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Publishing an edited volume
Tips for scholars who want to pitch edited collections to university presses and other scholarly publishers
Hello Manuscript Workers,
Today’s newsletter is about a topic that I frequently receive questions about but, admittedly, have less first-hand experience with than the usual topics I write about here. I’m therefore thrilled to have been able to chat with Stephanye Hunter, Editor-in-Chief at the University Press of Florida, about what scholars should consider when planning to publish an edited volume. She had so many rich insights to share when we spoke; our transcribed and edited conversation is shared below.
Before we jump into that, I want to share three quick pieces of information.
My self-study course, Developmental Editing for Academics, is still open for enrollment. Once enrolled, you get lifetime access to the materials, but enrollment will be closing on September 30th. There will be a live Q&A for members of the course on September 27th at 10am Pacific, so if you’d like to join for that, make sure to sign up before that day. The Q&A will be an opportunity to meet fellow editors and aspiring editors and to ask any questions you may have about working with academic texts and authors and/or running an editorial business. The skills taught in this course are definitely applicable to assembling an edited volume, so if you find the rest of today’s newsletter intriguing, the course may be a good fit for you.
I will be using the first newsletter of every month to share new books by Manuscript Works readers and clients. If you have a scholarly book coming out in October, feel free to email me with a jpg of your cover, a link to you publisher’s webpage, and any discount codes you’d like to share.
I’m overwhelmed by all the thoughtful responses to my job posting for an assistant to help out at Manuscript Works. Because of the strong response, I’ve taken down the post so that I can look through the messages I’ve received and get to contacting people as soon as possible. I hope to follow up with everyone by the end of this month.
Alright, time to talk edited volumes. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, an edited volume is usually a collection of scholarly essays united by a common theme. The essays may be entirely original to the volume, though sometimes the essays have appeared elsewhere in another format, such as a conference or colloquium, or even in books or journals. One or more volume editors will do the work of recruiting the contributors, editing their contribution drafts, pitching the book to publishers, writing an introduction to the collection, and liaising with the publisher’s acquiring editor and production team throughout the publication process.
While many scholars like the idea of working on edited volumes, there’s a perception out there that they can be a “hard sell” to scholarly publishers when compared with single-author books. They can also carry “less value” than monographs when it comes to the academic CV, perhaps unfairly. I spoke with Stephanye about these questions and others that often come up for authors who are considering such a project.
If you’ve ever been curious about working on an edited volume and pitching it to a publisher, please read on!
Laura: Thank you for speaking with me today, Stephanye! I have some specific questions about publishing edited volumes but I thought I would begin by asking about the value you see in scholarly edited volumes, as an editor-in-chief and acquiring editor at a university press.
Stephanye: I think edited volumes are sometimes seen as less valuable publications to the field, but edited volumes actually have a lot of potential to be impactful on their fields. There’s also a perception that an edited volume is easier for a scholar to publish than a single-author monograph. But to make an impact on a field, an edited collection often requires just as much work and specific kinds of work.
One way an edited volume can make a contribution not available in single-author monographs is by allowing for a wider range of approaches. You can have a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary project, pulling scholars from across different disciplines or larger geographies while focusing on a single subject. Covering multiple disciplines or geographies is just not always going to be possible for a single author. One of my acquisition areas is Latin American studies, and it can be really challenging for a single author to write about Latin America as a region. Edited volumes let you have someone focusing on Argentina and someone focusing on Brazil, for instance, coming together with their deep-rooted expertise in the countries or cultures that they study.
By allowing for a diversity of contributors, edited volumes can also expand who can contribute. You might have the senior scholars who are the big names in their field and really kind of set the conversation, but you can also have junior scholars who are bringing new ideas and cutting edge research. Putting them in dialogue with each other in an edited volume is a great opportunity for everyone.
Something that I've also noticed at University Press of Florida, in our archaeology projects for example, is that there’s an opportunity for nonacademics to be involved in edited volumes in ways that they're just not going to be able to do with a single-author monograph. Within archaeology, collaborative archaeology between scholars and local community members is a really important growing area. The local community might be Indigenous groups who may not be traditional academics, but they have a very valuable role in the archaeological project. An edited volume gives them a space to contribute and to make their perspective heard alongside the scholars.
