Focus in edited volumes

28 May 2018

Edited volumes are tricky to put together. Too often they arise from a conference panel that thematically may be coherent but the contributing papers are all over the place. In addition, the tendency is for the panel organizer(s) to be expected to take on the role of volume editor. That is not always the best choice.

No surprises, then, that quite a few publishers turn their noses up at edited volumes, equating them with raw conference proceedings.

That is a mistake in my opinion. Strangely, it is often faster to get a chapter peer reviewed and published in an edited volume than it is to have an article appear in a top-flight journal. Quite frequently, then, such a chapter is the fastest way for new research to get out into the public domain. Moreover, because this chapter will appear with others dealing with the same research area, its impact will likely be higher than if published as an article hidden among journal articles covering all manner of subjects.

Sadly, it is not only a lot of publishers who are blind to this situation; the research assessment bureaucrats devising points ratings in different countries for the various types of publication also often miss this important truth.

How then to improve the image of edited volumes? That will be a long, hard slog. Essentially, these collections need to be focused, and visibly so.

The second part (visibility, recognition) completely relies on the first – focus. Here is where I shall concentrate today.

To bring focus into an edited volume, especially that arising from a conference panel, I would suggest the following as a minimum:

  1. Ensure the volume editor is credible and strong, able and willing to take the hard decisions.
  2. Stamina and time are also necessary in volume editors. Sometimes, then, the combination of a well-regarded senior scholar with an energetic junior doing much of the heavy lifting works very well.
  3. Contributing chapters cannot be the same as the papers presented at the panel. Some will be unsuitable and must be (regretfully) dropped; others may need to be recruited.
  4. Moreover, all papers should be rethought in terms of them now being an integrated chapter in a focused volume. They should “talk” to the overarching themes of the volume and where possible offer concrete linkages to other chapters in the volume.
  5. There will be instances where the chapters are simply too diverse to bind the volume together of their own accord. In this situation especially – but ideally in all cases – a strong introduction to the volume is vital. Not only must this introduce the chapters to follow and draw linkages between them; it should also transcend the chapters to create a discourse that the rest of the volume talks to – in musical terms composing a riff that each solo instrument then plays in its own way.

Normally, volume editors and contributors may have met at a conference but thereafter only interact remotely – by email, conference calls and document sharing, for instance. Missed deadlines, misunderstandings and even misbehaviour are not uncommon as a result. Focus in a volume can be vastly improved, then, if everyone involved gets to met again at a workshop aimed at critiquing and refining their contributions. Sadly, lack of funding means this is a rare thing unless all of the contributors come from the same area.

Currently, I am involved in two such publication projects where funding has been found to bring all the volume contributors together at a publication workshop – and, better still, together with discussants offering immediate but detailed feedback (a superior form of peer review in some ways).

Last week I attended the workshop for one of the projects, which has its origins in a defined research programme with invited participants rather than as a conference outcome. The workshop was only the latest in several workshops held. The presentations were very encouraging, the feedback excellent; focus was everywhere. I have high hopes for the success of this volume and the EverJust Myanmar research project it is part of.

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Advances

24 November 2010

The arrival of advance copies of a book is a special moment. Emotionally, the book is out; it is real. This is the moment to feel it was all worthwhile (and to brag just a little).

There is more to advance copies than feeling good and bragging, however. They have several other purposes.

A final check

For the publisher this is a last chance to discover and rectify errors. True, the book is printed so any changes are limited unless reprinting is decided upon. But should this be necessary (or, say, an errata slip inserted in the book), then at least this can be done before the books are shipped all over the world.

Review copies

Sometimes, publishes will send advance copies of the book to a few key journals as well as to the news media. Timing is critical here. Some publications like the Library Journal in the U.S. will only accept new titles for review several months ahead of publication, the idea being that the review is before publication of the book. It may be impossibly early for ordinary advances copies to be used here and instead such early review copies are usually galley proofs but today it is just as easy (if not more so) to deliver an ‘advance copy’ specially printed by a POD printer ahead of the main litho printing.

The news media also want early review copies but here timing is even more tricky. The essential nature of the media is its short attention span and the ephemeral nature of its product (today’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper, as we used to say). As such, any news or reviews of a book carried in the press tend to be within a few days of publication; review copies may well have been sent to the journalists only a week before. As such, publishers will only send copies to the media when they are certain that sale copies of the book will be available within a few days. Given the vagaries of shipping times, then, the publisher may judge it wise to hold back on sending such advance copies to the press or instead may send these advances but request an embargo on coverage until after sale copies of the book are available.

Obviously, such time sensitivity and media awareness only relates to those few academic books that are either timely and/or controversial.

