Graham Harman has an interesting post on problems with writing anthology chapters. His problems can be summarised as lack of citation relative to journal articles, and hence a perceived lack of readership; and the long delays from submission to publication. No disagreement there – I have one piece coming out in a book that was submitted in 2004… and none of my chapters have been cited nearly as much as journal articles.
But Graham also comes up with a list of reasons why you should write book chapters – you are early career and can’t turn down an opportunity to publish; you owe someone a favour; the collection is on someone whose work is very important to you or on a topic you are crucially involved with; the project is pitched as super-exciting or your contribution super-necessary. He concludes with the suggestion that if you’re looking for ways to work smarter and balance time pressures, not contributing to anthologies may be the way to go.
Again, I don’t disagree. There are too many things to do, and too little time to do them. Something has to give. But it would be a great shame if the edited book became even more diminished – good people not writing for them will exacerbate the problem.
One of the problems is that many edited books are little more than collections of 10 essays, loosely linked, and glued together. As a reader, you might find one or two of interest, and so read it in a library rather than consider buying it. The whole is simply the addition of the individual pieces. Understandably, publishers are reluctant to commit to these, and when they do they often end up as expensive hardbacks. This is quite possibly a reason why they less cited than journal articles – they are often harder to get hold of. In addition, because of the perceived value of a book chapter compared to a journal article, where do people place their best work? (I’m not accusing anyone in particular here, I just wonder if there is a bit of a devaluation generally that becomes reinforcing.)
And yet, there are some edited books out there that are really good. Ones that are much more than just the individual pieces. Ones where the combination strengthens the individual pieces, as well as making a strong whole. In an edited book, you can do things you don’t need to do in a journal article – the introduction and other essays can set the context, review the existing literature, etc., so that your chapter can get right to the heart of the issue. An issue that might appear as a strange absence in a single, standalone piece can be complemented by another chapter on that specific topic, etc. More experimental pieces can perhaps be written.
I mentioned The Foucault Effect as a really influential and important edited book when I was at the conference celebrating 20 years since it was published (audio; text). The Speculative Turn that Graham co-edited is another good example. Gregory and Pred, Violent Geographies… plenty of others, but they are a minority of edited books as a whole.
Editing a book is a lot of work, if done properly. Being an editor means, obviously enough, you need to edit. You are not just a compiler, a collector. You need to work with authors on their papers – commissioning specific pieces rather than just asking for something authors have sitting around; discussing the piece as an exchange with the author; offering comments on the abstracts; detailed comments on drafts of the chapters; helping mediate between the publisher, readers and the authors. There is a balance between respecting the chapter author’s individual voice and trying to make these pieces work together. And, ultimately, you may have to cut an author loose. As much as you want the piece, as editor you have a duty to all contributors – if 9 out of 10 respect the deadline (eventually), you can’t delay the whole project indefinitely for the one who doesn’t.
I’ve read several proposals for edited books for publishers. If the editor can’t put together a polished proposal – not abstracts of wildly different lengths, erratic formating, things missing, etc. – what hope they can deliver a good final manuscript? (Something similar might be said of journal theme issues or sections, but that’s a different topic.) Another, not unrelated issue, is the proliferation of companions, readers, guidebooks, encyclopedias…
So, perhaps one of the things that would make contributing to anthologies more appealing for authors is the feeling that the finished product will be really worthwhile. That it will work as a book, written by many hands, rather than a looser collection of pieces that could just as well have appeared in different places. Edited books are devalued enough in the academy – especially in the UK, where editing a book or writing a chapter would be unlikely to ‘count’ as a research assessment submission – it would be a great shame if we let a couple of valid concerns (lack of notice, and the terrible publication delays) diminish them still further.