Going back to Latin American studies, a lot of the authors I want to publish may feel more comfortable writing in Spanish or Portuguese or Kreyol, and translation is a real hurdle for for them. Paying to translate an entire monograph is expensive. But edited volumes allow for these scholars to write smaller pieces that they can either feel comfortable translating themselves, or have the resources to have someone translate. This has really opened up some some subjects for us. I have a book coming out soon on Central American film, and several of the contributors are scholars in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. I'm so excited to have them writing about the film in their countries as part of an edited volume.
So I think there are a lot of benefits to publishing edited volumes and they deserve more consideration than they’re sometimes given.
Laura: I don’t think I’d previously thought of edited volumes as being a means of access, of accessibility in scholarly publishing, in all the ways that you just explained so well. Many publishers say they want to be accessible and reach diverse writers, so it sounds like you’re saying edited volumes are a way to actually follow through on those statements.
Stephanye: Absolutely. Publishing edited volumes is also a way of making the publication process more visible to scholars who might not participate in it otherwise. By letting contributors work with a university press on a smaller scale, as part of an edited volume, they can become familiar with the publishing process without having to fully commit to publishing an entire book with us.
Laura: What are the major challenges involved in assembling and publishing edited volumes?
Stephanye: All of these advantages I’ve been talking about sort of have a flip side in the challenges that they create. The diversity of perspectives is phenomenal when you have authors coming from different backgrounds. But the effect of that is that you have many different voices rather than one single authorial voice, which can make for a more challenging reading experience. The authors coming from different backgrounds are going to assume their readers know certain things. A contributor coming from the field of geography is going to assume a certain level of knowledge, whereas a scholar coming from literary studies is going to assume a completely different set of knowledge. And so understanding where those people are coming from and what they're assuming is important.
Unevenness in contributions can also be an issue. This is something I’ve seen come up several times in the review process of edited volumes—some chapters are just going to be stronger than others. Contributors are coming to this with different amounts of expertise in scholarly writing. Some chapters are going to need more work before they’re ready to be published.
The pivotal person in addressing these challenges is the volume editor. There’s a perception that an edited volume is an easier way to get a book publication on your CV than writing a single-author monograph. But putting together an edited volume is almost always more work than people think it’s going to be.
Laura: I couldn’t agree more about the importance of editorial labor on the part of the volume editor. Could you say more about what’s involved in that work for any scholars who may be thinking they want to assemble an edited volume in the future?
Stephanye: You can gather a set of papers together and write a nice introduction and try to publish that as an edited volume. But for the collection to have the contribution you want it to have as an editor, there are additional steps that need to be taken. You really want the book to be more than just a collection of essays; you want it to be more than the sum of its parts.
Framing is a big part of that, which means the introduction needs a lot of care taken in the writing. A good introduction should articulate why the volume is important and the contribution it's making. Your template for monograph introductions includes a component on conceptual background. That's also a really important part when introducing an edited volume, because as I said, the contributors are coming from different backgrounds and different disciplines. And so having this one part in the introduction to orient all readers, wherever they're coming from, can be really helpful.
It’s also crucial to explain important terms, because terms can kind of shift in meaning across different chapters. And so it can be beneficial to discuss in the introduction those shifts in meaning and explain where and why those shifts happen.
Introductions to edited volumes should also offer a rationale for the way the volume is organized. Figuring out that organization can be harder than with a single-author monograph because there can be many different possible ways to arrange all the contributions. There may be more puzzle pieces, and it may not be as clear how each chapter builds on the previous ones as in a monograph. The volume editors need to think carefully about why they're organizing the chapters the way they are, and then articulate that in the introduction so the reader knows what to expect.
The introduction is usually the last piece to be written, which makes sense, but I also think that the chapter authors, if possible, should read the introduction before revising their contributions, because that sort of helps with the cohesion of the volume. The chapter authors can see the terminology and conceptual background that's being provided to the reader at the beginning of the volume and adjust their own chapters as needed.
Ideally, everyone contributing to the book would read the entire volume and revise their chapter accordingly. I think they should at least read the chapters that are most relevant to their chapter, so that there can be some dialogue between chapters. That can help with cohesion and with making the project feel like more than the sum of its parts.
Regarding the potential unevenness of chapters, volume editors should be prepared to do some editing of the text. I always ask junior scholars who want to put together an edited collection, “are you prepared to edit the senior scholars who are contributing? What if they turn in a chapter that’s not up to par? Your name is going to be on this book.” Volume editors should be prepared to edit all contributors.
