Deciding to Edit a Book: Finding Contributors and Setting Yourself Up for Success

At some point, the opportunity for editing an anthology might fall in your lap. Or maybe you organize an amazing panel that could make a great text. Either way, editing a book can be a very rewarding experience. It can also feel daunting and frustrating at times. I learned a lot with each of the 3 books I’ve edited. Hopefully, my advice will help get you started on a positive path.

Two of my edited books. The Graduate Student Guidebook: From Orientation to Tenure Track is in production.

Is it the right time to edit a book?
My checklist for editing is the same as for writing a book. Unless you are in a discipline that prioritizes books over articles and counts edited anthologies as authored books, wait until after tenure. Even then, I recommend making sure you have other projects well underway before committing to an edited manuscript. Edited books aren’t always valued much in terms of promotion. That doesn’t mean you should do one, but know how it will impact your full professor application.

Why should I edit a book?
If book editing is a lot of work and may not count, why do it? For me, editing feels different from authoring a solo book. It’s a social process that straddles research and service (how it feels to me, not for promotion processes). I really enjoy working with other people to create a collective body of scholarship around an interesting topic. It can also be very satisfying to transform an excellent conference panel to something more permanent, sometimes helping early career scholars along. In other words, edit a book because the project excites you and feels like it would be personally satisfying, not because you think it will make you money (probably not), bring you fame (um, no), or be a ticket to promotion (again, check your own university’s guidelines).

Identifying the Topic
I personally believe that easiest, most organic way to do an edited book is to start with a great conference panel. The panel session is an excellent outlet for shaping the topic, especially with feedback from the audience. Furthermore, assuming the panelists all contribute, you also lock in 3-5 chapters of your book.

Another approach is to identify a gap in the existing literature that would be better addressed from an array of scholars, rather than one person. Perhaps the subject extends beyond your own knowledge, you’d like to span across disciplines, or you’d like diverse perspectives about an issue. If so, create a text with a collection of experts.

Finding Contributors
There are several ways to get scholars to write chapters for your book. I’ve worked with 39 contributors over my 3 projects and have used a few different approaches.

You may be planning to create a book out of an existing committee/set of conference participants/other group around a particular interest. This is a different kind of edited book then the next section addresses. Contributors will be motivated to get their chapters done because they are invested in the book’s success. With The Graduate Student Guide, the contributors were all past or current AEJMC Board of Directors who genuinely care about helping grad students. I mapped out a broad table of contents and then had board members select chapters that fit their interests (or add chapters that they felt were missing). An open call would not have made sense for this book’s intent.

Other Ways to Get Contributors

  • Do an open invitation for scholars to submit abstracts to be considered for your book.
  • Invite specific scholars to submit their work as chapters.
  • Build your Table of Contents from a combination of the first two (or start with panelists and then extend an open call).

I do not advise the first option for your book. if you completely start from scratch, you have little control over who will submit proposals and what topics will be addressed. Even more than that, the quality may vary significantly and you may worry that the chapters won’t be completed.

I recommend choosing the second or third option. It may be difficult to do all invited chapters (that’s a lot of people). A more practical approach is to start with a panel of people you know, invite more scholars that do work in the general area, and then do an open call. It’s less of a gamble and early in the project, you’ll be able to draft a table of contents. Plus, it’s comforting to have a few chapters that you know will get done and will get done well. At the same time, the open call may produce interesting perspectives on the topic that you hadn’t thought of or are outside of your expertise.

Working with Familiar Faces vs. Strangers

It can be a little tricky to edit the chapters of friends or colleagues. When things are going well, hands down, I will choose the friend, particularly when I am confident that the person reliably produces quality work. Some of the best chapters in my books were written by my friends (who had done research in the relevant area). It was easy and their contributions strongly enhanced the anthologies. However, if the person is routinely late or backs out, it can be an awkward and difficult experience.

When you don’t know the contributor, it’s more of a wild card experience. Will the person drop out or just never finish? Maybe. If some of your chapters come from an open call, assume at least one person will back out. Always build in time and a back-up plan for dropped chapters (more on that later). However, it can also be easier to edit a stranger’s work since you have no prior personal connection that may interfere with your feedback. You should still be positive and constructive, but it feels different. Of course, you’ll get to know your contributors through editing the book, meaning they aren’t strangers anymore.

The Call for Proposals (CFP)

After you’ve done your conference panel, confirming panelists as contributors, and solicited chapters from other scholars you know, you may need additional chapters to round out your book. Create a Call for Proposals (CFP), which should include a general description of the book, relevant bodies of theory, sample subtopics, instructions for submission (including the deadline), and your contact information. Here’s the CFP I used for the prison book.

I suggest requesting a 300-500 word abstract and not a chapter. It’s not a big commitment for scholars to write abstracts, the turnaround deadline from the CFP release can be fairly quick, and they will give you a good idea of the quality of the writing.

Once you have your submissions and the deadline has closed, determine which abstracts fit the scope, purpose, intended audience, and theoretical frameworks of the book. Start to draft the table of contents, figuring out what fits and what doesn’t. Also note the quality of the writing in the submission. If the abstract is poorly written, the chapter will likely be poorly written. Don’t be afraid to omit submissions early on. It’s much less painful than having to cut full chapters because they are indecipherable.

As you notify potential contributors of their acceptances (and also those you can’t accept), ask if any of them have their chapters ready. It’s helpful to have 1-2 chapters to use as samples.

With the ToC outlined and the contributors confirmed, you can start querying editors. It’s the same process as with solo-authored work, except that you are highlighting the expertise of a groups of people.

Setting Up the Project for Success

I will address the editing process in a future post. But I do have some tips in getting started:

  • Identify a clear vision for your book and stick to it. You want it to be cohesive collection.
  • Have a system for organizing contributions. I use an Excel sheet to keep track of the contributor, contact info, chapter status, and my last date of communication.
  • Remember that you are the leader of this project. It is your job to edit. Don’t hesitate to do your job. Be proactive in reminding people of deadlines. Communicate changes that need to be made. Take charge and don’t doubt your abilities. At the same time, be helpful, friendly, and understanding. You want others to want to work with you.

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