two big hassles in editing a book, and what you can do about them

My first post last week suggested that there were three good reasons to consider editing a book. This post focuses on the necessities of book editing. I’m writing about two big problems, not because I think that they should be enough to put you off, but because it’s better to go into the book editing process forewarned. So here they are.

Problem One: You got it wrong.

It’s easy to be convinced, when you’re doing the book proposal, that you’ve got a fantastic and original idea for an edited collection. You’ve got a novel focus and a new structure for putting the chapters together. You convinced the publisher it would work. You invited people to contribute. But now you’ve got the chapters in hand you can see that the grand idea isn’t actually quite what you thought it would be. In fact, it seems to have all kinds of problems – and the result is a not very good collection. It’s clear that this has nothing to do with the quality of what’s been submitted – it’s caused by the actual guiding framework, your creation, your fault, your problem. Now what?

Think that doesn’t happen? Well, I’ve been in just that situation. My co-editors and I had a great idea, we thought. We asked people to write, and they did. But when we put the chapters all together it looked like two books, not one. We sweated for weeks about what to do and finally decided that we had no choice but to restructure the book. That meant we had to renegotiate with the publisher, ask some new contributors and then work out what to do with the chapters left over. In our case, because the chapters were (thankfully) all focused on the same topic, we were able to secure a special issue of a journal. All of the authors gracefully agreed to rewrite their piece a bit so it could be refereed for that particular publication. We solved the problem. As we needed to – after all, we created it!

Solution: Be prepared.

If you have an idea for a collection that is a bit off piste, then make some kind of back up plan. You have an obligation to the authors to make sure that work they have produced in good faith is published.

Problem Two: The authors didn’t deliver as expected.

This is the issue that most editors face. There are multiple ways in which authors become a problem and here’s some of the most common.

(1) Authors write off topic. You’ve asked them to write about a particular thing, they submitted an abstract that you used in the book proposal and it looked good. However, when the chapter turned up, it’s nothing like what you imagined.

(2) Authors write badly. The published work you’ve seen from the author has all been fantastic. But what they’ve sent you is clearly hurried, muddled and generally sloppy. In fact it’s not publishable in its present state.

(3) All the chapters are too long. You’ve given the authors a word length, and you’d allowed a bit of slack but they’ve all gone over by a significant amount … now the entire book is well over the word limit that is specified in the contract.

(4) Authors miss the deadline. (Blush, this is my major writing sin.) They have good excuses and you can see why they’re late. It’s a case of blood and stones, you have no choice but to wait on them.

(5) Authors don’t submit anything at all. For whatever reason, authors promise to write a chapter and then they don’t. Life gets in the way, they get ill, they get an unexpected grant which is all consuming, they are just overloaded with work… they meant well but in the end they just couldn’t get it together. For whatever reason, the chapter doesn’t happen. This is generally not because they are lazy so and sos, but is more about the nature of academic life. What to do? You’ll still probably need to talk to people who haven’t managed to get their chapters in on time – you’ll generally find that they are embarassed and very, very apologetic.

Solution: Anticipate that all of these issues will happen.

Set up expectations. Tell authors beforehand that there is a review process and they will get feedback on their chapters. This can even be from peer reviewers that you enlist to help out. (You can thank them in the acknowledgements). Design a review form to use for feedback which looks at (a) the content and argument and the fit with the collection and (b) secretarial issues such as citations, referencing style and word length. Show the contributors this beforehand.

Build a review process into the timeline for getting the book to press. Be realistic about the deadline. In fact, be generous. Better to be finished ahead of time than fall behind. But also be prepared to go back to the publisher and ask for more time, ahead of the deadline. Publishers schedule printing and advertising as soon as they issue contracts so it’s really important to keep them in the loop.

Don’t make it more stressful than it has to be. You do need to have enough flex in the timetable to be able to offer people a bit more time if they really need it. If you are reviewing chapters for example, you can always start with those in hand, and cut a few people a bit of slack (especially if its me ☺).

Be firm. If authors can’t get down to the required length, but you want their chapter in the collection, insist. You might offer to edit it for them if you think they genuinely can’t do it. I’ve found that people are often grateful for some suggestions about where to cut, and/or an empathetically conducted edit. Conversely, you can go to the publisher to ask if there is any possibility of increasing the word count – sometimes there is.

Be prepared to make hard decisions. You may have to tell someone that their chapter isn’t up to the mark even after several revisions. This is just part of the editing process. After all it’s your book with your name on it – you’re the one who will be seen to be a crappy editor if some of the contributions are weak. If you feel uncomfortable about refusing to include something, ask your publisher for help. They have a vested interest in your book being a strong collection too and are sometimes prepared to be the ‘bad cop’.

Have a back up plan. Some people like to invite one or two more contributions than they expect to have in the book (but what to do if they all turn up?). Others have a couple of colleagues ready to step in, or have a chapter of their own that they can insert if the anticipated contributions don’t arrive.

Some final important advice

Be prepared for the emotional labour involved in dealing with these problems. Many book editors – and I’m one of them – swear immediately after finishing an edited collection that they’ll/we’ll never do another one. Like childbirth, we forget quickly, and many of us find ourselves lining up for another one – or even more – rather more quickly then we anticipated.

Finally, you’ll see that I’ve mentioned “your publisher” several times in this post. As with any book, it’s really important to establish a good working relationship with your publisher. They can be particularly important for edited collections and the various dealings that you have with authors over contracts, copyright – and most of all, quality.

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in authors, chapter, editing, emotional labour and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to two big hassles in editing a book, and what you can do about them

  1. Pat- this sums up neatly much of the pain that you can go through! Having completed many edited books when I was at the OU, I can vouch for these observations. I think the worst part for me is when somebody appears to really want to be in the book, and then doesn’t deliver.

  2. socialworknz says:

    Great advice. My first edited book is due out soon. I ‘practised’ by guest editing several special journal issues. I have enjoyed the process very much overall. Let down totally by one author who not only didn’t submit but was utterly rude in failing to communicate with us. Very disappointing but the authors who stepped in were wonderful.
    I would be much more assertive next time and I agree that having strong author guidance is vital so you achieve a coherent whole.

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