Musings from the Mining Contracts Booksprint

Open Oil's Johnny West tells what it's like to write a book in 5 days.

So we are pleased to announce  – “we” being the ISLP, Vale Columbia Center, RWI-NRC, OpenOil and the World Bank Institute – the publication of a book which explains how to read mining contracts. “Mining Contracts, How to Read and Understand Them” is up on the Resource Contracts website.

In the coming weeks we will be translating it into a couple of languages and working out a print run. And by the way, if anyone wants bulk copies write to me and let me know and we will see if we can allocate (we don't know yet how many copies we will print so that is not a guarantee!).

How to write a book in 5 days

In the meantime I wanted to reflect a little on the booksprint process that produced the book. Not just because it's fascinating, but also because I believe it could have very wide application within governance communities. Although these are musings largely about the process of knowledge production rather than the specific domain of governance and EITI topics, bear with me. Our communities face large capacity questions as the new EITI standard gets rolled out – we need a lot more suitable materials soon to explain a wide range of technical areas – and I believe booksprint techniques could help with that considerably.

The book published today did not have a single word written, a table of contents or a title ten days ago. We began sketching it out at a retreat on the shores of Chesapeake Bay Monday last week and finished the draft on Friday night (well, technically Saturday morning at about 2 am – it is not called a “sprint” for nothing!).

There is incredible power in the booksprint technique. While the book is not perfect, it is in fact a readable and reasonably comprehensive introduction to a broad and complex subject which does what it says on the box (yes I am advertising!), explain all this stuff in plain language to the non-specialist. The oil book published last year has so far been downloaded over 60,000 times and there is no reason to think its mining sequel will do any less well. It is as vital a subject in as many countries.

I think the biggest single contributor to this is the way the booksprint technique – and Adam Hyde in particular – reshapes our understanding of what knowledge and creativity are.

The automatic question that comes to mind when the bare facts of a booksprint are explained are: how can a group write a book without it being chaos? And how can they do that in five days?

Immersed in mining contracts

This is my third booksprint and I have seen how experts come into the process nervous and how they leave refreshed and reassured by the process itself. Nervous because collaborative production, with a largely egalitarian spirit within the room, flies in the face of a paradigm of knowledge production based on authority, perfection and individual expertise that is so strong we almost cease to see it as a paradigm and mistake it for... reality. Reassured, because it is perfectly clear when you are in the room that it just works. You can judge the results for yourself of course, but I am not only talking about the product, the book, but also the broader process.

The book is really a sub-set of a broader, richer conversation which is happening all week between    15 people who are living and breathing this subject matter 16 hours a day – and most importantly working towards an immediate deadline with a common mission. This makes all the difference to the level and intensity of engagement. You could get the same group of experts into a workshop for the same amount of time to discuss the same subjects and you would get nothing like the same dynamic.

A very small sample of conversations alongside and all around the text in the book. Hearing Sam Russ, Herbert M'cleod and Zorigt Dashdorj discuss passionately over lunch the experiences of their three governments (Liberia, Sierra Leone and Mongolia) in handling revenue management, and the value (or not) of citizen dividends. Various definitional disputes around the finer points of royalties and corporate income tax coming from our “scholastic table”, the lawyers (you know who you are!) who condensed their decades of experience and understanding into the section on money through a three-day talk- and write-a-thon. A couple of impromptu tutorials given by Jeffrey Davidson, formerly of Rio Tinto, on the lifetime of a feasibility study, complete with workflow sketches. Jeffrey once spent five years in southern Venezuela on a single project making this stuff work. The funny thing is, although the book is a book, it actually captures an extraordinary amount of practitioner, or life, experience. That is why one of the chapters is called “Confessions of a Negotiator: A Hundred and Seventy Years at the Table” that is the actual collective figure of the group in the room, folks, meaning if we were all one person we could have negotiated the US purchase of Alaska from tsarist Russia, or the project terms of the Suez Canal.

The more the merrier

Every section of the book in fact is edited by at least four or five people. And because the booksprint has a distinct time and place for the writing, it can also bring a reader or two along, or “target reader” (Clara Roorda, in this case, a researcher at VCC, who because she has no direct experience of mining contracts). Target reader is an important concept. It is one thing for an expert to attempt to write for a general audience. It is quite another for the general audience to be in the room at the time of drafting to tell said expert whether she has or hasn't succeeded in the task of making herself clear. The interesting thing about the target reader principle is that in the question of readability it is the target reader who has authority – by dint of not being an expert.

Another key is to have a wide variety of backgrounds, perspectives and disciplines in the room: companies, governments, NGOs, North, South, lawyers, economists, engineers. This is also what makes the book utterly other than what any one individual could produce. Some people write a lot. Others talk the issues out a lot. Still others contribute their experience and critique. It's all good. This diversity not only of perspectives but also of roles is one reason the booksprint tends to talk about “contributors” rather than writers and authors, terms which can carry a lot of baggage.

A living document

Of course the short time and wide group does mean the book is unconventional in a couple of ways. We do our best but it is not necessarily one smooth authorial voice in the classic style. Plus, despite best efforts, there may also be typos here and there.

This raises the same kinds of questions as Wikipedia versus the more traditional authoritative encyclopedias. Clearly, mistakes matter. But if we assume that there is no process at all that is entirely mistake-free, then the certainty that this is a process which does not produce a perfect work is only the beginning of a strand of thought, not the end of it.

How many mistakes does the process produce, for example, of what seriousness, and how easy are they to fix?. This is relative to function, of course. I certainly wouldn't recommend producing a legal compliance document by booksprint. And of course, when thinking about individual mistakes and errors, there are also  meta-questions, such as : is this book needed, and what are the other ways to produce it within the same general constraints? Plus, of course, with the booksprint, both the open source platform and the license encourage it to be  a “Living Document”. The next edition can happen whenever someone thinks it needs to enough to spend time arranging a re-write. That could be tomorrow or never, but it puts extra perspective on what the static text is now.

One aspect of consistency of authorial voice the booksprint definitely reinforces btw is funky graphics.

What next?

So, what other EITI-domain subjects could we cover in this way? Well three that are close to my heart are: oil trading (how the oil markets work and how to analyse a country's oil trading patterns from a governance perspective), LNG and offshore gas contracts, and... specifically production and trading in iron ore. If anyone feels they have perspectives on any of these, let me know! More generally, the generic contracts books lend themselves to regional or country treatment. Because all material is under Creative Commons license, and freely re-useable, we positively encourage GOXIans to think of contexts in which they might build a country- or region-specific treatment of contracts using whatever is appropriate from the general works.

All feedback welcome!