Monday, July 30, 2018

Should I do an edited collection? Advice to Collection Editors

Credit: British Library Flickr
Group publications can be challenging in many ways. We asked legal historians for their advice on doing edited volumes or special issues (h/t: LSA Law and History CRN). Our questions: 
  • What works and what doesn’t? 
  • What did you learn the hard way or wish you had known from the start? 
  • Was it worth it in the end?
  • Were there any unexpected benefits?
We received a ton of responses. In the first post of this series, we shared advice on contributing a chapter as an author. This second post is about putting together such collections as an editor of the volume or special issue. The third will cover advice from scholars who have been editors of journals that produce special issues. 

Our title borrows from Karen Kelsky’s post on the same topic (h/t: The Professor is in).

  • From Sally Hadden, on work done with co-editors Al Brophy and Patti Minter:
    • “A strong vision before you begin inviting people is essential. Put it on paper, give it clarity and depth.
    • Imagine the ‘dream team’ of contributors you want and ask them first, but be prepared with other names to make sure your original strong vision doesn't go by the wayside if A or B is unavailable.
    • Shoot for a mix of established and brand-new scholars, so that your table of contents shows contributions from more than one generation [this may help sell to more than one generation too!]
    • Set clear deadlines up front.
    • If you have brand-new scholars contributing, stick to those deadlines. Their tenure may depend on it.
    • Provide regular feedback to your contributors. Don't leave them guessing. ("Thanks for your essays. We will be using this timetable to turn them around." "We've submitted the manuscript to the press." "We've had positive readers' reports." "We're sending out essays with editorial feedback for your review and revision." "Thanks for being so prompt in returning this revised essay." "The press tells us that we are in the fall catalog")
    • Ask your contributors to assist with the index by giving you the index terms they want to see covered, at a minimum.
    • Ask your contributors for suggestions about where the volume should be reviewed.
    • I was really lucky. I worked with two excellent co-editors, we moved the two volumes through the process promptly, we worked with presses whose editors kept their word about when things would happen. The vast majority of our contributors delivered when they said they would.”
• From another scholar: “Some thoughts on editing volumes.  Without meaning to, I have CO-edited three volumes and single-edited one volume of an author’s papers (working now on another’s).  I emphasize the co-edited part because that has been key to those volumes, but in different ways. [One] volume came about through the same editor that solicited my [own monograph]. I thought it would be selfish and unhelpful for me to be the lead person on both. So, I asked [X] to take the lead on that volume. The point here is that sometimes edited volumes can be about building a field and investment in a field. At that time, [X] was not centered in [the main theme of the edited volume]. His editorial work on that volume brought him squarely into a small field and, as a result, made our field much better because of his subsequent publications.  Around [year], a sometime teacher of mine, [Y], contacted me about contributing to a volume for our mutual teacher.... When I agreed, he then asked whether I knew other [similar scholars] who might contribute and suddenly I was co-editor. He never said this to me, but I have a feeling that the volume has stalled at some point...I give this history…because sometimes editing a volume is about getting worthy things started again.  One might start with 20 contributors in mind and only 8 end up doing anything. A secondary infusion of editorial help, in this case, pushed the whole thing in a way that I think fulfilled the purpose of the original idea.  For what it’s worth, the [non-US] publisher of that volume has repeatedly told me that this was his breakthrough into the US academic scene. [That publisher] has now become an important publisher of…monographs and edited volumes [on the theme of our volume]. I don’t really believe that our volume had much to do with it, but maybe a little. Finally, this new volume was a fun project for me because I got to work with my old mentor... I’m proud of the volume and its contributors, but the publication process with [publisher] was frustrating. It’s all style and format, but there are inconsistencies that the publisher introduced that we are now responsible for.  Substantively, the volume attempts a new state-of-the-field description/assessment, drawing on the expertise of many…In terms of takeaway, any edited volume should have a clear purpose. We intended to make [name’s] lifetime work more accessible. He covered all aspects of [theme] and so do we. That means the world looks different than if we started with [more standard] categories. We’re fine with that. Readers should adjust, because it’s worth it. I think it’s too early to say if we succeeded but I will always be happy with the goals.  So, as you can see, my experience suggests that various good reasons exist for editing volumes.  Cooperation was essential to those I’ve worked on and I recommend co-editing, if the work can be divided cleanly (as it was in each case for me).  In the case of single-editor volumes, it’s about why. So, general advice? Make sure you’re advancing a field and have a clear, unitary purpose behind a volume.”

Dan Ernst: “Having done one, I'm with the Karen [Kelsky] of the blogpost.” DE would be surprised if many editors of a volume would want to edit another one. “Law review symposia issues might be a different matter, because so much of the most awful part is shifted to the students, and there's a drop dead deadline.” “My general position is a strong presumption that the costs of such volumes usually outweigh the benefits. The whole should be decisively more than the sum of its parts. This usually happens only with a great deal of ex ante planning by an editor, who envisions a large, multifaceted problem or question, assigns pieces of it to the proper people, give them enough time and incentives, and rides herd and polices deadlines right up to final submission. Usually, the best efforts by editors to find order in essays culled from the on-going projects of even historians working within hailing distance of each other falls short of the mark.”


