• On 03/11/2019
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Editing collections

In my role as editor of the book series, Foundations and Innovations in Technical and Professional Communication, I am fortunate to get to talk to quite a few folks about their ideas. Many of these ideas are around edited collections. While I have written before that we need fewer of these, I am also aware that they can be groundbreaking and/or trend setting.

I have come to realize that my problem with collections isn’t really that we have so many. It’s that we have so many that are done poorly. Now before y’all get all riled up and accuse me of being unfair or minimizing people’s labor or whatever else may come to your mind, let me say that I do understand the labor and what goes into them. I understand working with that many people can be hard and trying and that allowances are made at every step of the process because of life and time. I get the practical and material realities.

But that doesn’t’ mean we need to continuously settle for poorly done collections. For me—and I underscore me cause, hey, this is my blog—there are two big problems with most collections. First, they do not cohere. They do not as a coherent whole make any sort of argument outside of being loosely affiliated chapters around (sometimes) tenuous connections to a topic. Second, and probably more importantly, the chapters are uneven quality with a number that should have been rejected or at the least revised a time or two more.

As the editor of the project, you have so little control of things because of people and schedules, but you sure as heck have control of the quality of the chapters and selecting or soliciting chapters that can help you make an argument. Is it harder to do things this way? Abso-fucking-lutely. Can just anyone do it? Nope. ##

Since we have so few mechanisms (none, really, but I am trying to be generous) to help folks interested in doing a collection well, I want to lay some practical and philosophical points about editing collections. $$

Why should I do a collection?

Cause you have a great idea that the field needs. This is truly the reason. The great idea is an area of scholarship that is missing or is under-developed or has changed substantially since the last big work or emphasis in the journals.

You also want to do one because you are passionate about the idea. This is much like your dissertation. You will live with it for a while and the onus of it being finished is on you. So you really need to like the subject and have a clear understanding of the work involved.

It can be a ton of fun working with so many folks and seeing ideas go from an idea to something fully formed. They can also set trends and encourage scholarship in new directions, which is the ideal of the “life of the mind.”

But, do not forget it is a ton of work. WORK.

Do I got it alone or have co-editors?

There are pros and cons to both doing it solo and having co-editors. Solo means you are exactly that and you. can set the vision and goals of the volume and really make it your own. Of course, you are doing all the labor by yourself.

Having at least one co-editor if not more immediately distributes the work, but it also immediately increases the intellectual labor in some ways. That is, you have to make decisions with other people. This can be so rewarding but it can also be time intensive and requires a lot negotiation and compromises. You’ll see many folks may do this with a long-standing friend, which can be highly rewarding, but it can also be problematic if neither one of you are willing to be the “bad guy” in making sure that certain standards are met.

If you’re thinking about doing this with other people, you need to have a long and honest conversation about your goals, your philosophies on the subject, your standards of scholarship, and most importantly, the timing of the project and whether your schedules align. A big thing about schedules and timing is that it is useful to discuss how this project fits into the overall goals of each person’s tenure, reappointment and promotion. Differing rationales and schedules have doomed many a project.

You have to be prepared for that. If you do not have good time management or project management skills with lots of attention to details, then do not do this by yourself. So this is a moment to think of folks who may have commentary skill sets so that you can truly divide and conquer.

How do I ensure I get chapters that match my idea?

You don’t. that’s the first thing to understand. If you are doing at least a partial open call (that is where you create a CFP that goes out publicly across list servs and social media) then you have to accept that you may get some things that change the direction of your vision. You gotta go with what you get. You can, of course, supplement this with invitations to specific folks who are working in the same area. By inviting, then you get a mix of things you may not have expected and some chapters that you feel will definitely fit into your overall goals.

Many collections have a feel of the editor and their friends, which is mostly not a good idea. Doing a word of mouth collection can be problematic because you may lose sight of what you’re trying to do and it’s hard to tell folks you know well that they need to do some serious revisions. So this is one of the reasons that a lot of collections lose their focus. (Again, my view. You don’t have to agree with it.)

So to be clear, you can solicit chapters by

  • An open call distributed across list servs and social media
  • Invitations to specific people
  • Word of mouth through your network
  • A combination of all three

Then there is the odd thing that sometimes happens. You get rejected for one thing and you end up making a better thing. That’s how Methodologies of Health of Medicine came about. We asked some folks based on abstracts at conferences, symposia, and institutes to contribute an idea to a proposal for a special issue of RSQ. That proposal was not selected so we expanded our invitations until we had enough to send out a prospectus proposal. So this was not exactly any of the above.

Do I write a chapter in my own book?

You can. Or you cannot. Folks are pretty well split down the middle about whether this is a good idea. As long as the chapter fits the collection’s focus and you work hard to get it reviewed outside your co-editor(s) (if applicable) and you understand that it adds another layer of work for you then why not?

But, if you’ve never edited a collection before, I would vote against it.

When do I write and submit the prospectus proposal?

Like with any publishing endeavor there are lots of ways to approach this. Since there is so much labor involved, I would recommend getting in contact with potential publishers before you even say, yes, I’m doing this and also while you are putting together a prospectus proposal. You at least want to query to see if folks are interested in the big idea. Speaking for myself and my series, please talk to me. In a number of cases, I was sold on the idea and eliminated a couple of steps. So talking to folks is always recommended.

