Editing an Essay Collection
Developing and editing a contributed work requires its own unique skill set.
An editor of a contributed work has the chance to draw together some of the most interesting and relevant voices within their field to highlight new directions in contemporary research. This rewarding opportunity is a great fit for a mid-career scholar as their networks span across both established and up-and-coming scholars. Although the position is not without difficulty, as the editor must ensure that contributors keep to promised deadlines and that their submitted content fulfils its potential, it brings with it the chance to really develop the field through collaboration.
Key Decisions the Editor of an Edited Collection Needs to Make by Marco Giugni
In my role as editor of Youth, Unemployment, and Social Exclusion, I discovered that the process of editing a book can be broken down into a series of decisions the editor needs to take. These key decisions are:
The first and most fundamental decision is the very decision to edit a book. Before engaging in this process, one should always ask questions such as: Is there a need for this book? Will it make a significant contribution to the literature? Does it have a “CV-building” purpose? Would a special issue of a scholarly journal be a better outlet? A potential editor needs to take into account that, if it is done properly, organizing an edited book takes a lot of time and energy. It is not simply assembling a number of papers written by others. You need a concept first, then will need to develop this concept into a coherent book structure, and finally you will spend months, sometimes a few years, organizing, chasing authors, writing your own parts (at least the book’s introduction), and trying to create a quality, articulate book.
The second important decision to make is who will be invited to write the book chapters. Edited books have different origins, they may stem from an academic workshop or conference or they may be created from scratch. In either case, the authors of the book chapters play a key role. Sometimes we tend to forget that edited books are a collective endeavor, and chapter authors are as important as the book’s editors, if not more. In this regards the “whom should I invite to write a chapter” question is very important, especially if your book does not come out of a related event. Including a few “big names” might help both to get a book contract and to sell the book. However, sometimes you want to work with younger scholars who bring fresh ideas (not that “big” names do not do so, but an editor should be sure that chapters don’t restate things that have been published elsewhere). Finding reliable authors who will meet deadlines is also crucial here. Chasing outstanding chapters is sometimes one of the most painful activities in the context of doing an edited book.
A third key decision is to decide what audience the edited collection will address. Academics usually write to other academics, but sometimes also to other publics. It is important to know to whom one wishes to write and adapt the writing style to that audience. Furthermore, even when you target other academics with an edited book, you need to decide which academic field or sub-field is the core audience. Writing for people who are specialized in your own field is not the same as writing for people working in other fields, even though the latter might be close to your own field. This, of course, also applies to a book monograph. However, it is particularly relevant in the case of edited books as you do not only need to make sure your own writing fits the targeted audience, but also that of the chapter authors.
Editing an Essay Collection by Mary M. Balkun and Susan C. Imbarrato
Collaborating as editors on Women’s Narratives of the Early Americas and the Formation of Empire taught us a lot about communicating clearly with our contributors and staying on track with our editing and revising schedules. Starting with the “call for proposals,” we learned the importance of writing a detailed description of the project, one that explains the focus of the collection but is not so narrow that it doesn’t leave room for some unique takes on the topic. It should also be clear about the expected length of final essays and set a deadline that is somewhat earlier than you actually hope to get the final pieces. Many times, the proposals you receive will determine the final shape of the collection. For example, we received several proposals that changed the parameters of our original concept in several ways: expanding the timeframe, going beyond the analysis of one or two texts, and treating genres we hadn’t anticipated. Being open-minded in the proposal review stage can result in a book that goes beyond what you originally conceived in exciting ways.
We believe that developing a good working relationship with the contributors to an edited collection is essential: this means treating their work with respect during the editing process, responding quickly to queries, and keeping them informed about the status of the project. We always consulted before making any changes to their essays in progress, asked questions rather than being proscriptive, and honored author requests. One challenge, we discovered, can come at the first reading stage. At that point it may become clear that an essay has not gone in the direction originally proposed or is not fully realized. As with any peer-review process, authors should be given the opportunity to revise if necessary, but you should also be honest about the amount of revision needed. We were clear from the outset that an essay would not be formally accepted for the collection until we had read a final draft and could fully assess whether it would be a good fit.
Finally, we did learn a few lessons during this process: keep careful track of the word count as you go along, which means including the word count for such parts as the Table of Contents and Author Biographies; be very clear about the maximum essay length and remember that this includes endnotes and the bibliography; setting clear deadlines—allowing for a little leeway in case items are late--and sending periodic reminders; and asking your editors whenever you have a question. We found the editors at Palgrave to be incredibly receptive and quick to respond. Ultimately, what makes this kind of project manageable is having a co-editor who can share the tasks of reading, editing, and correspondence. If you’re lucky, you’ll have complementary skills. You’ll also be able to keep each other on track throughout the process. Editing a collection of essays can be very rewarding, especially because you get to work with an incredibly hard working and thoughtful group of scholars, as we did, who are doing exciting work.