How to edit a collective volume of papers from a conference

A collective volume is often a written record of a single conferenceacademic writing or symposium, or a record of the “acta” or proceedings of a series of meetings of an organization, often annual, stretching over a number of years; or, finally, a festschrift offered as an acknowledgement of an individual’s professional impact over a significant period of his life. Festschriften are often occasioned by 65th or 70th birthdays, retirement, or other excuses.

Individuals edit such volumes for a variety of motives, ranging from that of the team player working selflessly to insure the success of a joint venture, to loyalty and devotion to a particular individual, to that of the academic hoping for a raise or promotion as the result of another notch on the CV. As with much of human affairs, you motive is probably a mixed one.

As editor, your job and opportunity is to enable that conference or society record selectively: you have the authority to eliminate, cause to be revised or supplemented, any proposed chapter, entry, or contribution to such a collective volume, unless the volume professes to be a complete record of the proceedings of whatever event or organization stands as the sponsor.

Your first task, therefore, is to determine the nature of the intended publication: a selection of the presentations of the event or organization, or a complete reproduction of them. That may be your choice; it often is, as this is a job that lesser sorts may avoid, giving you a certain sort of power. But consultation with the organizers of the conference or symposium (particularly in advance) or the officers of the professional association, in advance of further work may pay off in terms of clarity of purpose and editorial authority.

The next step is to solicit contributions. For a recent conference, organizers should be able to provide current contact information for the contributors; for events of some years past, you will have to seek information about current locations of contributors. But for “historical volumes” such as ones that seek to capture, for example, presidential addresses of a society over many years, you will have to search for published versions of the talk, or contact librarians that oversee university or college archives where the presenter has been employed. Those failing, it is often necessary to locate relatives: spouses, children, even grand children, to see if the papers of the deceased scholar have been preserved. A reasonable thing to do at this stage is to work out a permission form, usually with the assistance of your publisher, and have each prospective contributor give permission for his or her contribution to be included. If the contribution has been previously published, you will eventually need to obtain the permission of the journal or other holder of copyright from that previous publication. Where a contribution has been anthologized more than once, there will be but one copyright holder; be sure you have permission from that one.

Once a reasonably accurate set of potential contents have been located, the next step is to locate a willing publisher. Scholarly volumes of the sort being discussed here typically have a small sales potential, so you will need to look for potential publishers willing to undertake the project given that small market. In order to entice a publisher, it is useful to have, besides a proposed table of contents and estimated length, an indication from the organization that sponsored the conference of its willingness either to provide its list of members for marketing, or at least to forward with its positive recommendation for purchase the prospectus of the book to its members. Rather than give a list of publishers of collective volumes in my experience (limited to philosophy), let me encourage you to seek examples of collective volumes in the subject field of your own intended work, to be contacted with a proposal.

Your proposal should go to as many potential publishers as you can find that might plausibly consider publishing your work. The point of the proposal is to persuade the publisher that your collective volume will result in sale of sufficient numbers of copies to pay for the publisher’s up-front costs of production and marketing. Some publishers will require various contributions on your part to minimize risk. These requirements range from camera-ready copy (now quite common), a guaranteed number of sold copies within a specified period (usually 1-2 years), to a cash subvention. So be prepared for a variety of such responses. For example, having an arrangement with a department’s chair that secretarial help is available for preparation of camera ready copy for the volume will allow you to respond quickly to an offer to publish contingent on your provision of camera ready copy; having a commitment from the sponsoring society to guarantee a certain number of sales, or even to provide a reasonable subvention, will similarly arm you for negotiations.

An alternative to consider seriously is publishing your collective volume electronically. This is particularly valuable where you have little hope of a significant number of sales, as with the proceedings from a small conference or of a small society. If your sponsor has a maintained web site, you may be able to post your volume on that web site. Houses specializing in this sort of publishing often will offer a work on line for free downloading, and then also offer in a print-on-demand format a printed version of the same work for those who wish a more permanent, physical, portable copy. Lulu.com is a good example that presented to the TAA conference in 2006.

Finally, an alternatively also to consider seriously is publishing your collective volume privately. A number of publishing houses facilitate this form, which is particularly appropriate for such collective volumes as photographic records of trips abroad, to celebrations of weddings, birthdays, or marriages of long standing, to significant achievements by the honoree, such as graduations, returns from military service, promotions. AuthorHouse published a festschrift done for my 65th birthday; I used http://www.alphagraphics.com to publish a festschrift for my wife, complete with color photos.

