What does a publisher do? Commission volume editors

What does a publisher do? is a series of posts designed to answer that question, interpreted not in the sense of “What functions does a publisher seek to fulfil?” but rather “What operations does a publisher (well, this publisher at any rate) perform?” This is the twentieth post in the series.

The second post (‘What does a publisher do? Manage stakeholders’) in this series set out a framework for subsequent posts – a framework based on the types of stakeholders a publisher needs to work with. Today’s post focuses on a publisher’s relationship with one form of supplier, namely volume editors. So:

Owners, investors Workforce State
Clients, customers

I prefer to commission authored (or co-authored) books, rather than edited ones. The former tend to sell better.

Sometimes, however, there are good reasons to plump for an edited book. Some projects require a range of specialisms. And commissioning a number of contributors can provide a number of stakeholders, which can be useful for marketing and sales purposes. The books have to be planned coherently though – collections of conference papers or  Festschrifts are pretty pointless.

When we commission a volume editor, we consider of course the subject expertise of the candidate. But subject expertise is not enough – and any hint that the candidate him/herself considers it to be is a warning sign. The pragmatic side of editing is also very important.

Specifically, we look for:

  • experience of project management (not necessarily of editing books, but certainly of scheduled multi-party projects of some scale and duration);
  • realism – a recognition that there are a number of pitfalls that one needs to take steps to avoid;
  • a willingness to listen to advice.

By ‘realism’ I perhaps mean cynicism. Unfortunately, one needs to be prepared to suspect the worst of people – any chapter represents an unfulfilled promise. Often it’s the person you know best – the one just down the corridor – who lets you down (you took your eye off them and in any case they’re taking advantage of your ‘relationship’). 

The willingness to listen is important because publishers can learn a lot from experience about where the pitfalls lie – why not benefit from that learning? (Just because you’re an expert in your field doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to managerial advice.)  

When I am discussing the pitfalls with a prospective editor, any hint of “it’ll be different in my case” (as in “I know all my contributors pretty well”) makes me run the other way.

One editor seemed to ignore all my advice. He was a clever chap, you see. And all the contributors worked in the same department, so no problem there!

Many of the usual problems arose, of course. The project over-run – though at least I had budgeted for that (without telling him, otherwise it would have over-run even more). he spent his entire Christmas vacation working and is no doubt still wondering why he received so little sympathy and support from me at the time. 

The best editors always have what I believe in sport is called a depth chart – a Plan B, a Plan C, and perhaps even a Plan D. They heed warning signs (from any angle). They make decisions. And they communicate, a lot.


One Response to “What does a publisher do? Commission volume editors”

  1. […] have posts have dealt with these relationships directly (19 July and 6 Dec). Today’s post deals rather with the books that they […]

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