Marketing copies

A common use for advance copies is as conference exhibits. For instance, in my own field, a key conference held each year in late March is the General Meeting of the (U.S.) Association of Asian Studies. Among the several thousand delegates attending will be librarians scouting for interesting additions to their collections. Also there will be teachers scrutinizing the latest titles in their field and deciding which (if any) should be adopted for course use in the new academic year. Ensuring that an advance copy is on view at the conference can have a major effect on sales.

For this reason, too, it is common for a publisher’s distributors to want copies of the book ahead of arrival of their shipped copies.

Reference copies

Given the competing demands for copies of the advances, it would be easy for the publisher to end up with none. This happened to me recently when inadvertently our only remaining advances of a controversial new title were exhibited and then sold at a big conference. Afterwards, it was embarrassing that I had no copy on hand when discussing the book with various concerned parties. Reference may not be a glamorous use of advance copies but it is an important one.

Author advances

That said, all things considered, in my opinion the prime use of advance copies is to reward the author with a foretaste of things to come. The hard grind finishing the book is over but equally important is the author’s promotion of her/his book in the months (and years) that follow. This vital contribution to the success of their book is not appreciated by most authors. (More about this in a later post.)

Authors may not get all of their author copies before the main shipment has arrived but it is usual that they receive one or two copies. Of course, any serious bragging at the book launch requires delivery of the main shipment (one point of the launch being to sell lots of copies to those attending) but often these advances are very useful to authors, arriving just in time to be shown at an important meeting or job interview.

Now

But such meetings and interviews are in the future.  It is now that the bell rings at the reception counter of your workplace. A courier stands there with a brightly coloured package. You sign, barely noticing as the courier leaves. Inside you can feel the copies. The Book, it has arrived, your child is born.

Enjoy the moment while it lasts. Getting a few advances from the printer is quick by courier but, as we shall see, shipping the rest of the copies to the warehouse and then out into the libraries and bookstores can take forever (or so it feels). More about that in my next post.

(Post #9 of the Printing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Why do publishers hate edited volumes?

2 October 2009

Not all publishers hate edited volumes; I don’t. But there are compelling reasons why publishers are reluctant to consider accepting an edited volume when offered it.

Number 1 reason: the conference proceedings.

In the ‘good old days’, it was common to produce a proceedings volume as a tangible result of a conference (otherwise an ephemeral event) but generally the number of copies were limited, often only going to the participants. As part of the hyping up of the academic world that we have witnessed these last few decades, there has been a push to give these proceedings (and their conferences) more weight by their publication as ‘real books’.

For a while publishers were happy to produce and libraries to buy almost anything that moved. But then came the collapse of the library market (described elsewhere), a growing global rash of conferences and a glut of often incoherent volumes edited by hapless conference organizers with few clues about editing books.

And the result? There are a few publishers whole entire raison d’être seems to be to publish tarted-up conference proceedings, and they look to do well in this line of business. But, today, many publishers will not touch edited volumes even with a barge pole, while a lot of others are deeply mistrustful of any multi-author volumes offered and will run a mile if mention is made of an originating conference.

Which is a great pity, actually, because there are also compelling reasons why publishers should consider accepting an edited volume when offered it.

All too often – because the barriers to getting a journal article or monograph published are much higher (and usually it takes longer, too) – an edited volume is the first publication in which new, innovative research from young scholars arriving in their field is make known. From hearsay, I understand that some often mediocre volumes sell well because of the attractions of maybe only two or three of their chapters. (With the increased possibility of buying e-chapters, however, I would expect such a halo effect to diminish and the decline in sales of edited volumes to worsen.)

Moreover, edited volumes can offer cross-disciplinary insights that a single author would struggle to find. There are, indeed, examples of excellent collections where the collaboration of many minds on a single subject, perhaps from different disciplines, brings about real breakthroughs. Such outstanding works often suffer, though, from the general taint attached to edited volumes.

In other words, do not despair if you are being pressured by the departmental mandarins to edit a ‘book of the conference’ in order to justify their funding priorities and events programme. The experience need not be bad. Indeed, there may be very good reasons to offer yourself as editor. Editing a book could be a way for you to build your academic network and gain name recognition in a wider circle. You might feel that your field needs a collaborative volume on a particular subject, and that there is nobody else who can make it happen, or happen well. Perhaps you have to offer a route to publication in order to attract good contributions to a workshop or conference you are convening. Or maybe it is just simply your turn.

But, if your editing experience is to be positive (even an outstanding success), then you do need to approach the task in certain ways to maximize such success. How? That is the subject of a later post (or read these pointers now in Chapter 4 of our book).

Happy editing!