The unBalanced ecoLOGist: On Editing

It’s been a couple of months since I’ve written a post. I could plead some normal excuses: just back from a sabbatical and nearly 18 months mostly overseas and returning to an avalanche of house cleaning and office work; getting married two weeks after stepping off the 12th plane flight in seven weeks; or that old stand-by, writer’s block. But really, none of them apply.

In fact, I’ve been preoccupied with meeting a contractual end-of-May deadline to deliver a 29-chapter edited volume—Carnivorous Plants: Physiology, Ecology, and Evolution—to Oxford University Press. I’ve cross-checked tens of thousands of in-text citations against nearly 1700 references in the combined bibliography. Wanting to avoid future litigation and unfavorable court judgments, I’ve made sure that the Oxford comma is used uniformly throughout the book. I’ve made sure all 111 figures are either 600 dpi tiff files at 50% of a B-4 page or vectorized eps files that scale well to any page size; that final versions of chapters by authors from around the world are all laid out on U.S. letter-sized paper (which is absolutely not the same as A-4) with equivalent margins and tabs (note to self: 1.27-cm tabs translate in Word to 0.49″, not 0.5″, tabs, and yes, my eye can tell the difference); that the proofing language of every file is set to English, not Polish, Czech, Slovak, Hebrew, German, Spanish, Portuguese, or Australian; and innumerable other details clearly explained in the OUP style sheet and in detailed letters from me and my co-editor that most chapter authors cheerfully, unknowingly, or willfully ignored.

All that after indeed just returning from a sabbatical that took me, over the course of nearly 18 months, to every continent except Antarctica, to dozens of interesting labs and field stations around the world, to new collaborations with friends and colleagues and new friends, and, at the end of it all, to a wedding in Brookline. But those are all other stories for other times (explore this site for all but the last).

Editing a book (my second; the first, Stepping in the Same River Twice: Replication in Biological Research, co-edited with Ayelet Shavit, was published last week by Yale University Press) is very different from editing for a journal (which I’ve also done for nearly 20 years, as a handling editor for American Journal of Botany [1995-2004], Ecology [2002-2015], Ecology Letters [2005-2008], and PeerJ [since 2012]) or editing and running the journal itself (which I’ve done twice, first as the founding editor of Ecological Archives [1998-2001], and second, as the editor-in-chief of Ecological Monographs [2009-2015]).

So I thought I’d jot down seven lessons I’ve learned from editing a couple of scientific / technical books that might be useful to others who are (or are considering) editing such a book and to remind me, if I’m ever asked to edit another one, that saying no might be the best response.

Lesson One. I start by reminding myself and the authors who have been subject to what they seem to think are my editorial whims that I am not a “professional” editor, by which I mean that I (and most editors of the technical volumes gathering dust on our shelves or lurking unread on our Kindles) do not work for the publisher and are not paid for our efforts. Yes, our names appear on the front cover and the spine of the book. Yes, we are contractually eligible for royalties, although if we were fortunate to receive an advance (which, in fact, we did for Stepping in the Same River Twice, and it barely covered the cost of the hors d’oeuvres for five guests at the aforementioned wedding), our royalties are counted against it, and we won’t see a royalty check until we sell enough books to cover the advance. Which is likely to be, in most cases, never. So Lesson One is that if you take on the seemingly thankless task of editing a book, always remember that you’re doing it for the love of the field and the benefit of your colleagues and future students. And I barely remember the hors d’oeuvres.

Lesson Two. Deadlines really matter, but the authors don’t believe it. We editors sign a contract with the publisher to deliver on a fixed date a manuscript that meets all of their guidelines and instructions to authors. If we don’t meet the deadline, we have to return any advance payment on royalties that we received (of course if we didn’t receive an advance, there’s nothing to return, but the publisher reserves the right to not publish the book). Chapter authors also sign contracts, either with the editors or with the publisher, to deliver their chapters on time and in the correct format, but I don’t think any of the chapter authors actually read what they sign. It’s more like checking those incomprehensible and interminable terms-and-conditions boxes that go along with every software package or app we download.

Fortunately, we all work to deadlines, but unfortunately, when it comes to edited volumes, there aren’t very many compelling reasons for authors to meet them. In the currency of academe, book chapters, even if nominally peer-reviewed, are ranked well below journal articles, conference proceedings, posters presented at meetings, and, even at research universities, teaching evaluations. And since most edited volumes are poorly reviewed (more on that in Lesson Five) and sell fewer copies than the journals that we all get for free through our library’s online systems…well, you get the point.

But it’s the editors responsibility to meet the deadline, which means a lot of gentle reminding, insistent nagging, and occasionally outright threatening the authors with loss of their chapter, the prestige associated with publishing in the erstwhile volume, and—gasp—no free copy of the book!

