Don't be cowed a large herd

March 31, 2006

Editing a collection of your peers' work involves hard graft, especially when it comes to rounding up tardy contributors. Harriet Swain offers some hints to help quell the rising tide of intimidation.

So, you want to get together a group of people used to working on their own ideas, who confuse deadlines with starting lines and have at least half a dozen other projects on the go, and turn their variously written musings - when they eventually turn up - into a book.

"Why not just write the book yourself?" asks Sarah Stanton, publishing director in humanities at Cambridge University Press. She says edited collections are usually harder to sell than single-author books or journals, because the market is harder to target.

If you nevertheless intend to gather the collected thoughts of others, for example the proceedings of a conference you are holding, at least think of the result as a coherent book rather than a collection of bits and bobs, Stanton says. Essays should be of similar scope and length and you should brief contributors early to make sure they consider the rationale for the book and target their piece accordingly rather than produce something fit for conference delivery alone. And be prepared to enlist extra essays or omit others - even your friends' - if need be.

She says you must also liaise early with the publisher to optimise your chances of producing a book that will have a market.

It is important to pick your publisher carefully, says Jo Gill, editor of M odern Confessional Writing: New Critical Essays , published by Routledge last year. She has compiled a list of guidelines for would-be editors with Andrew Shail, research fellow in film at Oxford University; and Stacy Gillis, lecturer in modern and contemporary literature at Newcastle University. They advise choosing a publisher who already works in your field or has experience in publishing edited collections.

Gill says you need to know what a publisher expects from an initial proposal: some like to see an agreed line-up of contributors and an abstract or draft of each proposed chapter, while others will go to contract on the basis of the overall direction and a list of proposed contributors.

You also need to identify possible markets and make this a key aspect of your proposal. Consider the following questions, Gill suggests: where in the world is your chosen subject taught, studied and critically engaged with? How many students take courses in the field? Is there a strong research interest in the subject? Is there any possibility of a wider public market? What is the competition and is there a need for another book like this?

Once you have the contract, make the house style clear to contributors to save you reformatting everything yourself, says Shail, co-editor of Menstruation: A Cultural History . You must also be strict about word counts. If work arrives significantly overlength, you will either have to cut it yourself or suggest to the author ways of condensing his or her argument, he says. "Some contributors may refuse to re-draft the piece; a threat to cut their contribution often produces surprising acquiescence."

You need to build in plenty of time for redrafting. Shail suggests getting colleagues and peers to review chapters as they come in. Extra time should be set aside for those difficult contributors who produce excellent work but find it hard to meet deadlines.

Charles Martindale, a contributor to numerous collections and editor of Shakespeare and the Classics , suggests holding a brainstorming session at the beginning of the project to make contributors feel part of a whole. "A good collection will be stronger than any individual essay within it," he says. "That means you have an agenda to communicate to contributors, who can be rather wayward."

Martindale says contributors need the freedom to do the best work they can, while the editor needs to communicate a clear sense of what is required.

"Sometimes editors are too controlling," he says. "Some editors want to write the essay themselves, but that's also bad because in the end contributors have to take responsibility and do the essays that they can write and write well."

On the other hand, there may be situations when you will have to take over.

Jeremy Black, professor of history at Exeter University and a regular editor of collections by historians, says an editor has to be prepared to get rid of any contributor who cannot produce copy on time - and this may mean plugging the gap yourself. "At the last resort, if a piece is a key one, the editor, whose name, after all, appears on the cover, should be willing to write that piece him or herself," he says. "The alternative is to allow feckless individuals to wreck an entire project."

Losing control of the timetable can lead to delays. The volume will look out of date if it fails to take into account recent relevant work by others, Black warns. Martindale says you need to show you mean business from the first. Give the impression that an initial deadline for first draft is serious, for example. This also means getting back to people quickly. "It is annoying as a contributor if you don't get an e-mail saying your piece has been received. Being in constant dialogue with contributors is important." Shail agrees it is crucial to give contributors plenty of warning about deadlines and to keep them up to date about other contributors and topics.

Gillis, editor of collections including Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration , says you should also let your contributors know when the manuscript has gone to press, ensuring that the publisher has up-to-date contact details for them. Let them know when it has been published and thank them for their contributions.

Finally, think about how you might get your book reviewed. Stanton says this can be a problem with collections because few people regard themselves as knowledgeable enough to review a book written by experts in many different fields - still, you could be one of the lucky few.

Further information Cambridge University Press: Palgrave Macmillan:  


Think about whether you would be better off with a single-author book

Consider potential markets

Listen to the publishers' advice

Keep in touch with contributors

Draw up a timetable, send it to contributors, and stick to it.

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