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CAREER ADVICE

How to put together a great edited volume

A few do’s and don’ts learned the hard way.

By STEPHEN BROWN | February 2, 2016

Are you thinking of editing or co-editing a volume? Here are a few do’s and don’ts, some of them learned the hard way.

Start with an overarching theme and research questions. Identify necessary content and then who would make good authors, rather than the other way around. Don’t just throw together some papers given at a conference. Such a collection won’t be cohesive enough and is bound to have gaps. No publisher will want to publish it.

Don’t limit yourself to people you already know. Work through your networks to identify suitable contributors. Consider issuing a call for chapters, but be aware that you might have a large response and have to turn many people down. Be very specific about what you are looking for.

To ensure that it will be a cohesive book, rather than a disjointed collection of essays, provide detailed guidance to contributors before they start drafting their chapters. Assign them specific questions to be answered and, if possible, a draft of your introductory chapter so they can see your approach and align with it.

One of the best things you can do – funding permitting – is organize an authors’ workshop, at which they present their drafts. Assign one or two discussants per chapter (perhaps one who knows a lot about the topic and one who knows relatively little). This will improve quality and help ensure that chapters speak to each other. Providing flights, room and board will help you obtain authors’ “buy in” for the project, making them more likely to meet deadlines.

Don’t submit the book proposal to a publisher prematurely. There is no rush to get a contract, which actually binds you rather than the publisher. Make sure you can deliver what you propose, so wait until you are at an advanced stage. Be sure to include a concluding chapter that answers the overarching questions, summarizes the book’s contributions and opens the door to future research.

An edited volume has to be a labour of love. Be prepared to put in a lot of time providing feedback. You will need to comment on at least one draft of each chapter – and perhaps two or even three in some cases – before peer review. Be sure to check for plagiarism, even if you think it is highly unlikely. Don’t be shy about sending a chapter back for more work if it needs it. This will make peer review that much easier and save both you and the contributor time in the long run. Since contributors may have additional revisions to do following peer review, it is in everyone’s interest to keep them to a minimum. By then, everyone will lack motivation to put in more work.

Stay organized. Keep a master list of the chapters and their status. Go back to it every few days and send email reminders when need be. Some chapters are bound to be late. If that happens, be clear about how much extra time you can allow the authors. Don’t let the book be held hostage by the last outstanding chapter. Unless a chapter is essential, be prepared to cut the cord – and warn the contributor in good time that you will have to drop them, rather than delay publication any further.

If you are co-editing the book, be certain to have a clear division of labour and agree ahead of time the order of your names on the book cover and any co-authored chapters. Try to make sure your co-editor is as committed to the project as you are, or accept the fact that you will have to do a greater share of the work to keep it on track.

Editing books can be risky. You might alienate some scholars, perhaps including people you consider friends or senior people in your field, by having to tell them their contributions are not (yet) good enough. You will also spend a lot of time improving other people’s work, rather than writing your own.

However, an edited volume brings its share of rewards. You can bring attention to a neglected topic, establish your name in that field and position yourself at the centre of an emerging network. It is also an opportunity to mentor junior scholars or people from countries that don’t have strong research traditions.

You will need to put in a lot of hard work and do your best to avoid some of the pitfalls, but that will give you all the more reason to be proud of the strong final result once the book hits the stands.

Stephen Brown is a professor of political science at the University of Ottawa. He is a member of the collection committee of the University of Ottawa Press book series Studies in International Development and Globalization. This blog entry is based on a presentation he gave at a workshop co-organized by the press and the U of O’s Centre for Academic Leadership in December 2015.

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