The good conclusion chapter can also make the book cohesive. While not required, a strong, compelling conclusion brings the reader back to what was started in the introduction—stating the significance of the volume to the field, highlighting the arguments across the volume—and pushes the ideas forward by discussing what questions the contributions leave us with and what the next steps for research are.
The strength of the introduction and conclusion and the evenness across chapters are the items that come up most in peer reviews for edited volumes, and also in published reviews after the book is released. Reviewers notice whether volumes are successful in those things, so volume editors should be thinking about them.
Laura: I know my newsletter readers will really appreciate you breaking it down like that. I want to shift to talking about the pitching process and the question of how authors can connect with publishers about ideas for edited volumes. But first I want to start with a little context, because there's seems to be a perception out there that university presses are wary of edited volumes, or maybe more selective about them than about other types of books. So I wonder if you could speak to where that perception might come from. And if you think it’s an accurate perception, could you explain why a press might have a higher bar for acquiring an edited volume than a monograph?
Stephanye: I think the perception could be accurate. I’ve been looking at other university press catalogs to see the balance of edited volumes against other publications and there do seem to be fewer of them, at some of the larger presses especially. I think the low number of edited volumes published by university presses might be tied to that perception I mentioned earlier that they don’t require as much work from the volume editor as a monograph would. When volume editors go in with that perception, they may not be prepared to do the work needed to make the volume as strong and cohesive as it needs to be in order to get published. Or they do get published and they don’t sell well or get positive reviews because they weren’t as strong as they could have been. So the cycle of seeing edited volumes as lower in status sort of perpetuates itself. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. I think there's a lot of room for edited volumes to make really important contributions.
Laura: Is there anything else about an edited volume that makes it less attractive to a publisher aside from the labor required of the volume editor? Is there more labor required on the production side? Are more resources required to publish and market them? Is it harder to sell them to libraries and bookstores?
Stephanye: There are more resources needed. For example, because you might have twelve different contributors, the copy editor for the volume is going to have to adapt to each writer and copy edit each chapter differently. No matter how much work the volume editors do, there’s going to be more work for the copy editor.
Also, edited volumes are often longer than monographs, and the longer length adds costs. I recommend volume editors start with fewer chapters, because it's a lot easier to start with fewer than to reject some later on because the total length is over the word limit for the volume. Having fewer contributors can give those contributors more space not only to really develop their arguments, but also to revise to accommodate reviewer suggestions. I think readers often prefer shorter books rather than giant long books anyway. I can’t speak to sales as much, although I suspect sales of edited volumes vary by discipline
There can also be a kind of lack of ownership in promoting the book, because the volume editors may not feel as much responsibility to promote the book as they would if they had written it. That's not always true, though. I once published a volume where the editors put together a book trailer and interviewed the contributors. Other editors host panel events to discuss the different contributions. I think that kind of thing really highlights the value of an edited volume, which is the collaboration and conversations that can be generated within this format. But I think that's not something that all volume editors are prepared to do or know to do.
Laura: Can you share what you would be looking for if you were talking to a prospective volume editor and trying to decide whether you would want to acquire their project? Do you want them to talk about how well-positioned they are to promote the book?
Stephanye: I'm always happy to see a prospective author talk about their platform, just to know that they understand the value to the press of them actively promoting their book. So that's definitely something that would be worth mentioning in conversation with an acquiring editor. The successful edited volume projects I sign are often those where the volume editors are really eager and involved in the process. That's something I can kind of tell from the beginning. I’ll see that the proposal is very well conceptualized, and we'll have a long conversation about the provenance of the volume and what they've done to put the papers in conversation. I’ll want to hear about workshops they’ve held with the chapter authors, for example, anything that shows me that the chapter authors are talking to each other and the volume editor is facilitating that. If a volume editor has done that kind of thing, they should highlight it in their proposal materials.
Laura: Can you give any concrete examples for authors who are trying to make sure their proposals come across as “well conceptualized”?
Stephanye: Many of the things you cover in The Book Proposal Book are applicable to edited volumes. I want to see proposals where it's clear that there's a strong connective tissue, a strong framework, and a strong cohesion among the chapters. It shouldn’t feel like the chapters have been thrown together randomly. I want to see a clear rationale for why these chapters are included. I also want to know what intervention the volume is going to make. What other books is it in dialogue with? I’m looking for the larger conversation this volume is going to participate in when the book is published.
