THE NUTSHELL NOTES STORY

Genesis of Nutshell Notes:
As a busy student of history and a news junkie, Amanda Roraback yearned for a product that would provide “everything one needed to know” about timely international issues in quick and easy study guides. At the time, only heavy tomes provided background information (and, at best, months after events had occurred) and magazines and newspapers only provided brief explanations of the latest incident.  

Academically qualified and armed with journalistic writing skills that she had inherited from her father, Amanda decided to design her own booklets (similar to Cliffs Notes © ) in time for a trip she had planned to Cuba.

In preparation for her voyage, Amanda designed a set of “cheat notes” by compiling information about the island’s history, politics and international relations in short easy-to-read outlines. The notes simply and concisely explained why Cuban cigars were illegal in the US, why Castro was considered an American pariah, why Cuban boat people fled to Florida and other issues.

As a public service, Amanda posted her outline on a website she named “Nutshell Notes” (www.nutshellnotes.com). Initially, only a dozen or so wayward web-surfers hit on the site. The number increased when it was included in Yahoos! Cuba news page.  But the real popularity of “Cuba in a Nutshell” came when a little boy swept up on the shores of Florida.  Once the image of Elian Gonzales permeated the U.S. media, the site began attracting 1000s of visitors a day.

The interest encouraged Amanda to add more countries to the site compelling her to begin doing research on Russia, China, Afghanistan and other places. At the same time, she explored ways to make the non-profitable site into a potentially profitable series of books.

Publishing
From conception to creation, the production of a book of any size generally takes months or years through a traditional publisher.  The timeline didn’t suit Roraback.  Nor did it fit with her concept of a primer book series that explained the most current news.  

Instead, Roraback chose to take the more laborious route of publishing her own books. By owning the publishing company that would produce her books, Amanda would be able to print and distribute books days after the text was completed.  With ownership, furthermore, Roraback could ensure that the design and objectives of the ongoing series were maintained and could guarantee that the books would not be discontinued the minute interest waned.  

Relying on guidance from self-help books on self-publishing and advice from counselors at the Small Business Administration, Roraback legally established Nutshell Notes, LLC (with her mother as the obligatory partner), acquired ISBN numbers and developed an extensive business plan – despite the fact that the project was far beyond her financial means.

The Investor
In 2000, Roraback got her first of many serendipitous breaks when she met Avo Tavitian, an Armenian gastroenterologist, amateur photographer and generous patron of the arts. Together, they planned to develop a book on immigrants in Los Angeles with Amanda producing the text and Avo Tavitian taking photographs of ethnic communities in the area. Their plan was to publish the book through Amanda’s still dormant publishing company. If successful, they reasoned, they could one day publish Roraback’s ambitious “Nutshell Notes” booklet series.  

In the meantime, Amanda maintained her Nutshell Notes website while helping Tavitian organize his real estate ventures.

Afghanistan
One afternoon, not far from Tavitian’s West Hollywood apartment (where “the company” was based) Amanda came across a rally at the Director’s Guild of America.  Outside the auditorium, a string of celebrities were parading in front of cameras on their way to a presentation on Afghan women hosted by Mavis Leno (wife of Jay Leno).   

What struck Amanda the most was the crowd on the other side of the red carpet ropes -- Afghan men and women who were picketing the event.

After conducting spontaneous interviews, Roraback learned that while the demonstrators agreed that Ms. Leno had good intentions by bringing the oppressive treatment of women under the Taliban to the attention of the world, they felt that she had missed the larger picture.  Afghan women, they said, were less concerned about their education and burqas (considered by women in some parts of Afghanistan as a cultural, religious symbol rather than a tool for oppression) than they were about the country’s violence, rampant starvation, minefields and other more dire issues.

Soon after the experience, Roraback did extensive research and conducted many more interviews eventually adding “Afghanistan in a Nutshell” to her slowly growing web site.

BOOKS

9/11
After the shock and horror of the terrorist attack in New York City had set in and the President announced that the United States would be going to war against Osama bin Laden and his Taliban hosts, Roraback recognized that information on Afghanistan, a country that Americans knew little about, was desperately needed.  That night, she phoned Tavitian to urge him to underwrite the Nutshell Notes book project – although he didn’t need much coaxing. 