The services offered by different publishing houses vary, and some offer a “smorgasbord” of options. For example, while an ISBN number is common, it is not mandatory for every form of book publishing, and some houses offer it as an extra cost. The ISBN number makes retail sales, particularly through distributors such as Amazon.com, far easier. Similarly, you may or may not want to copyright the collection. If the contributions are not previously published, it is a very good idea to copyright the volume, as that provides a measure of protection for your authors against plagiarism of their work. But for a small market, such as a festschrift, it may not be necessary.

Your next task is to decide on the work’s format. Academic publishers frequently dictate this, but departures from the house format are possible if you can make a case for them. Format includes the order of sections (front matter: title page, half page, ISBN and copyright page, Preface, Introduction, Acknowledgments page, Abbreviations page, and so forth), what pages will have explicit numbers, placement of numbers, what goes in headers, whether there will be footnotes or endnotes for each chapter, how chapter sections and subsections are to be handled (numbered? lettered? bold?), whether there is to be a works cited alternative to end notes, whether there are to be separate indexes of names and subjects. Publishers will sometimes provide you with templates that automatically format the work as you enter material in each template.

Having decided on the format, i.e., what elements will be included and in what order, you need to think about your work’s style sheet. A style sheet embodies your or your publisher’s requirements for what you or it regard as crisp, effective prose. Sadly, many academics acquire writing styles that are tortuous, difficult to read, pompous, and occasionally ungrammatical or otherwise confusing. Some words are overused and need to be limited, others avoided altogether. Part of your job as editor is to impose and enforce the style requirements of the book on your contributors. If you are editing a volume of works that have appeared elsewhere, this requirement is typically relaxed; but you should still impose uniformity in such matters as notes and citations. Often you will have to provide additional detail that was omitted in the original publication.

Your publisher will set as a part of your contract a due date. That represents the publisher’s guess (which you may influence) as to how long it will take you to provide the required material, and the publisher’s own scheduling of other books in the works. If you are facing a substantial lead time of collecting material from others for your edited volume, it may be wise to set this as far ahead as you can in order to allow you the time necessary to complete the collecting and complete the various steps in editing and formatting. Many publishers project 3-6 months of production time dating from when you submit the final, perfect camera ready copy until you have the volume in your hands. The more work the publisher must do to generate camera ready copy, the longer this process. Do bear in mind that for some collective volumes, timeliness is important to sales; people may be enthusiastic about the idea of getting a volume of papers from a conference they attended, but that enthusiasm might wane if the time of producing that volume is lengthy. Thus, obtaining conference papers in advance of their being presented orally could increase sales significantly.

At this stage, delays on the part of your contributors may be your greatest problem. There are two kinds of delays: those in getting you contributions, and those in getting you contributions edited to the style sheet of you and your publisher. A third delay may involve getting you contributions that are formatted to the precise specifications you will need for uniformity in your volume. The chief requirements that you must insist upon and that some contributors resist are: avoiding “acadamese,” the somewhat stilted and stuffy language that creeps into academic discourse, and conformity to footnote or endnote requirements. You must be firm in laying out these requirements initially, and in insisting on no deviation. Use your power as the final determiner of content to enforce these matters. Take the position that a requirement of publication is complete conformity, and be prepared either to exclude a work from a non-cooperative of foot-dragging contributor, or to do the editing and formatting yourself and present it as a “take it or quit” fait accompli. Academics are no less immune to prima donna egos than any other profession.

In some cases, you may find that a potential contributor is unable to provide you with a document file. The reasons for this include some obvious ones: the individual is deceased; the individual is out of the country without access to his or her computer files; the individual is willing, but not inclined or able to contribute a document file. You can think of others. If you can get access to a printed version of the potential contribution, optical character recognition (OCR) software is now rather sophisticated in being able to scan a printed page and give you a reasonably clear approximation of the text. You will have to read it side by side with the original to insure that misinterpretations of the squiggles we call letters and punctuation haven’t snuck in. Another alternative is to type it in yourself. A third is to use some of the voice recognition software now available and read the printed contribution into the computer.

