Editing a collection of essays is completely different from writing your own book and can be a real challenge—but a rewarding one.
There are a number of different types of multiauthor books:
- Reference works or textbooks with chapters by different authors to ensure coverage of the field (read this wonderful blog about editing an encyclopedia);
- Collections of essays around a specific theme, perhaps with authors from different disciplines or subfields bringing different perspectives;
- Conference proceedings publishing papers from a conference or symposium;
- Festschriften (known by this German term, which means celebratory writings): essays by scholars inspired by or honoring the work of a well-known scholar, usually published to mark that person’s retirement or death.
Putting together a volume can be a great way to get to know people in your field and build your network. Often a junior academic will work together with a senior scholar as coeditors—and you can learn a lot in the process. Editing the work of others can also help you become a better writer.
It’s very rewarding to be a volume editor, but there are a few challenges you should also be aware of:
- Finding coherence—the volume has to be more than the sum of its parts;
- Managing difficult or late contributors;
- Managing your own workload and responsibilities.
Let’s look at each of these in more detail.
The Flow and Coherence of a Multiauthor Book
Chapters in a volume have to be more connected than articles in a journal. The book has to be a coherent whole. To ensure all aspects of the subject are covered and avoid overlap, it’s useful for contributors to share their work with each other—but ultimately, it’s your job as the editor to bring it all together. You need to establish the best order of the essays, help the authors shape their contributions so they fit together, and write an introduction that unifies the book.
On the other hand, each chapter also has to be able to be read on its own. In a reference work, readers might only consult one chapter, and these days many volumes are accessed digitally chapter by chapter.
Your publisher will look for coherence in a proposal for an edited collection because they need to have a selling point for the book beyond the fact the papers were all given at a certain conference, say. In the case of reference or textbooks, the publisher will probably give more direction and do some research on what should be covered to map it to the field or courses, but for the other types of volumes, you’ll need to find the coherence on your own.
Coherence also means that no single author is more important than the volume overall, so if certain essays don’t fit the theme you may have to negotiate with those authors, which can be tricky.
The most difficult thing about editing a contributory volume is getting the contributions. The authors are most likely busy academics, and it can be difficult to make sure they send in their chapters to length and on time. Some of your contributors might be senior to you. Be ready to be the “bad cop” tactfully when they are late, overlength, or submit something unsuitable.
You may have to edit an essay heavily if it’s not up to scratch; make sure the author understands your ambitions for the volume and try not to take it personally if they get upset with your edits. Edit with tact, and explain all the decisions you make.
The overall coherence and quality of the volume has to be your main focus; don’t let individuals derail this. If a contributor is causing a particular problem, either because the essay isn’t right or delays the whole book going forward for production, you may need a plan B: in some cases covering the gap with a new author or writing something yourself.
It’s important to understand all the things you’ll be responsible for. Editing a multiauthor volume can be a very time-consuming job that can take away time from your own research or writing projects, so make sure you are able to take it on.
If you’re working with a coeditor, make sure to define your responsibilities from the beginning. Sometimes a senior coeditor will ask a junior coeditor to handle a lot of the practicalities, but generally it’s fairest to split the tasks equally.
Planning the volume
If you’re editing a reference work or textbook, you will need to brief each contributor clearly on what they need to cover in their chapters; if you’re editing conference proceedings, you’ll need to select those of the best quality, which will hang together around a clear theme or approach.
It’s a good idea to have at least some of the authors signed up before you approach a publisher in order to show who is involved and also that the project is well organized. However, in the case of a reference work or textbook, you may submit a wish list of a few options for each chapter, in case your first choice is not available. You’ll need chapter abstracts as part of the proposal, and it’s a good idea to get these confirmed with the contributors as they’re signed up, so they have a clear brief.
Finding a publisher
In the case of a reference work or textbook, the publisher may approach a volume editor, or if you see a gap in the market, you can approach them yourself. If you’re editing a conference volume or Festschrift, check which publishers actually accept these and make sure there is a clear selling point beyond the connection to the event or person.
Your publisher will also be looking for a good mix of authors: a 50-50 gender split unless absolutely unavoidable, contributors from different countries or continents whenever possible, and ideally a mix of well-established and up-and-coming names.
Ensure your contributors know their deadline. Allow plenty of time for you to go back to them with edits or queries, and then for you to prepare the final manuscript for the publisher.
Set a word count for each essay and be prepared to enforce it.
Send the contributors the publisher’s style sheet so they are as consistent as possible, which saves editing time.
Keep in touch with your contributors at regular intervals during the preparation process and let them know about key dates and expectations.
This might be the first time you have formally given feedback on writing by your peers, or those more senior to you, or those in other fields. Don’t lose confidence.
Make sure your contributors understand that their essay, as edited by you, is considered final and when they see proofs they will not be able to add, delete, or rephrase material (unless, of course, there are errors introduced during production).
Always send the contributor a copy of the final edited version so that they agree to any changes before they see the proof. Make sure they have supplied complete references and have checked their sources and quotations.
Preparing the manuscript
Making the style consistent with the publisher’s requirements and merging the contributors’ different bibliographies can be a very big job. You might consider hiring a professional editor to help with this aspect, so you can focus on the quality and coherence of the essays, and writing the introduction.
Take a look at Flatpage’s team of experienced editors and let them handle these details. One less thing to worry about!
Acting as the publisher’s contact during the production/publication process
Depending on your publisher’s workflows, you may be asked to handle queries on the contributors’ behalf during the editing and production processes, and/or to collate the contributors’ proof corrections. Make sure you keep your publisher updated on the contributors’ current availability and contact details until publication, when they’re sent their free copies.
Then all that is left to do is to organize a celebratory get-together with all the authors for publication day!
About the author
Former Cambridge University Press acquisitions and desk editor and Flatpage team member Dr. Maartje Scheltens has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly in book proposals. She knows the publishing process inside out and understands exactly what your academic publisher is looking for.