by Tahir Shah
When we began planning the relaunch of my father’s published work, it seemed like a relatively straight-forward endeavour. I’ve been around publishers and printers long enough to know how the system runs. I thought it would be a question of simply scanning the existing books, and reprinting them. Looking back, we had absolutely no idea of the complexities involved, or of the marvels awaiting us.
During the last four years, we have assembled a team of brilliant editors, designers, Internet specialists, and many others. From the outset, the name of the game was Problem-Solving. We had very limited funds at our disposal. Coupled with this, we wanted to move forward with a relentless publishing schedule, so as to achieve a truly dynamic impact.
When I asked acquaintances in the publishing world for advice, they all told me the same thing: ‘Go slow, and bring out one or two books a year.’ Anyone who knows me, knows that I can’t bear the thought of scaling down — especially when it’s possible to scale up.
So, I’m absolutely delighted to say, we didn’t listen to any of the advice offered by the gurus of mainstream publishing.
My father died in November 1996, at a time when the Internet was just beginning. In fact, I remember him asking me only days before his death, ‘Where is the Internet?’ I didn’t know much more than he did about it. So, I answered: ‘I’m not quite sure. I think it’s everywhere.’ I remember him smiling in a magical kind of way, narrowing his eyes, and replying: ‘That Internet thing is going to change all your lives.’
Very early on in our learning curve, I wondered continually what my father would have done in our position. The more I thought about it, the more I found myself quite certain what his plan would have been. He would have seized the new opportunities by the horns, and carved out a sizeable niche for the work he was representing in what was a brave new world.
Anyone reading this who has been familiar with my father’s books for decades, will remember the Octagon Press. He set up Octagon as a way of keeping control of the work he was putting out, making sure that it got to the right people, in the right way. Very little was as important to him as control. This isn’t because he was what they’d call these days ‘a control freak’. Rather, it was because he knew the grave danger of having material such as his disseminated without less than absolute care and attention.
In some ways I like to think of him as a kind of fountain, tapping the waters of a deep and ancient well. Over decades, he created and shaped a huge body of work. At the same time he was almost clinical in the way he reviewed the effect his publications were having. This need to keep control was part of the reason for Octagon. Through the firm, he made sure that books were released with astonishing care. His archive is full of notes showing his preoccupation with the smallest details of the publishing process.
Coming back to our own learning curve, we asked ourselves what advantages we could ever have over traditional publishers. The answer to that question was crystal clear: Size and Speed. Whereas the conventional publishing machine is all about muscle and mass, we were in a position to move fast and think in new ways.
Traditional publishers print thousands of copies, employ hundreds of staff, and move with groaning slowness. They don’t innovate because they don’t dare. They plan years ahead, waste time with long meetings and even longer lunches, and are stuck firmly in the Stone Age.
In developing ISF publishing, we looked at how new technology could leapfrog us forward, saving time, money, and — most importantly — giving us control.
By using Lightning Source ‘print-on-demand’ technology, we can update books at a moment’s notice, and do away with the need for mass print runs, warehousing, logistics, and all the fuss that goes hand-in-hand with the traditional publishing model. I suppose it’s no surprise that a great many publishers are now using the technology too, especially to keep their backlists in print.
In the last three years we have printed well over a hundred new versions of my father’s books. They include hardback and paperback editions, as well as e-book and, audiobooks, too. Through the generosity of private donations, we have released special and limited editions as well. Coupled with all of this, we have brought out each book in an American edition, too.
As I said, at the start of our journey the sense was very much that we should move slow, and tread the tried and tested path of conventional publishing as much as possible.
Thankfully, the team we assembled is as committed as I to the magical realm of the new publishing model. Embracing challenges, they have solved one problem after the next, flipping weaknesses into resounding strengths.
Releasing a new title in five editions every month or two, we’ve achieved more than a great many well-established publishers in the same time-frame. Hand-in-hand with it all, we have developed a range of social media platforms online, and have watched as my father’s name and work are brought back to the fore.
In the coming months and years, we plan to complete the full corpus of Idries Shah publications, as well as releasing Sufi classic texts and other published work so close to my father’s heart.
As I sit here reflecting on the progress made, and the road ahead, I feel my father would be very proud of the ISF Publishing team.
But far more importantly than that, I think he would be extremely grateful — to the Friends of ISF, and all the others — who have supported us and made possible the relaunch of his work in such a positive and resourceful way.