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Austin Bay and Adam Bellow, Embrace The Suck, a new pamphlet of milspeak

Friday, January 19, 2007

HH: Joined now by, well, two beacons of the new media. Col. Austin Bay, you are familiar with, novelist and blogger extraordinaire at, and Adam Bellow, who is the president and editorial direction of The Pamphlet Guys. Together, they are embarked upon a project which will, I think, revolutionize publishing, and they’ve begun with a pamphlet by Austin called Embrace The Suck. Gentleman, welcome to you both. Austin, why don’t you tell us first, Col., how this got started, and how you hooked up with Adam Bellow.

Bay: Well, this pamphlet, Embrace The Suck, which is a milspeak dictionary, is not the first. Adam has, what? Three other ones that have been produced over the last six months since the summer of 2006, and I’ll let Adam speak to the origin of the genre. But Adam suggested the idea to me last fall, and said hey, we need to get a dictionary of contemporary Global War On Terror, Afghan war, Iraq war milspeak, get the lingo of soldiers out and about, and Austin, why don’t you do it as a pamphlet for me.

HH: Adam, what gave you this idea?

Bellow: Well, first of all, Hugh, thank you so much for having me on. It’s really an honor to be on the air with both of you. In a nutshell, here’s the story. I’ve been a nonfiction book editor in corporate publishing in New York for nearly 20 years. And over that time, I’ve seen the publishers’ lists contract more and more, and they do fewer and fewer books about ideas and intellectual subjects. And I was casting about for a way to revive this, really to preserve this part of American culture. And I’m sort of an amateur publishing historian, so I was aware that pamphlet publishing goes back to the invention of printing, of course, and that all the great revolutions in the history of Western societies have been accompanied by very vigorous pamphlet wars. In fact, our own revolution was started by pamphleteers, and every other revolution…

HH: Oh, the Reformation in Europe, Martin Luther was a pamphleteer, yeah.

Bellow: That’s precisely correct. Martin Luther was a great pamphleteer, and his sermons were passed around Europe, and spread the Protestant Reformation in that way. Also, I was aware that there was a pamphlet series published in the U.S. in the 1920’s that had been very, very successful. It’s largely forgotten today, but it was called the Little Blue Books, and it was published by a brilliant socialist newspaper editor out in Kansas, and he started publishing pamphlets in 1919. And it was a very eclectic list of materials, some original work by his friends in the progressive movement, but also a lot of historical material, literary, philosophical, poetry, you know, it was a very eclectic grab bag of stuff. It was extremely popular. And it seemed to me at this time in our history, certainly after the end of the Cold War, and then again, you know, very much after the beginning of the War On Terror, that there was a need to revive this kind of medium of exchange of ideas and debate.

HH: Now Austin Bay, you’re a novelist, you know what the full-blown book deal is like, and how difficult it is to start, write, edit, produce, and sell. Compare and contrast going with a pamphlet, then we’re going to come to Embrace The Suck specifically. A joy to write a pamphlet as opposed to a book? Or sort of an appetizer?

Bay: First of all, it was a fun experience. It was…I could see the immediate fruits of the exercise. What Adam has come up with, the modern pamphlet, is a ‘tweener, Hugh. It’s between the blog and the electronic media, and between the traditional book. Obviously, the work that I was doing, and this is a short dictionary, it really relied, I had to rely on not only my experience as a soldier, but the fact I have a PhD in English Lit as well, and have done language analysis. And I thought you know, this isn’t what I’m putting up on my blog, this is blog-like, but it requires, first of all, more focus, and secondly, it’s going to open another audience, which is one of the things that Adam has sold me on very quickly about what the pamphlet would do. You could see the pamphlet as a stocking stuffer at Christmas, Hugh, and I thought you know, we’re not going to make that as a goal, we’re not going to get it out by Christmas, but the rewards on this, for one thing, is we have a product that people can talk about immediately as well, and share, and that is one of the beauties of a book, is it’s not just the fact that you’ve got it out in print on paper, but it’s tactile. It’s something you can touch, and something you can share, and a pamphlet does that as well, and I was certainly aware of that as I was working on it.

HH: Now I want to come back to Adam on the economics and the distribution in just a moment, but about the specifics of Embrace The Suck, it is a reference work. I’m just amused as can be going through it, Austin, that bootneck is a Royal Marine. I have never heard that. Combat gay used to describe someone who slaps other soldiers on the butt after a good mission. It says something like good game. There are…

Bay: Combat hot, Hugh.

HH: Yes…(laughing)

Bay: Combat hot.

HH: The hangar queen, an aircraft constantly in the hangar for repairs. A hawk circle, Navy talk for orbiting stack of an aircraft. Has there ever been anything like this for journalists and civilians?

Bay: There are pieces of this. You can find acronym definitions on the web, you can find some of these phrases available on military websites, you can certainly, even in some word histories and dictionaries, they’re slang dictionaries. What this is, is contemporary and up to date as something that we really completed six weeks ago can be, and that’s the utilization of the web. One thing is, I would say at least half of these terms, Hugh, I collected on my website either through links coming in primarily from other military bloggers, but in just direct appeals in saying look, guys, here are some of the words and phrases that I found unique when I was on active duty in Iraq, and when I was on active duty in the 1990’s. Share with me some of the phrases, the colorful phrases that you’ve heard. And not only are they funny, Hugh, one of the things that’s always striking about milspeak is the gallows humor as well.