Having gotten all the contributions in hand, if you are doing copy editing to insure conformity to style, return edited copy to your contributor and give him or her a short time to review and provide you with justifications from their wish that you depart from your style requirements. You have to be sensitive to the psychology of those who regard their prose as deathless and incapable of alteration without change of meaning, yet firm in insisting on the stylistics that you and your publisher have set. For, your publisher has a better grasp of the potential reader’s needs than does your contributor, who may have written the work for the consumption of those few presenting at the conference. Conflicts over these matters will test your diplomatic skills, as well as your resolve. Good luck! It is probably easiest to insist on conformity to endnote or footnote styles, although a few authors will have their favorites and resist conformity.

With all copy now edited and approved, you may proceed to final formatting. This is an art in itself, and an experienced formatter (which you will become by the end of your book) can make short shrift of this process. The elements you will have to consider, probably with great help from your publisher, are: Front matter contents (usually half title page, title page, ISBN and copyright page, contents, editorial foreword, preface, acknowledgments, introduction, part or division page (if any), chapter one through chapter final, bibliography, about the contributors, indexes. There may be other elements, including blank pages, inserted, depending on the publisher’s format style and other elements.

  • Chapters always begin on what are conceived as odd-numbered pages. The first page of each chapter should have neither page number nor header. To achieve the chapter’s start on an odd-numbered page, you may have to insert a blank page (with the page number suppressed) before the chapter starts.
  • Headers on odd-numbered pages should be centered, contain the chapter title or an abbreviated form, and are typically in italics and all caps.
  • Headers on even-numbered pages should be centered, in italics, and contain the names of the chapter authors in all caps. If more than one, “and” should be in lower case.
  • Page numbers in the front matter (i.e., all pages before the first chapter) are in lower case Roman numerals and are on the header line to the right on odd-numbered pages and to the left on even-numbered pages. Page numbers in the rest of your book are in Arabic numerals and are also on the header line to the right on odd-numbered pages and the left on even-numbered pages.
  • Acknowledgments should include any previously published versions of any of the contributions. You MUST obtain permission from each publisher, provided that it holds copyright. If a publisher wants a permissions fee, you can often get this reduced or eliminated by indicating that the publication you intend to make is academic, for a small readership, and unlikely to earn you any royalties. It is a common courtesy to acknowledge help from those who have assisted in locating contributions, facts about contributors, photographs of contributors, and who have contributed in other ways such as by constructing indexes.

I strongly recommend you hold off on indexing your work until it has been proofread 5 times by at least three individuals. You will get a better result if you proofread systematically, looking one time only at headers, another time at elements that should be centered, another time reading text carefully to be sure something has not been inadvertently inserted or omitted. Beware automatic indentations of paragraphs; your word processing program won’t distinguish between a subheading and a paragraph, and every subheading will be indented. A similar problem can arise for headers. Be sure that chapter titles and authors are properly centered, are in a larger font that other elements in the chapter, and are all in the same font size with the same separation of lines from chapter to chapter. Don’t rely solely on the spelling and grammar checking tool, as it will not always provide a correct suggestion. On the other hand, it can be useful in a first proofreading.

Once you are convinced your book is perfect, prepare the index or indexes. It is useful for readers to have a separate name index and subject index. Consult the many good guides to indexing; I’ve found the Chicago Manual of Style a great guide, particularly helpful in indexing complex names. Remember than an index should enable your reader to find quickly all instances of what he or she is interested in. That you are or are not fascinated by some subject is not a good guide to whether it should be indexed. [This statement is controversial. Some hold that an index should be a guide to what the author or editor considers important. I hold that the author has had lots of opportunity in his or her contribution to indicate what is important, and the editor has also exercised preferences in selecting material for inclusion. It is the reader’s turn to exercise his or her interests: the index should facilitate that.]

Your publisher will want you to prepare a detailed questionnaire, designed to help guide the advertisement of your book. The publisher may request a list of journals apt to review your book, a listing of competing works, even a list of potential buyers. You will also likely need to provide summaries of the work and its appeal. You will probably need a blurb for the back cover, or the dust jacket.

It is also likely that your publisher will want brief biosketches of each of the contributors. It is a good idea to solicit these early on so you have them in hand. Possibly your publisher will also want photographic likenesses of your contributors, and yourself.


Richard Hull is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and editor of several book series, including Presidential Addresses of the American Philosophical Association.