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Some reflections on editing books and special issues while doing a PhD

This interesting post by Pat Thomson left me speculating on the future of edited books. I co-edited an edited book (see below) early in my PhD, with an existing project inviting me onboard as a fourth editor – largely, I assume, because my knowledge of the  asexuality literature was useful to the project. It was a great experience in many ways. I gained an understanding of the publishing proces and I realised how usefully such projects can broaden your grasp of the literature. So that was great. But on the other hand it also left a chapter which I was immensely proud of stuck in a book (which, as my first, I was also quite proud) with a price tag that might as well have gone hand-in-hand with a coversheet saying that it was intended for institutional libraries and everyone else should get lost.

Ok, so this is a problem, but surely they’re still worthwhile? So I thought as I set off on a second editing project. This time I put together a CfP for an Asexuality Studies anthology. Largely due to rookie mistakes and the intervention of some pretty major upheavals in my personal life during this time the project soon began to collapse into a bit of a mess. I also started to question my choice of publisher and, after consulting a number of people I trusted, settled on another. But the timescales involved at this stage were such that I had to go back and update all the existing contributors and gain permission to repackage the project. Given the real problem I was having with e-mail at the time (now resolved by becoming one of those irritating people who insists on getting to inbox zero everyday) this dragged on and on. While continually cursing the fact I hadn’t recruited a co-editor who was more organised than me (I’m great at time management but bewilderingly inadequate when it comes to the sustained feats of low level organisation necessitated by a process like editing a volume) I attempted to persevere, albeit punctuated by intermittent rounds of guilt ridden procrastination, before finally calling it a day a few months ago and sending profuse apologies to all concerned.

My third experience of editing has been brilliant. I led a team of guest editors for a special asexuality themed issue of psychology and sexuality (some of which is still open access) which came out earlier in the year. Some things went wrong. The aforementioned personal difficulties (a year that was in theory one for wedding planning had become a year for untangling lives instead – it’s the sort of thing which makes it hard to prioritise academic editing…) got in the way a lot, as my general level of self-organisation got way too low to be able to sustain a project of this sort in a manageable way. Thankfully my co-editors were wonderful (though one did understandably get rather frustrated with me at points) and we eventually pulled it together. The end result is a genuinely groundbreaking text and, if you’re interested in sexuality studies, it’s an interesting one as well. Plus we have a proposed extension of it into a book under review at the moment. So in all this was a good experience. Though it’ll probably be a while before I get involved in editing again.

So here are some things I learnt which might be useful to PhDs/ECRs who are doing this stuff for the first time:

  1. Don’t underestimate the amount of work involved. Or rather don’t underestimate the consistency of it. It’s not really that onerous in many ways but it does need little and often to succeed. If you are someone (like me) whose level of self-organisation veers between extremes then this is particularly important to address. As I found out to my cost, procrastinating for a month on an edited collection can make the mess you have to clean up afterwards radically more onerous as a result.
  2. Don’t underestimate the potential benefits attached to it. Assuming this is a topic you’re interested in then you’re likely to massively increase your connections with others working on the topic, as well as getting a broader review of the field as a whole. I have a vague anxiety that 75% of the world’s asexuality researchers think I’m a complete flake after my behaviour during the editing proceses described above. But on the flip side I’m pretty sure I know 75%+ of the people working in one of my fields.
  3. Don’t try and do it on your own! Just don’t. I did it largely because, well, I thought it would look better to have been a sole editor. But it was a disaster. Whereas if I had, so to speak, had a Todd on that project (my very experienced co-editor from the other two projects) then I doubt it would have failed. If anything is a natural focus for collaboration in the contemporary academy, it is edited collections.

So I think editing collections can be a very worthwhile thing to do but it should be approached cautiously for those in the early stages of their careers. I can say with near certainty that I will never agree to edit anything again unless I have a co-editor who I have a prior working relationship with. But what about the broader landscape within which an individual might choose to offer time and energy to a project like this? I still think there’s value in them for many of the reasons Pat describes in her article. After internalising the horrible attitude “book chapters are worthless” I’ve started to relent in recent months. I’m writing a chapter with Milena Kremakova for the Paracademics Handbook and I’m writing a chapter giving an overview of the asexuality studies literature for a psychology handbook later this year.

But the price issue still troubles me. Sure, I can post a pre-print on my and on my blog. But that’s still an unsatisfying workaround. Edited books no longer have much credentialising function within the audit culture and their communicative function is hampered by the unit costs resulting from the commercial organisations to whom we are choosing to outsource the publishing. So more than any element of the contemporary landscape of scholarly publishing, it seems that the production of edited collections is a practice ripe for revolutionary change. I’ve written a little about this here but it’s something I want to come back to in future.

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2 replies

  1. Mark,

    This is a thoughtful and detailed post which I think many people will find helpful. Let me, if I may, add two small points.

    First–on ending up with something you liked published obscurely–my general solution is to put a copy on Slideshare where people can access it and other stumble felicitously across it… Maybe that would work for your chapter, tho i get the copyright is complex at times.

    Second, specifically re PhD work: It is about 100 years since I did my PhD [ 🙂 ] but from that experience and from supervising quite few since, I do know the temptation, if the going gets tough, is to take refuge in jolly exciting and intellectually attractive displacement activities. I would caution about any idea/project that had that effect.

    I always told my doctoral students two things:

    1. the definition of a good PhD is a finished PhD;
    2. the definition of a great PhD is one the examiners have passed.

    I hope this is helpful and not implicitly patronising to young schloars. My ambition (for others) is always to foster talent, not divert it …. (For myself, is it keep exploring ideas until the Alzheimer’s gets me.)


  2. “exciting and intellectually attractive displacement activities”

    I hate to think how many items could be found on the many pages & 600+ posts on this site that fall into this category – hell, even the things which pay my bills basically fall into this category…

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