But, nothing concrete or even close to concrete happens until an editor at a press sees a prospectus. For edited collections, the prospectus needs to have all the usual parts and also a clear idea of where the volume sits in existing conversations. A mostly completed introduction is also good because it does the work for the press in seeing the potential of it. The proposal abstracts also need to be included (of curse) and I want to underscore they need to be edited so they show the coherence between the chapters. Just copying and pasting the abstracts/proposals your received is a clear sign (to me anyway) that you don’t fully understand the role of the editor of the volume.

All presses have guidelines available abut what needs to be included. And if you have any questions, just email the contact. Truly, folks would so much prefer an email to clarify. Something than to receive all your hard work and then have to send it back for changes.

You also want to pitch your project to a press that has specializes in your area. Sending a book to a publisher that doesn’t specialize in your thing means that they make like the idea, but then you’re likely not getting good constructive feedback to make it better. If you have questions about fit, then ask a trusted mentor. (And I know little, but I know a lot of people. You can always contact me and I will happily find someone to answer your question about press fit.)

What is a general timeline?

Collections are gonna take anywhere from 18 months to 3+ years from the idea to the publication. The shorter end of the spectrum is connected to projects where folks had some already strong ideas so you can shorten up the timeline for writing the first drafts. Considering there are a ton of variables, here’s a general timeline:

  • CFP or chapter solicitations: 4-8 weeks (if you’re selecting chapters from an open call, then add another two to 4 weeks here for the time where you will make your selections.)
  • Chapter drafts: 3-6 months (here is where you are doing the work of finding a publisher)
  • Reviews (usually done by editor(s)): 6 weeks (this is solid work time where you need to not have much else going on. If you do, then you need to make this 8-10 weeks)
  • Chapter revisions by authors: 4-6 weeks (during this time, you need to make sure you have your introduction drafted or done as well as tweaking the prospectus materials (if applicable))
  • Reviews by editor: 4-6 weeks (this should not be as labor intensive as before and hopefully, folks did a good job so that it can out for peer review. Start with the weaker chapters first cause if they. need a tweak or revision you can send those back to authors while you continue to read the rest of the chapters.)
  • Book manuscript to press for review: this can take from 2-4 months (all depends on the reviewers selected and their schedules)
  • Reviews: this is the last chance for substantial revision based on the press reviewers and one last review by the editor(s). The press will likely set a turn around time or ask you to submit one. Try to get at least 2 months so folks can do some final work.
  • Back to the press: the production cycle varies but it will include three layers of reviews that will usually take 4-6 months. Here is where you will do a lot of management of tasks and sending things and nagging folks and in the latter stages need to produce an index or pay someone to do it for you.

 

Definition of an editor from a dictonary page.

What does the editor do?

Your main job is to provide a vision for the volume through your introduction and your editorial work with chapter authors. A good edited project is hard. It requires the editor to set the tone for the volume, enforce that tone throughout the chapters, and make hard decisions to achieve the goal of the volume.

It is much, much more than asking folks to send things in because it involves having to provide difficult feedback (or even decisions) to people that you know and to people whose work you may respect and admire. But, those hard decisions and difficult work are balanced out by producing a volume that sets the tone and the direction for future research in a particular area.

At different stages of the project, you have to make editorial decisions that align with the conceptual vision of the project. This is normally done in rounds of review. I would suggest that all chapters are editorially reviewed and then substantially edited before you send the volume to the press for peer review. This ensures a higher scholarly quality and also ensures that the work is moving toward your own vision. Based on how the press does reviews, you should make sure that authors know that they will likely have to do another substantial revision after peer review. It is also not uncommon for some chapters to need several other small revisions to address and make stronger certain areas. This editorial work is your responsibility—not the peer reviewers the press gets.

Outside of the editorial and reviewing work, you also end up being a project manager as you keep track of all the details and deadlines and communicate with your authors. This project management aspect also includes figuring out ways to work with difficult or reticent authors who are reluctant revisers or just difficult personalities (that often times you have no way of knowing about until you are in the thick of the work).

Some final thoughts

I can say this. At the series I edit, we are trying something a bit innovative and it may not work. But we’re gonna try it. For some volumes (not all), we’re splitting the collection up and asking reviewers to do fewer chapters and having them focus in on the argument, method/ology, and implications. We are asking reviewers to look at the bigger issues.

Thus, we’re putting the onus on the editors to do the job around organization, incorporation of evidence, ensuring the lit review is solid, and working on sentence level or writing issues. It’s important to note here that at the TPC series, the associate editors or I will also provide an in depth review of the project so chapter authors and editors are getting substantial, constructive, and generative feedback with the goal of making the project better.

And who doesn’t like a good collection for their teaching or one where several of the chapters just changed eh way you approached something. So they definitely have their place. Let’s make some good ones!

 

 

 

 

##I’m happy to point you to ones that should never have been done. Not that the idea wasn’t good. The problem is in the work involved and believe it or not, academics are not by osmosis or by the right of their PhD made into good editors. I will be the first to admit that my first one is not that good. I remain extraordinarily proud that it charted important new territory in tech comm. But I was not at all ready to edit a volume, and while I did a whole lot of due diligence and learning how to do it and had a couple of really fabulous mentors through the process, I was not ready, and it shows. The second one I did is fabulous and at this moment remains one of the things that I am most proud of in my career. The third one I have coming out (in Sept., 2020 with OSU Press RHM As/IS) I will tell a story, several actually, when it is in my hands and really, totally done.

 

&&Special issues are quite similar to this as far as vision and work is concerned. The biggest difference is that the timeline is typically set for you but the publication cycle of the press and you are dealing with fewer manuscripts since a journal typically will publish 4-5 research articles.

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