As many of you know, I recently edited a volume of essays in honor of my former professor Dr. Gary Cockerill entitled Listen, Understand, Obey (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2017; see here for a blog on the volume). This book has been in the works for over two years now, and over that time I have learned an incredible amount about editing. So, although I am far from an expert editor, I thought I would share a few of the lessons I’ve learned in a series of blogs. I’ll present my insights in what I turned out to be the four major stages of the process: proposal, preparation, initial editing, and final editing.
If you are editing or considering editing a book, hopefully these thoughts will make your journey a bit easier. Since the book I edited was a Festschrift, I’ll speak to some of the unique issues that Festschriften entail, but most of the points should be transferrable to other sorts of projects.
The proposal stage is where you determine the focus of the project, gather the contributors, and pitch the book to a publisher. It helps to do things in that order, because it will give you a better chance at getting the volume accepted by a publisher.
The publishing process can take quite a while, so you will want to start the process as early as possible. Obviously, a lot of this depends on the publisher and how full their queue is, but for most Festschriften, you should probably start assembling contributors and pitching the book to a publisher no less than 2–3 years from when you want it to come out. The publisher will probably need at least a year (if not more) with the complete manuscript before you’ll have a copy in your hands.
Create a unified focus for the volume
Depending on the stature of the honoree, some publishers may accept a Festschrift without a unified focus. However, publishers are generally going to be more interested in a volume with a unified and reasonably narrow focus because this makes it more marketable. In my case, when I originally pitched Listen, Understand, Obey to Pickwick, most of the essays were on Hebrews—Dr. Cockerill’s scholarly focus—but a few were on other topics that he was interested in like biblical theology, hermeneutics, etc. Pickwick accepted it, but asked that we focus all of the essays on Hebrews. You may even want to check with some potential publishers up front to see what sorts of topics they would be most interested in. Another benefit of determining the focus up front is that it allows you to be more specific when gathering contributors.
Think through contributors thoroughly
Whether you’re publishing a Festschrift or another kind of book, you want to make sure that you get everyone on board who needs to be there, ideally from the outset. For a Festschrift, this is especially important because you don’t want to leave out key people who should have a chance to commemorate the honoree in this way. I would suggest considering in detail the following categories of people: the honoree’s (1) scholarly co-laborers, (2) faculty colleagues, (3) former students, and (4) long-time academic friends who don’t fall into one of the other categories. You will probably also want to run your list by a few people who know the honoree as well or better than you do for brainstorming help. The last thing you want is to wake up in a cold sweat two months before the book releases realizing that you left out someone important. For other sorts of volumes, you may want to think about diversity of perspectives, various aspects of the subject, etc. Finally, you will want to have at least a few well-known names signed on to the project because this will make it more appealing to publishers.
Err on the side of too many contributors
Reality check: Not every contributor who signs on will come through. This can happen for any number of reasons: illness, technology issues, time management, etc. I originally had 13 contributors signed on for Listen, Understand, Obey and ended up sending 10 essays to the publisher. This was by no means a crippling issue, but at various points (like when I thought I might be losing 4 essays instead of just 3), I worried about the length of the volume. Don’t let this stress you out; instead, plan for it. Tell yourself up front, “Self, several contributors will not come through,” and recruit more than you think you need. Then, when a few contributors email you saying they won’t be able to complete their essays, apologizing profusely, you will smile to yourself and say, “I planned for this.” If you do this, the worst case scenario is that all of the essays come in looking good and you have an exceptionally fulsome volume.
Obtain topics and titles as early as possible
You may not need essay topics and titles to pitch the volume to publishers, but it definitely won’t hurt you. In addition, having these set early will help you make sure that multiple contributors don’t write on the same subject.
Be clear with the publisher on timeline
If you have a set date on which you want to present the Festschrift (i.e., retirement, birthday, etc.) or other book (i.e., conference, important event, etc.), you will want to make that clear to the publisher early—probably even in the proposal process. Then, determine how much time the publisher needs with the complete manuscript before you will have a copy in your hands. There is often some flexibility and uncertainty on this point, but the publisher should be able to give you a due date for the complete manuscript that will definitely allow them to hit your release date. For instance, I knew I wanted to present the volume to Dr. Cockerill in early May 2017, and Pickwick told me they could hit that date with time to spare if I gave them the complete manuscript by April 1, 2016. This is important because it will help you make sure that the book appears when you want it to.
If you've edited a book before, are there any tips on the proposal stage you would add to these?