Editing a book

Volunteering to edit a collection of your peers' work will bring you hard graft, especially when it comes to rounding up tardy contributors, as well as satisfaction.

June 19, 2008

If you’ve volunteered to edit a book featuring contributions from several colleagues, you may find the challenge of convincing them to turn in submissions on time is substantial and the work that follows greater than you had expected.

“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 contributors should be briefed early to make sure they target their piece accordingly. Be prepared to enlist extra essays or omit others - even your friends’ - if need be.

It is important to pick your publisher carefully, says Jo Gill, editor of Modern 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 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, says Gill. 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 a wider public market? Is there a need for another book like this?

Make the house style clear to contributors to save you reformatting everything yourself, says Shail, co-editor of Menstruation: A Cultural History. Be strict about word counts: if work arrives significantly overlength, you will either have to cut it yourself or go back to the author. “Some contributors may refuse to re-draft the piece, but a threat to cut their contribution often produces surprising acquiescence.”

Build in plenty of time for redrafting. Extra time should be set aside for 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, 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.

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. “At the last resort, if a piece is a key one, the editor should be willing to write that piece him or herself,” he says.

Losing control of the timetable can lead to delays. Martindale says you need to give the impression that the deadline for first draft is serious. And get back to people quickly. “It is annoying as a contributor if you don't get an e-mail saying your piece has been received. Constant dialogue with contributors is important.”

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.


Cambridge University Press

Palgrave Macmillan

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