HH: Oh, my gosh.

Bay: The military defined gallows humor.

HH: There’s a lot in here we can’t say on the air, but for example, Rummy’s dummies I can say, a derogatory name for the U.S. military under the leadership of former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Note the former, Adam Bellow. This is hot off the presses.

Bellow: Thank you very much. Well, you know, the idea really is to find an appropriate print medium for the expression of the new blog culture, which essentially is a pamphleteering culture. And it doesn’t really make sense in a lot of cases for bloggers to write books. I mean, obviously Austin is the exception, but many people who blog really don’t have enough material to fill out a book. But still, I think that what goes on in the blogosphere is of interest to people, and some of it deserves to be preserved and documented, and I also wanted to develop a new way for bloggers to make money from blogging.

– – – – –

HH: Adam Bellow, A) you’re going to be deluged, of course, by people who want you to publish their pamphlets. Are you prepared for that?

Bellow: I can’t wait.

HH: Okay. Number two, the economics here. $4 bucks…does it get sent to you in the mail? Does it have a soft cover? What’s it look like?

Bellow: This is…well, first off, I should emphasize that this is very much a shoestring start-up operation. It’s being financed out of my own pocket, which is not a deep one, I should say, and everything we do is very low cost and low profile. The pamphlets are 4 X 6, which is the size of a man’s shirt pocket, they range anywhere from 32-64 pages, or as much as 10-15,000 words, depending, and they are sold exclusively online at our website, and if you purchase one at our site, or through Austin’s site, what we do is we send one physically in the mail to you, but we also send you immediately an e-book, PDF version of the book, so that you have it immediately, and can read it right away, and the printed version arrives in the mail a few days later.

HH: Now what about the downloads? I mean, this actually fills, by the way, an I-pod space as well, because I’m listening right now to John Keegan’s History of War. It’s going to take me four weeks of walks and runs. And the typical podcast is, you know, six, seven, eight minutes. You have to stop, you have to update it. I think these are going to be I-podcastible, not Austin’s, which is a lexicon, but most of these. Are you going to make those available through I-Tunes?

Bellow: Well, you know, that’s a wonderful idea. We certainly do expect to develop different ways of delivering our content, making use of the panoply of new media that are available. I see this publishing enterprise, as I say on the back on the pamphlet, as the future of print in a digital age, which is to say you know, print is going to, is not obviously not going to disappear, but it’s going to evolve and develop in relation to other media. And rather than try to sell 300 page, $37 dollar books in a bookstore, I’m interested in exploring all the alternative means of dissemination in multiple media, that the new media panoply offers.

HH: All right, now Austin Bay, a hardcore question. It costs $4 bucks, what do you make?

Bay: I will make a small share of the small profit that Adam makes.

HH: Come on!!! Give us some details here, Colonel. This is a sophisticated audience. Is it a quarter a pamphlet?

Bay: Part of this…I will probably make somewhere between 10 and 20% off of what the sales are.

HH: That’s a good deal, actually.

Bay: Oh, look, I think this is an excellent deal, and as I said when Adam first explained the concept to me, I thought he has hit on something that brings two strands of my own professional life together, the written word in print, and the blog world. And I really…it’s an excellent idea, it’s mining an old genre, and making it new again.

HH: Now Adam Bellow, what are the other titles, and how are they moving?

Bellow: Well, we launched our series in October of last year with a three-part release on the Hezbollah war, which occurred, as you recall, last August. And that was a series edited by blogger Michael Totten…

HH: Oh, so you’re going for the A-list talent.

Bellow: That’s right. We like to pride ourselves on our taste in bloggers. And Michael did a three-part series which you can view on our site, a collection of his own writings about the war, a digest of blog responses to the war by Israeli and Lebanese bloggers alternating through the book, which I think is a wonderful, poignant collection. And finally, a little collection of speeches and writings by Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, because we felt that this was somebody whose thinking was not known to…

HH: He’s not getting royalties, is he?

Bellow: No, of course not. That would be illegal, Hugh.

HH: Oh, that’s true. He is a terrorist.

Bellow: I can’t pay royalties to a terroris.

HH: Lileks is coming up, who’s probably…have you got him writing for you yet, Adam?

Bellow: Tell him that I want him.

HH: Okay, I will do that. I’m not sure what he can come up with.

Bellow: Oh, I’m sure that…

HH: He’s not very prolific.

Bellow: I’m sure that standing on his head, he can come up with something wonderful.

HH: He’s not very prolific at all, but I’ll talk to him about that. Adam, how many have you sold thus far total, or are you ahead of your model, at least?

Bellow: Well, you know, the sales have been modest, a few hundred copies of the Totten set. I published a collection of Jewish holiday recipes.

HH: You know what? Collectors ought to get that Totten set, because I think you’re on to something, and that will be the first issue of the new era of pamphlets. Gentlemen, thank you both, Austin Bay, Adam Bellow.

End of interview.

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