‘Should you edit a volume of essays…’ asks Emile Chabal?

Following on from Marisa Linton’s interview in which she discussed her approach to writing journal articles, we are delighted to welcome Dr EMILE CHABAL (Edinburgh),  who has recently edited and co-edited two volumes on twentieth-century France, and here shares very useful reflections on the ups and downs of the process.


Should you edit a volume of essays..?

Edited collections are overwhelmingly the product of two overlapping forces: the pressure to organise conferences and the pressure to publish. But with publishers increasingly wary of loss-making, incoherent edited books, it’s worth thinking very hard about whether you should take on the task of editing a volume.

(1) A good conference does not equal a good book

So, you’ve just organised a very successful conference and now you’re thinking there might be the opportunity to produce an edited collection… stop! In the vast majority of cases, edited volumes are imagined and elaborated before a conference, not after. This is because you need a strong vision and a clear idea of what an edited book will look like. You will want to tailor the conference participants to the book’s themes and you will want people to be thinking about publication as they are preparing their papers. Most importantly, you need to recognise that a stimulating panel at a conference will not automatically become a stimulating section in a book – there are major hurdles to cross first.

(2) Participants will make or break a project

Here are some of the most common problems you are likely to encounter as you move from conference to edited book:

  • Enthusiastic participants on the day lose interest after the event and the “extended” version of their conference paper never arrives. Can you guess in advance who these people will be? Do you have a back-up plan?
  • The “extended” version of a conference paper is not very good. Will you be able to say ‘no’ to someone, even if they are more senior than you? Alternatively, will you have the courage to edit heavily and suggest major corrections?
  • Nine out of the ten chapters have been submitted, but one person has not sent anything. What is the best way to pressurise them and are you confident that the person can deliver?

This is why it is important get some sense of the personality of your participants at the initial conference – you’ll need all of that goodwill as you move forward.

(3) Expect skeptical publishers

Publishers do not like edited volumes; some of the most prestigious university presses refuse to publish them altogether. You need to be very clear what is original about your book, and indeed whether a book would be the best way to get your ideas out. For early-career scholars, one very good single-authored journal article is usually a better use of time than slaving away editing a volume. Even if you are committed to the collaborative format, special sections or special issues of journals can be easier to put together than an edited book.

(4) Start planning early

If you can, sound out a publisher before your conference happens – will they be receptive to a proposal? Go with contacts other people give you or publishers who have published edited books you like. In the early planning phase, you should also think very hard about whether you want to edit the book alone or with others. Doing things by yourself inevitably means more work, but having multiple editors can be a planning disaster. If one of your co-editors is not good with e-mail, you can expect your edited book to be a long and painful affair!

(5) Move as fast as you can

Once you get going on the book, there are going to be endless bottlenecks: delayed contributions, editing (or translating) of chapters, publisher queries… But try to ensure that you – the editors – do not hinder the progress of your precious volume. Respond to e-mails fast; edit the chapters first; and keep the pressure up on the publisher to publish. Editing a volume is much more like managing a team of collaborators in a non-academic workplace than elaborating an intellectual project – if you are sluggish, lackadaisical or lose interest in your book, your contributors will respond in kind.

(6) It’s your book

Most people find that editing a volume is one of the most difficult things they do as early-career (or even later-career!) scholars. It requires patience and real determination. Don’t take the task on lightly and don’t give up on it. Everything depends on your editorial and people skills. Good edited volumes are rare, but they can be wonderful examples of academic collaboration.


Emile Chabal, University of Edinburgh
emile.chabal@ed.ac.uk, @emile_chabal

Emile Chabal is a Chancellor’s Fellow in History at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of A Divided Republic: nation, state and citizenship in contemporary France (Cambridge, 2015), editor of France since 1970s: history, politics and memory in an age of uncertainty (Bloomsbury, 2014) and co-editor of Britain and France in Two World Wars: truth, myth and memory (Bloomsbury, 2013).


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