What’s involved in turning a set of conference papers into an edited collection? Dr Patrick Low, Helen Rutherford & Dr Clare Sandford Couch, the co-editors of Execution Culture in Nineteenth Century Britain: From Public Spectacle to Hidden Ritual take us through the process.
In 2018 we were fortunate to receive RHS funding for a one-day conference reflecting on the 150th anniversary of the cessation of public execution in Britain. We thought the contributions to the event were worthy of developing further into a collection. Although we were all at different stages of our career none of us had edited one before, so went looking for advice. Having now successfully published our first edited collection we wanted to share some tips on what we learned from the process.
What’s your USP?
Knowing what will set your book apart from the competition is essential. Much like with a PhD there is no point repeating what is already out there. Knowing where your book will sit in the wider historiography is a key part of any proposal, so this early work will help form a stronger proposal to a publisher.
Similarly, the book needs to be more than a conference in a hard back. One of our earliest jobs was whittling down the selection of great chapters that were submitted to us in order to try and find coherent themes for a well-ordered publication. In the end, for us, this meant a tightly-focused conference on the ending of public execution in 1868 turned into a much more wide-ranging book about execution culture in nineteenth century Britain.
We had a number of great papers on execution across the world, but were aware of Richard Ward’s excellent edited collection, A Global History of Execution and the Criminal Corpse. We knew that little had been written specifically about the British experience in the period, particularly in the regions, and so we approached authors that best fit this approach and asked them to broaden out their contributions into chapters to meet this new focus.
“We wanted this volume to look beyond the 1868 Act, and therefore the chapters explore aspects of execution culture in Britain in the long nineteenth century more broadly… By focusing on the cultural milieu in which executions took place across the country in the nineteenth century, the chapters aim to enhance knowledge and understanding of the death penalty in the UK during a time of profound change”
– Excerpt from the editors’ Introduction to Execution Culture in Nineteenth Century Britain
Plan, plan, plan.
Looking back, we realised that 75% of the work of an edited collection takes place before it has even started. It sounds bizarre, but you should really know the main structure of your book at the proposal stage. A great plan and clearly signposted proposal will also help your contributing authors frame their chapters. Plus, the publisher will likely ask for an example chapter or introduction and in doing this you can lay out the book’s structure, intentions and audience. If you’re wondering what the other 25% of the work is, it’s people management and hours and hours of carefully using tracked changes!
Make sure your authors know exactly what you expect from them from the very beginning. They are busy people with plenty to juggle already, so you need to make any instructions as simple as possible and provide clear guidelines and deadlines, as early as possible. This will also pay dividends in the long run as you have far fewer emails to manage from contributors trying to seek clarity on your requirements.
It is important to be friendly and approachable and keep the authors informed of progress. You only need one unhappy contributor to sink a collection. Also, don’t forget that these authors are your future colleagues and key contributors in your field, so a friendly tone and approachable attitude pay off in the long and short term.
Work across disciplines.
We were very keen from the outset for our collection to be an interdisciplinary one and tried our best to get a breadth of coverage from across a variety of disciplines. This was also key to our final selection of chapters. One of the most satisfying aspects of editing was seeing the different approaches people took to the subject and we feel, and hope the reader will too, that it made for a richer collection. We also found that being clear, from the beginning, about the style and aims of the chapters and the book overall avoided any potential cross-disciplinary issues.
Promote new voices.
It’s tempting in edited collections to try and attract the most established authors, but we wanted to encourage new academics as well as more senior voices. We also took this approach with subject matter and wanted the book to represent multiple experiences of execution culture from race relations to cross-regional perspectives. Several of our chapters are by scholars at the earlier stages of their career, and doing fantastic work. One example is Stephanie Emma Brown, who has written a fascinating chapter on the press treatment of men of colour sentenced to death in Wales in the nineteenth century.
Develop a good system to track drafts and share files.
We found a clear file sharing system to be key to managing the development of an edited collection. We agreed early on how we would label drafts and re-drafts and where they would be stored. This was essential as we all worked from different offices and campuses and there is nothing worse than trying to dig out drafts from multiple emails that may or may not have gone to all of you. Creating a central shared email was really helpful here too.
Set generous deadlines… but try to stick to them.
The process of writing any academic book is a long one and a lot can happen during that time (like global pandemics!). This is particularly true of edited collections as you have multiple authors each with busy lives and many reasons why deadlines might begin to slip. We tried to find a balance between giving the authors enough time to submit their draft chapters and giving ourselves enough time to edit and respond to them. There is no set time that is right for this, but the more time you can give yourself to respond to chapter drafts the better, as the admin work for editors is also considerable.
If we could change one thing it would have been to include more of the great papers we had from the conference. But the most satisfying part of the whole project was working with people across disciplines and seeing all the work come together in one coherent whole. We also now have a small network of great scholars who we have a good working relationship with.
Nothing beats the feeling of a physical book in your hands. It made us fully appreciate the effort that goes into the many edited collections we have found so helpful in our careers.
Finally… Good Luck!
Execution Culture in Nineteenth Century Britain, From Public Spectacle to Hidden Ritual, edited by Patrick Low, Helen Rutherford and Clare Sandford-Couch is out now with Palgrave. Full details of all the Royal Historical Society’s grants for early career historians are on our website.