By Emma Brennan, Editorial Director and Senior Commissioning Editor: History, Art History and Design
Academics often find themselves confronted with the task of editing a volume of essays, sometimes following a conference, and sometimes simply because a state-of-the-field volume is overdue. Not all publishers like them, but a high-quality essay collection can sell well and be of benefit to all concerned.
The first question a prospective volume editor should ask themselves is whether they can do (and want to do) what commissioning editors do all the time:
- persuade busy people to spend time writing for your volume
- keep them to a strict time scale
- require of them a high standard
- impose specific house style guidelines
- critique, edit and even cut the work of friends, colleagues and senior figures in your field
It’s not an easy set of tasks, but if you can pull it off, it looks great on your publication record and helps you develop your networks and reputation.
The things a publisher will look for in an edited volume proposal are these – the 4 Cs:
- coherence (how well does it all fit together as a book?)
- contribution (what is this book going to do, as a collection, and why does that matter?)
- coverage (is it as broad or as focused as it needs to be do that job well?)
- contributors (who’s in it?)
Coherence and where to begin
Think about an overall purpose for the volume and start from there. The book must amount to more than the sum of its chapters.
Ideally, you’d start with research questions, commission essays to explore them from interesting angles and then prepare a lovely coherent proposal for something that has always, in the minds of everyone involved, been a book.
Back in the real world, you’re probably going to start with a conference. My advice would be to start work on the book well before the event itself.
- tell your speakers that you’re planning a volume
- give them all a set of questions that any piece that ends up in the book will have to explore
- tell them that some (but not all) papers will be used (not every paper has an automatic right to appear in a book)
- be clear that you’ll decide based on the book and its coherence as you put it together
After the conference, choose your chapters wisely, and if there are any glaring gaps or biases in what you’re covering, it can be a good idea to commission further essays in order to fill the holes or provide balance.
You will need to answer the ‘so what?’ question convincingly, and to simply say that the book is ‘highlighting themes’ is rarely going to be enough. You as the editor have a difficult job because you have a group of different writers with different ideas and approaches and sources, but this is precisely the strength of an edited volume – so really think about what those different approaches, backgrounds, sources, areas of interest and so on can bring to the subject your volume will explore. It will have your name on it, so make it good.
Here are some things the book could usefully do, from a range of angles to be determined by your range of authors and what you ask of them:
- challenge the existing thought/literature (it should definitely do this)
- advance an underexplored area or open up a new approach to a much-studied area
- compare something across cultures, empires, industries (or whatever is appropriate to your area of study)
- work the chronological angles to show changes or continuities over time
- compare methodological or theoretical approaches
All of your chapters should contribute explicitly to what the book as a whole is doing. A generic chapter structure can be a good way of making things very clear for the reader, so that (for example) everybody starts with a little piece on how their chapter relates to the book overall.
Balance is key. Some would argue that different essays should be different lengths depending on the subject matter. I would say that if something is really important, have more than one chapter cover it, and have all your contributions roughly the same length. If it’s not important enough for a full-length chapter then replace it with something that is. It’s part of the job of editing to do this work.
If there are different kinds of chapter (for example in art history, you sometimes get dialogues between artist and scholar) then varying the length makes more sense. Afterwords and forewords can be much shorter, too.
If you are grouping your chapters into sections, then match them well and make the groupings of balanced size or thereabouts.
Try to cover all the angles in sufficient depth to do so usefully. Eight chapters on the British empire followed by one on the German empire and one on Goa will not convince any peer reviewer that your book is either global or focused, unless you have a very strong reason for following that pattern. It’s important to aim for chronological coherence, too, and if your volume should cover a period, then do it properly. Nine essays on the seventeenth century with a single lonely medieval one among them will never look quite right, so try to avoid repetition and heavy bias, too.
On the other hand:
- Not every angle can be covered in one book
- Some angles invite more to say than others
- Your volume does need limits, and these should be outlined and justified in a substantial introduction to the volume
Experience says that your book will be best and your life as volume editor simplest with no fewer than eight contributors, and no more than 14.