  • Jim Jaffe: “About editing:
    1. Make extra double sure that any co-editor is willing and able to do their share of the work. Editing a volume is a tedious and frustrating endeavor. There are a lot of slackers out there so avoid any free riders.
    2. Beware of contributors who may steal your idea. This happened to me after I gave up editing a volume of essays and then one of my contributors went on to edit and publish the exact same thing. Not all that unusual, I’ve been told.
    3. Make sure your publisher thoroughly understands the scope and audience for your project….The chief editor at [publisher] desperately wanted [a volume I was putting together] until he actually saw its contents. After putting in the work to prepare the table of contents, draft an introduction, etc., he decided it wouldn’t fit into their catalog after all. He didn’t seem to understand at the outset that the volume was to be historical and not contemporary.”
  • Sally Gordon:”I have been the editor of exactly NO edited volumes but have participated in several and written intros for a couple.  I also am on a faculty editorial board of a scholarly press and have seen how unmanageable many such projects are.  Honestly, keeping all the authors on point and within word limits is very difficult.  So now I understand better the urgency of the mandate to craft a piece to suit the main focus of a volume.  Without a really strong and careful editor, the authors kind of swim off in different directions, and such a volume without a clear focus can easily lose its way.”
  • Kelly Kennington: “I have not yet participated in an edited volume as either an author or an editor, largely because my university does not count such publications or work toward tenure and promotion unless it is peer reviewed.  I am currently working on a forum for a journal that will be peer reviewed, and I am one of the two organizers as well as a contributing author.  At the moment, we have only solicited the articles and discussed the time table, though, so I don't have much advice on how to do it.  We did find that the Journal was more open to doing a shorter forum than a special issue.”
  • Dan Klerman, speaking as a contributor, but with advice to editors of collections: “The only sticking point is that the slowest contributor (or editor) determines the publication date.  So for one of these books, I think the delay between submitting my final draft and publication was about 4 years.  So my main suggestion is pick people who can stick to a deadline and keep people moving.”
  • From a scholar who co-edited two volumes, and who has also done a symposium issue of a journal: “It isn't easy to get an edited volume accepted any more, and the first one I did (which was not on law) was hell on wheels.  The second one [with a co-editor] was idyllic.  The third one [co-edited, happening currently] has been slower than I would have liked, but that is because the contributors have been slow.  I know presses never to touch.”
  • Julie Novkov: “As an editor
    • the best volumes I’ve done have been worked on through conferences, where we have put together multiple panels with volume contributors presenting chapters and discussing others’ chapters. This really helps to get the main themes more integrated, and helps authors refer to each other in a less forced way
    • identify key themes early on and communicate them to authors
    • be willing to read and comment on even very early and preliminary drafts! Some of the best chapters start just as think pieces that the author then shapes as the volume develops
    • try to collect chapters from people at a variety of career stages and do what you can to get the people in the volume to know each other in real life. A volume project can also be a wonderful exercise in community building.
Every volume I’ve ever worked on, as a chapter author or as an editor, has been worth it!”

  • Wes Pue: “I’ve edited a number of journal special issues and some book collections. Here are some random thoughts: 
    1. The most frustrating are projects which cannot proceed without solid contributions from each of a number of contributors. All become hostage to the last to submit.  There are good and bad reasons for delayed delivery but the consequences are the same.
    2. Thematic unity is important but a prior determination that some topic(s) MUST be included invites hazard if the work is not in hand when it is needed. 
    3. A well-chosen co-editor can make a project fun, widen the intellectual scope, share the work, and expand the net of contributors.  I’ve benefited immensely from such arrangements. Sometimes, however, there is a ‘cost’ of losing decisions regarding items to include or reject. Having to reject something you wish to include makes for an unhappy moment. 
    4. I’ve liked working on projects emerging from working groups of loosely allied scholars, each exploring a topic or interdisciplinary enquiry from their own perspective.  This can push scholarship in new and innovative directions. 
    5. Getting edited books into print can be difficult compared with taking on guest editorship of a journal. Occasionally publishers encourage a volume but lose interest (possibly because of change of staff) before the work emerges. 
    6. Folks need to beware [of the] time commitment. Edited collections can take a ton of time (they don’t always). This can be costly to scholarly careers, especially for those stepping onto tenure track or wishing to do so.  Pick solid, reliable contributors, any one of whom can be left out if not ready to proceed by publication date.  It can be helpful to hire a good copy editor to assist (a task to be avoided by academics) if you can. Be prepared to reject submissions by friendly colleagues (ouch).”
  • Intisar Rabb: “I’ve largely had good experiences as an editor… Here are a few thoughts:
    • I loved the experience of a helping to compile recent co-edited volume. My co-editor and I convened a conference which then turned into a volume…in honor or a retiring colleague, who hated Festschrift compilations that were random selections of student and collegial writings, and preferred something thematic. Luckily, we were able to settle on [a] theme that started his academic career, was of close [interest] to us as editors, and where many of his students and colleagues had something to say. To be as inclusive as possible, we also opened up the conference through a call for papers, the best of which would be published in the volume, and we also asked other colleagues of the professor honored who could not attend the conference if they had something to contribute on the theme. For good measure, and to make it a scholarly publication worthy of the field, we published through an academic press, which included peer review. Because of the good will for the honoree (and draconian, threatening emails about being timely from the organizers and editors – which we knew we had to back up by being timely ourselves in the editing to make it before the honoree’s actual retirement), the conference was enlightening and jovial, and contributors were timely with their submissions. After the conference, we submitted the volume after 12 months, and it was published in 18 months – which is pretty fast!
    • Some benefits were getting to work closely with a friend and colleague on editorial decisions, and getting to know some of the work of colleagues in the field on a subject of close interest to me (I didn’t know that some were also moving in that direction) – so I found it well worth doing, and we even talked about keeping in touch to perhaps do further work together or at least read each others’ manuscripts in the future.”
Mitra Sharafi: “Good advice from a wise colleague: don’t think of being an editor of a group publication as research. It is service.”

A very big thank you to contributors!

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