Editing a multi-author volume (James Burford)

Photo by Jaredd Craig | Unsplash 

Can you believe it? We’re into the fourth week of Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo) already! November has zipped by, and many of us are entering the season of tidying up the year that has been and planning for the one yet to come.

For week four of our AcWriMo programme we have shifted our focus from journal articles to take a closer look at writing books. This week we have a special workshop, panel, and masterclass on Turning your Thesis into a Book, a series I wish I had attended before I tried to make a book out of my own thesis a couple of years back! Because the focus of this series is mostly on the sole-authored book, I thought we might spend a bit more time in this post considering another kind of book: the edited collection.  

Over the last year or so I have co-editing a book called ‘Reimagining Doctoral Writing’ (with Canadian colleagues Britt Botti-Amell and Cecile Badenhorst). 

During this time I’ve learned a lot about framing up a topic for an edited book, working with co-editors, liaising with publishers, publicising a call for chapters, reviewing proposals, peer reviewing and editing chapters, and drawing a book together so it speaks as a coherent collection. Hopefully, our book will be coming out sometime in the first half of 2021. This means that there are some steps that are still on the horizon for me. These include getting back our final reviews from a manuscript reviewer, proofing and copy editing, indexing, and broadcasting the arrival of the collection to the world!

Because I am still pretty new to the role of editing a multi-author volume, I decided to ask a range of La Trobe researchers about their experiences in this space. I invited colleagues to reflect on the pleasures and possibilities (as well as the difficulties) involved in editing a book. 

Here are the results of this invitation!

­­­Dr Mollie Dollinger (Academic lead, Student Partnership) reflects on the opportunities that editing a book can offer, particularly for ECRs: “I edited a book for Emerald called ‘Getting the Most Out of Your Doctorate’. The book was part of a series, ‘Surviving and Thriving in Academia’ and I was asked by the series editor due to some of my work on doctoral education at the time. It was a wonderful experience, and I would highly recommend it to anyone! I got to approach lots of colleagues or scholars globally about contributing a chapter and work with them to fit in within the general theme and tone of the book”. 

Some colleagues have loads of experience with editing collections, including Professor Sue Grieshaber (Education). Sue offers some insight into the work bringing together a collection: “I have been involved in editing three books. For the first book (published by Teachers College Press), I was the first of two editors. This book was translated into Spanish about four years after it was first published. I was the second of two editors for the second book (Elsevier), and the third of three editors for the third book (Springer). My role was different in each. I'll talk about the third (see link to collection here). 

I was a more experienced researcher than the first two editors and my role was twofold. The first part was to mentor the other editors as neither had been involved in editing a book before; and the second part was to edit most of the chapters because of my long experience as a journal editor, and my experience in previously editing two books. There were 17 chapters in this book and 11 were contributed by authors for whom English was an additional language. Some of the chapter authors had not published in English before, and for a small number this was their first involvement in an academic publication. Ten countries were represented in the 17 chapters. This was my most challenging experience as an editor because it involved detailed and comprehensive conceptual, structural, language and technical feedback. Most of the editing feedback for chapter authors was done over email using track changes and comments. During the process, there were two face to face meetings with the three editors and several Skype meetings”. Importantly, Sue reminds us of the pleasures of this work too, noting “The editors remain good friends as well as professional colleagues”

RED’s Dr Dan Bendrups comes from a discipline background where edited books are viewed as an important vehicle for advancing scholarly work. In his reflection Dan notes how varied the experience of editing a collection can be:

“As an author, I’ve often been frustrated by the length of time from submission to publication (the longest wait for me was 7 years!), and as an editor I’ve endeavoured to do more to respect the authors’ timeframes, but in some ways that’s one of the more straightforward parts of the job.

More complicated is the role of relationships in the book creation process. In my discipline context, edited collections often emerge from great ideas that come up at meetings and conferences. Someone (or various someones) puts their hand up to bring the idea into being as a book, but the goodwill that potential authors might express initially (“of course I’ll contribute!”) can dissipate once they are back amongst their daily work and remember that they are time-poor. Authors may also decide that their work actually suits a different publication, and may even withdraw after having already made an initial commitment. Nothing is secure until a contract is in place, and I’ve literally found myself begging certain people, for contributions for certain projects.

But at the same time, scholarly books need to be rigorous. As an editor, I’ve committed to seeking peer review for books I’ve worked on (surprisingly, the publisher may not take much responsibility for this), and sometimes chapters are found to be wanting. It’s an impossible position to be in if you have commissioned a chapter from someone, which peer reviewers then say is not suitable for publication. Especially if that person happens to be a scholar of note in your field.

So, from the outset, putting together an edited book can be an exercise in managing expectations: being clear about the publication timeframe, telling authors upfront about the review process and that not all submissions are guaranteed to be published, etc.

I’ve found that working as part of an editorial team (even with one other person) has been helpful for this, and in keeping myself accountable to the project as an editor, as it depersonalises the tone of the communications. But editorial team work also comes with its own amount of relationship management too: just as we all have different writing styles, we also have different editing styles, so be prepared for differences of opinion and make sure the editorial team includes diverse perspectives (and ideally, at least one person with just that little more experience of the process).

A final domain of relationship management is with publishers, who ultimately have a business model based on being able to sell books for profit. As a rule of thumb, the more prestigious the publisher, the more work involved for the editors, and the longer the lead time required. Sometimes it can be tempting to go for a quick win with an easy publisher (and various presses exist for this, some more predatory than others), but there are benefits to putting more work into the publishing relationship”

Finally, with all this work and complexity one might wonder whether it is all worth it! Here are some reflections from RED’s Dr Tseen Khoo on this score: “When I've been editing books over the years, I often encountered the usually well-meant query, "Are you sure that's the best use of your time?". I knew what they meant. Editing a multi-author book can seem like a thankless task; it's a lot like editing a special issue of a journal but without as much potential for the volume or chapters to be as well disseminated or well considered. The steady encroachment of journal papers as a standard scholarly publication leads some to ask "Is writing a book chapter a waste of time?" (no easy spoilers here - it's complicated. Read Pat Thomson's post to find out!). 

For the most part, journal articles circulate in a different, more dynamic way; edited books and their chapters have been more traditionally 'tied' to hardcopies, with ebooks and the easier sharing of particular chapters a relatively new (and very welcome) development. I opted to edit special issue journals rather than books for many years because of the better accessibility and sharing they offered. Now, however, I would consider editing books again!”

I'd like to thank all of our colleagues for sharing these reflections on editing multi-author book. What has stood out to me in reading these comments is the care-full work of book editing. Across these reflections I can see care for the authors and their knowledge, care for the knowledge project at the core of the book itself and care for the field which the book contributes to. 

I hope this post gives researchers who are contemplating editing a book some inspiration for the journey ahead and a sense of some of the challenges that can arise.