I acquired an edited volume that’s just come out, and it’s a fantastic book, making a really great contribution. The proposal was so solid in that section; it was just very clear what they were trying to do and who they were in dialogue with. And it’s been reviewed positively.
Laura: Can we shout out that book?
Stephanye: Oh yes, please. It’s Collective Creativity and Artistic Agency in Colonial Latin America, edited by Maya Stanfield-Mazzi and Margarita Vargas-Betancourt.
Laura: Hopefully this isn't putting you too much on the spot, but are there any red flags that you might see in a proposal for an edited volume that would make you say “oh no, that's not going to work for us”?
Stephanye: The amount of material that's been previously published is something to be aware of, if you're pulling chapters from books that authors are working on independently. I also think having a lot of very niche chapters, where it's not clear how they're in dialogue with each other, would be something that I would look out for, because then it seems like it's just a collection and not as curated as I want an edited volume to be.
Laura: My next question is one that someone raised on Twitter when I shared that I would be having this discussion with you. They wanted to know, what can an early career researcher do to make themselves more attractive to a publisher as a collection editor?
Stephanye: That's a good question. Sometimes I'm hesitant to sign very junior scholars as volume editors—at least without having a conversation with them first—partly because they're going to be herding cats with the contributors. Some of those contributors might be senior scholars in their field, and that can put the junior volume editor in a tough position. There's a power imbalance there, where they may not feel empowered to give editorial advice to the more senior scholars. In the past I've asked more junior volume editors about the resources at their disposal, particularly mentors. I’ll want to know if they have mentors who have edited volumes, who they can go to and ask questions if these kinds of things come up. Just the number of people participating in that kind of project can create a lot of uncomfortable situations that can have more important implications for a scholar just beginning their career.
I also like to make sure that junior scholars know how much work is going to be involved and to make sure this is something that works for their schedule and goals. Edited volumes may not be worth as much as a monograph in their tenure and promotion package, yet they will still take up a lot of time. So I like to talk to volume editors about that and say, “Are you sure this is something that you have time for at this point, and that you're not diverting time and effort from a project that you really need to advance your career?”
I don't know that those are things that someone would highlight in a proposal necessarily, but those are two things that I talk to junior scholars about if they want to edit a volume. Honestly, some of the best proposals I've gotten for edited volumes are from junior scholars, because they work very hard. They know what's cutting edge. And they they know who to talk to. So my advice is to just put together the strongest proposal possible.
Laura: Lastly, I want to ask you about timing, because I get this question from prospective volume editors a lot. Sometimes a volume editor wants to know a press is into the idea of their book before they go gather all the contributors. But at the same time, they worry the press won’t be into the idea unless some big-name contributors are already committed to it.
Stephanye: I would say that a volume editor can talk to an acquiring editor about an idea early on to see if the editor might be interested. But at the proposal stage, I’ve never put an edited volume under contract without the contributors already committed, because so much can change. It’s not so much about big names. It’s more about the volume editor’s vision for the book having to shift once they’re actually working with the contributors. They might have planned for chapters on various topics and then no one wants to write about one of the planned topics. The book may shape up differently than they imagined.
So I think it’s helpful to gauge an acquiring editor’s interest, but then when submitting a proposal, come back with a full list of contributors and an annotated table of contents so I can see how you’re actually going to accomplish your vision for the volume. There can be multiple points of contact between volume editor and acquiring editor.
Laura: Well, this has all been super helpful and full of tips that people are going to be able to take away from this post. Before we go, would you like to put in a plug for any edited volumes you're looking to acquire or the types of authors you'd like to be hearing from?
Stephanye: I started this discussion by saying that I think edited volumes are a great way to give a platform to voices who we may not hear in traditional monographs. And so that's something that I and my colleagues at University Press of Florida are all looking for. In archaeology we may be looking for Indigenous collaborators; in film we may be looking for scholars who are active in the film industry in different countries. So I hope volume editors will look for opportunities to include writers we might not be hearing from otherwise.
I’m hugely grateful to Stephanye for her time and thoughtfulness in chatting with me about edited volumes. If you have a project that might fit with her acquisition areas, I encourage you to reach out to her, as I get the impression she would be wonderful to work with as an editor.
Before I go, one last reminder to check out Developmental Editing for Academics and see if the course might be right for you.
Thanks for reading and see you next week!