just start writing (she really cracked the whip!). Everyone present had really bought into the process to see if it would work, so she was able to bring that to the room.

When it came to drilling down to how each chapter was written, everyone would have an opportunity to pitch perspectives—for example—‘this is how we think about this issue from an economic/environmental/tax/intellectual property perspective’. When there were debates, we’d try to include multiple perspectives. On the majority of issues, most people agreed that the current system was problematic and needed to be fixed.

How did the text get completed in 5 days?

It was a 24-hour process: after writing all day and evening, the Booksprint facilitator sent the draft to be copy-edited in New Zealand. The copy came back in the morning and having been scolded the day before for our slowness in writing, we would get some positive feedback! Then the whole process started again. By days 4 and 5, we were putting the final touches on the manuscript and selecting images to illustrate various sections. The group nominated four so-called ‘super-readers’ to read and edit the entire text for continuity and flow. I was in that group, and the four of us were still busy on the final night—reading until 11pm with the sounds of our co-authors enjoying the celebratory drinking party that had already started some hours earlier in the room next door! Once we finished, we appeared to cheers and were grateful that they had saved us a bit of the wine to toast everyone’s hard work and pure amazement that we actually pulled it off.

How was it writing in this way?

It was exciting—and kind of a blur; it was so intense. But it really is one of the most thrilling professional experiences I’ve ever had and something that I’d like to try again. The turnaround was amazing—we were writing in June and launched the book in late September as a Creative Commons licensed, open source, fully downloadable text—unheard of in the case of a co-authored academic book. It’s also a very different book from the typical scholarly monograph—it is written in accessible, plain language, with very few footnotes and of course, available to everyone via open source. It is really pitched to policymakers, NGOs, and anyone interested in reforming the current system to better align with sustainable development. We have had two official book launches, one at Columbia and one at RegNet.

About the Book:

Funded by the Columbia Centre on Sustainable Investment, Rethinking International Investment Governance: Principles for the 21st Century is a practical resource for those interested in an international investment system that promotes sustainable development and achieves legitimacy by providing benefits to all stakeholders. This book rethinks international investment law as a key system in global economic governance that should incorporate principles of transparency, participation, reciprocity, accountability, and subsidiarity. It critically evaluates the current system of investment governance in light of those principles and goals. It proposes possible reforms that would realign the governance of international investment with 21st century goals including reduction of poverty and inequality, and protection of human dignity, the environment and the planet.

The book is open access and available in full via SSRN.

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet