My friend Terry Clague at Routledge recently contributed a fantastic blog post to LSE’s The Impact Blog on the value of edited books. In his post he also points to a post at Pat Thomson’s excellent blog patter, where she discusses several good reasons for academics to edit books. Since I’ve edited my share of books, I thought I’d offer my own impressions on the practice, which I rather like and encourage people to think about doing.
To date I’ve edited 14 books, half of them academic and the other half in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series; the latter are a distinctly different breed of animal, so I’ll set those aside for now and focus on the academic ones. I’m also working on two edited books at the current time and planning a third. Three of my published edited books, and one of the two in progress, are co-edited, and the rest were edited solely by me.
First, let me piggyback a bit on Thomson's post, because I agree with all of her points In support of editing books; here’s my personal take on each of them.
1. Connections. This one was essential to me. I didn’t have many contacts or a “network” when I came out of graduate school, especially because I decided to work in fields I didn’t focus on when working on my Ph.D., so I had to reach out to people I wanted to work with. I did this first by organizing conference sessions, and later by putting together edited books. Thomson is correct that the connections you make when editing books will continue to bloom: one of the contributors to my first edited book became a co-editor on a later one, a contributor to that book became a later co-editor as well, and many contributors (and co-editors) become friends and collaborators on future projects. To the extent I can be considered well-connected now, it’s because of my work in putting together conference sessions and edited books over my career, so these activities are been invaluable for that aspect alone.
2. Contribution. There are many ways to contribute to a field: certainly writing articles and books is the most obvious, but the contribution from editing books is often underestimated. I think the latter is better, in fact, if you have a very general idea of what needs to be done in a field but you don’t have the expertise to do it yourself. This is how The Thief of Time, my co-edited book on procrastination, came about: during a casual conversation with Chrisoula Andreou, a contributor to a previous book, I asked her what she was working on, and she said she was working on a theory of procrastination. Fascinated and intrigued, I asked her to point me to some background literature, and she said there wasn’t much. As Gru from Despicable Me would say, “light bulb!”: Here was an area of general and philosophical interest that hadn’t yet been explored to any length or depth. But at the same time it was a frontier that was too large for me and my friend to mine thoroughly on our own. So we decided to edit a book on the topic, bringing together a group of excellent scholars to write about on the topic of procrastination. (And we got it done early!)
3. Profile. Again, you can build a scholarly profile by writing your own work—this is obviously the most direct way to do it, provided people know about what you write—but edited books are also a great way to do it, particularly if you have a broad interest in an area but feel that you can only make a narrow original contribution to it yourself. (The same applies to editing a book series, which simply broadens the focus to an entire field or subfield rather than one topic or area within it.) Even if you don’t contribute a chapter to a book you edit, you’ll be recognized as knowledgeable in the area due to your ability to gather expert scholars and craft a book that synthesizes their work and presents it to a world as a unified statement in the field.
On that note, I think of editing books as a valuable aspect of scholarship in general, one that complements authored books and articles in helping to shape the discussion in the area. (Whether departments or universities see them this way is a different matter, of course.) Thomson emphasizes the scholarly contribution made by designing and overseeing an edited collection; I think of this as similar to curating an exhibit of multiple artists and crafting a cohesive whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. When I edit a book, I take care to make sure each chapter makes an important and unique contribution to the book, so in the end, the book stands as a unified contribution to the field that at the same time presents different viewpoints and perspectives on it. I think of it as similar to a thoughtfully assembled movie soundtrack, a compilation of songs that holds together than an album in the same way that a single artist’s album does, but provides a different kind of variety to the listener.
Recognizing the value of edited books does not mean that everyone should do it, however. Another editor/friend of mine told me once that most people are either authors or editors, but rarely both. To me, the two roles are complementary also in terms of my working life. There are times I feel more “writerly,” able to focus on my own thoughts and how to get them down on paper, and there are other times I feel more “editorly,” when I feel I can better work with someone else’s words. Maybe I spend time on an authored book in the morning, then after lunch I copy-edit a contributed chapter or work on an index for an edited book. They are equally important but very different tasks that use different “muscles,” and balancing these two types of work can help squeeze the most productivity out of a workday.
Of course, editing a book does take a different set of skills from authoring one. For one, you have to deal with a lot of people, which I regard as an upside but others may not. Contributors will be late, they’ll want to change their approach (or even their topic), or they will resist your editorial suggestions: all of which demand a certain ability to negotiate and persuade, as well as the resolve to put your foot down when the quality and integrity of the volume is at stake. Also, you must be a detail-oriented person, able to keep track of where the various contributors are in the pipeline and to coordinate with the publisher throughout the process both before and after you submit the manuscript. A co-editor can be a blessing in this, especially if you work with a friend, but a precise delineation of tasks is essential: if you and your co-editor don’t make clear from the start who is responsible for what, you’ll end up either duplicating effort or wasting time waiting for each other to do something no one agreed to do!
There’s a lot to do when editing a book, and the work involved is not to everyone’s liking. But if you like to do the work, and are able to balance these tasks with the rest of your work life, editing collected volumes can be a profoundly enriching process with many professional and personal benefits. Personally, I do it because I get to bring together a group of bright, innovative people to write on a topic that I want to see more work on—and at the end, you get to see a book with your name on it. (And that’s very cool.)