My own strategy has been to state explicit deadlines that I expect no one to really meet but that are somehow related to the real deadlines that I really do have to meet and that I hope at least 75% of the authors manage to meet. With Carnivorous Plants, the whole manuscript is due to OUP at the end of this month (31 May 2017). Which meant that I needed all the final versions of the chapters from all the authors by April 1st, so I’d have enough spare time (since I actually do have a day job that doesn’t really involve editing books, and I had a wedding to attend) to do the detail work required to get all the pieces together. Which meant that authors had to have received edited versions of their chapters to read and approve by March 15th, which meant that I had to have had their revised chapters to read and edit by January 1st (I had 27 of them to edit; I wrote the first and last chapters of the book myself), which meant that they had to have received the reviews of their submitted versions by October 1st of last year so they’d have adequate time to revise their chapters, which meant that their submissions had to have come in by July 1st, 2016, so that we’d have time to convince reviewers to take the time to review these chapters, get the reviews, and summarize them for the authors. July 1st, 2016, turned out to be less than eight months after the first of the chapter authors signed their contracts and only about four months after the last of the authors had signed theirs. So in communicating the schedule to the authors, I gave them deadlines two months earlier than all of the above dates, which gave chapter authors nominally between two and six months to write their chapters. About one-quarter of the authors met the deadlines we gave them and about two-thirds of the authors made the deadlines we really needed. Chapters from the remaining authors trickled in throughout April. So yes, indeed, I was inserting and deleting commas and cross-checking references before, during, and after my honeymoon. I’ll make it up to her, I promise.

Lesson Three. write everything down. And I mean everything. Those instructions to authors really matter. Authors appear to think that the editors or publishers are going to track down the references they cited but failed to list in their bibliographies, fix their remarkably inconsistently formatted references, standardize their variably-spaced indents, harmonize the range of unusual fonts that shift within and between paragraphs, magically convert a 72-dpi, 3 × 3-cm image into a 600-dpi 18 × 15-cm one, and add page numbers to their manuscript. All in an afternoon. For every chapter in the book. Not. But at least if I wrote all the instructions down at the beginning and sent them out to the authors together with their countersigned but unread contracts and equally unread instructions to authors helpfully supplied by the publisher, I could point to them when I returned the manuscript to the authors with a series of gentle pleas to please get it into shape. Yesterday.

Lesson Four. when inviting colleagues to contribute to an edited volume, choose carefully. We all want our edited volumes to reflect the cutting edge of the state-of-the-field, so we are likely to invite the biggest machers we know. This is a mistake. It is much more important to sign up individuals who know the field, will meet deadlines, and who check their writerly egos at the door. The big machers tend to have adiabatically expanding (and expansive) egos, are too busy to meet the deadlines to which they contractually agree, and spend more time managing their large research groups than keeping up with the field. Better to ask a graduate student or a post-doc. Their chapter will be au courant, better written and formatted, much more likely to be submitted on time, and lacking the thick patina of a self-citing ego.

Lesson Five. remember that an edited volume should be more than a featured section or a special issue of a journal. I’ve edited my fair share of special features and entire issues of journals. They share some of the aforementioned challenges (deadlines, formatting, etc.), but they differ in one very important way. In journal articles, whether or not they are in special features or issues, the author’s voice is paramount. It’s the editors responsibility to work with the peer-reviewers to make sure that the scholarship is sound and that the writing is more-or-less intelligible. The individual articles all should address the theme of the feature, but there’s rarely, if ever, an attempt made to make all the articles read similarly smoothly in a common voice. Which is not a problem, since few people read an entire special feature or journal issue and no one is likely to review it.

The vast majority of edited volumes read like special features, and many chapter authors seem to think that an edited volume is just a cloth-bound special feature. There may be a common theme, but readers rarely find it because they’re spending too much time getting used to the different style and voice of each individual chapter. A similar phenomenon occurs in our classes that are taught by multiple instructors or rely heavily on guest lectures. Students in such classes often complain about not having enough time to get used to the teaching style of one instructor before another one shows up. We don’t want to inflict that stress on our students, so why would we want to inflict it on the readers or reviewers of our edited volumes? Not surprisingly, reviewers tend to loathe edited volumes.

As a book editor, I take the time to carefully line-edit each chapter so that they all have a common style and voice—mine. As a result, there’s a lot of back-and-forth with chapter authors to make sure that the information, the data, the science is exactly as the author intended, but I’m not willing to compromise very much on style and voice. Most authors (myself included, when I’ve been on the other side of the fence) are pleased to have their work carefully line-edited, but there are always one or two thin-skinned chapter authors whose adiabatic egos are bruised far too easily. But it’s good to remember that as an editor, I will prevail because the chapter doesn’t go to the publisher until I sign off on it and submit it. I’ve had authors threaten to pull their chapters from the books I’ve edited. They don’t. They’ve got too much time and ego invested in it. As I commented to my co-editor during one of the few such dust-ups we had with Carnivorous Plants, it’s like water off a duck’s back. Be the duck.

Lesson Six. It’s not over ’til it’s over. I’ll get the book in on time, and six months or so later, I’ll get the page proofs. Unlike journal articles where we have 24–48 hours to return corrected page proofs, publishers usually give book authors and editors a few weeks. It is also common for the editor to have to create the index him/herself, or to pay someone else to do it. In three weeks. Which can cost several thousand dollars. What am I going to have to set aside between Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and New Years to correct page proofs and create an index?

Lesson Seven. Next time someone suggests I edit a book, just say no.

2 thoughts on “The unBalanced ecoLOGist: On Editing

  1. Love the word adiabatic and adiabatically -had to look it up in the dictionary – Keep up the good work of correcting papers!


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