Any publisher will be attracted by a contributors list that’s glittering with eminent names. It’s more likely though that you’ll have a mixture:
- one or two ‘keynotes’ (or equivalent figures in the field, if no conference papers were harmed in the making of this volume)
- some mid-career names who have published on the subject
- some up-and-coming early career researchers and PhD students
It will help if the publisher recognises some of the names, because readers (and therefore buyers) will too. There is no reason not to include post-graduate student contributions as long as they fit the book well, and are balanced by and in dialogue with those of the more established scholars in your book. You might also want to think about getting a big name in the field to do a foreword or an afterword of 2000-4000 words – this can help both coherence and name recognition.
A lot of editors team up so that we see a combination of one senior and one junior scholar, or a mix of three or four. While collaboration can be a great thing, we’ve all heard tell of the junior people ending up with the majority of the work in those situations, so be careful about what you are signing yourself up for. A share of the credit should imply a share of the work.
Try to make sure that you have a geographical spread of contributors and that all the voices that should be included are heard.
- What’s being studied. Does your book on colonialism include enough indigenous voices? If it’s on South Asia, how many contributors are working with South Asian primary sources? Again, these might come under limitations of the book to be discussed in the introduction
- Where the book will sell. If the subject is mainly studied in the UK, do you have any UK names in there?
- Gender balance. Even in this day and age, we get book proposals with all-male line-ups
- Where are your contributors based? Six people from one university might not win your book as broad an audience as six people from more dispersed locations, who go to different conferences and events
The last thing anyone wants to do is end up with a book that promises a wealth of perspectives that’s actually written by a small group of people who only know one another, for one another.
The book proposal
Any book proposal has to contain information relating to the length and general parameters of the book, and these are the factors that affect the cost to the publisher of producing the book.
- 80,000-100,000 words is ideal but a longer book with all its 4 C’s firmly in place could be attractive. Longer books will usually require discussion with the commissioning editor
- As a rule of thumb, chapters should be 6000-8000 words, including all notes and references. Too short implies superficiality; too long implies bloating. The introduction can be longer or shorter as needed
- Illustrations – these will depend on the publisher but for us, black and white are easier and cheaper to produce than colour and it’s wise only to include them if you’re working with visual material that has to be shown. You as the editor will have to do all the to-ing and fro-ing if there are problems with quality or copyright
Some publishers will ask to see the full manuscript before offering a contract. As a minimum, you’ll have to provide detailed chapter synopses and a couple of sample chapters. It’s essential to include a very detailed summary of the introduction you plan to write. This is the key chapter.
Try to avoid falling into the trap of two introductions – a short volume introduction listing all the chapters to follow, and then an essay from another contributor that sets up the context. That’s hard on the reader and lets all your introductory glory drain away into someone else’s pocket. If you have to, why not collaborate with that contextualising contributor?
The introduction should do all of these things:
- articulate the current state of the field
- place the volume within the relevant literature
- outline its many clear contributions to the field
- explain what each chapter will do to further those contributions
- also, say what it won’t do and why
In your synopsis of the introduction, go into some detail about each of these points. Peer reviewers want to see what you feel the relevant literature is and will need to be convinced that this book hangs together sensibly. Essentially, an introduction synopsis should be a mini-introduction, in draft form.
Your draft chapters should be standardised to the point where the peer reviewers and the publisher will be reassured of your ability to do the work required to get a whole volume into shape. This means addressing the styles used for headings, references, punctuation and so on.
The same goes for chapter synopses – don’t just paste unrevised abstracts into a list – when one is three pages long with its own referencing system and the next one is a vague 150 words, it’s not going to give the right impression of your editing skills.
Put the synopses in the order that the chapters will appear in the book, so that the reader can see how the volume builds. Always provide a contents list to show that you have thought about the order of the chapters, and if you change their order in the course of revisions, change your chapter numbering, your synopses and your contents list so the peer reviewer will not get confused.
Pick your publisher carefully, based on the fit with their publishing strengths and what you want for the book (format, price and so on). It can be a good idea to send a brief outline to the commissioning editor (or series editor) to see whether they’d like to receive more. Approaching editors at academic conferences can also be a good way to gauge interest and to see who you’d like to work with.