With Tavitian’s approval to “do whatever was necessary,” Amanda employed everyone she knew in order to undertake the Herculean task of editing, designing and selling her first book in the shortest amount of time.  She quickly transferred the text about Afghanistan from her website onto paper while her neighbor designed a book cover.  One of her friends began speaking to local bookstores, another (a childhood pal who was teaching geography at a California State University) designed maps while her mother and brother helped with editing and fact-checking.  Within a week the booklet was ready to be printed and 10 days after that, “Afghanistan in a Nutshell” was set up on front counter displays at LA’s biggest independent bookstores, Vromans in Pasadena, Midnight Special bookstore, Duttons, UCLA bookstore among others.

In a surreal turn of events, the little 25-page booklet landed on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list, not once, but three weeks in a row compelling Roraback and her partner to develop a second book (“Pakistan in a Nutshell”) and a third (“Islam in a Nutshell”) and the next year, a fourth (“Iraq in a Nutshell”) -- which also was listed as an LA Times bestseller.  In 2004, Roraback finally endeavored to explain the Middle East crisis (at the heart of most issues affecting the Muslim world) by writing a flip-book presenting the situation from two opposing perspectives. 

Israel-Palestine in a Nutshell
After three years touting the fledgling series at book festivals and independent venues, the books were slowly starting to take off.  Orders trickled in from across the country (the result of letter-writing campaigns, a story in the Los Angeles Times and a short feature on KTLA morning news) and the books were included in a teacher’s catalogue.  But it was the introduction of “Israel-Palestine in a Nutshell” -- the first of all the books to be constructed with a spine -- that pushed the books to the next level – big-chain distribution.  

In mid-2004, a selective distributor of independently published books, Midpoint Trade Books, decided to represent Enisen Publishing and introduced the 160-page “Israel-Palestine in a Nutshell” to buyers from Barnes and Noble, Borders and other large chains.  By the end of the year, the single title was generating more than $1000 in sales each month. 

To help publicize the book and other titles, Roraback toured Los Angeles giving talks on the Middle East crisis to any audience who would listen: public libraries, Lions club members, Rotarians, schools etc.  While Roraback expected only to hone her speaking skills while objectively presenting both the Palestinian and Israeli sides of the Middle East crisis, she didn’t anticipate the response she got.  Audiences with clear agendas (either pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian) began attending her lectures in order to prevent her from “spreading propaganda.” Frequently the discussions became heated leaving Roraback to defend one group or another against attacks from the participants.  The controversy taught Amanda that no issue can be explained in a purely intellectual and objective manner and, at the same time, that every issue must be explained intellectually and objectively – whether or not her audiences were receptive.

International distribution
Another feather in Enisen Publishing’s cap was the request by marketers from Britain to represent the series in the U.K.  

About the same time the books were being distributed throughout the U.S. (Barnes and Noble and Borders that is), they were being put on the shelves of bookstore chains in the United Kingdom (including the famous Blackwell’s book store in Oxford)

By the end of 2004, the first four books in the series were updated, redesigned and expanded and work began on the sixth title “Iran in a Nutshell” (to be published in August 2005). 

Iran in a Nutshell
Family members and friends still contribute to the production and distribution of the Nutshell Notes books, although Enisen Publishing also employs professional editors, fact-checkers and publicists.  

Roraback’s “team” helped put together the latest in the series, “Iran in a Nutshell” in 2006.

Schools
In the last couple of years, Amanda Roraback has been working closely with local social studies teachers to help them develop lesson plans related to the Middle East and other topics.  Along with conducting seminars and teachers’ workshops, Roraback has joined the Southern Californian Social Sciences Association, History Day LA, NACIS and other social studies-based organizations. 

Future Books
Roraback is currently working with photographer, Avo Tavitian on their book:  “LA International: A pictorial look at immigration in the City of Angels.”  She also plans to complete “Korea in a Nutshell” and “China in a Nutshell” by 2007.

 
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