It seems like an opportunity. But is it instead merely a temptation?
I have recently had conversations with publishers in the UK and USA about editing volumes in one of my areas of scholarly interest. Those conversations have prompted me to consider the more basic issue of whether one should write for such a volume. (If you want to ask me about the narrower issue of editing such a book, please drop me a note. I’ve edited or co-edited a half-a-dozen of them.)
I’m here addressing the question of a substantial essay on a significant subject: 3000 words or more. If you want to knock off some small articles for a reference work, that can be informative, fun, and even lucrative in some instances. I’ll leave that decision to you.
Such an essay will normally require you to already know a lot about the subject. It will require you to read more to fill in gaps and to catch up on recent developments. And it will require you to develop some strong theses to give your essay clear shape as you first try to come up with that many words . . . and then later try to cut your work back to only that many words!
These essays give you opportunity to address both your peers (“Here’s what I think about X”) and younger scholars and students (“Here’s what you should think about X”). It is an opportunity to shape the conversation. So it can be a fine professional opportunity and certainly will be a demanding project. Mid- and late-career scholars therefore are usually tapped to write such things, while early-career people can profitably take them on—but only if you are willing to pay at least three significant costs.
The first is bibliographical. Other scholars will notice gaps in your suggestions for further reading, yes, but many will also notice gaps in your exposition. How do you presume to discuss X without referring to the work of Professors Alpha and Beta? Don’t take this on if you don’t feel confident you can become familiar with at least the main literature.
The second is interpretative. Do you have something interesting to say about this subject? Mere faithful reportage won’t get the job done.
The third is temporal. Researching, musing, outlining, reflecting, outlining again, writing, re-writing, submitting, re-writing, re-submitting, perhaps re-writing at least once more, then checking proofs—this isn’t a weekend project.
And do not fall for the common professorial delusion that tomorrow will be different than today. Today it is obvious that you are too busy to take on such a responsibility. But tomorrow, especially if it is a suitably distant tomorrow (say, a deadline of a year or more away), will dawn sunny, calm, and empty: just right for such a venture.
No, it won’t. Tomorrow might be somewhat different than today—perhaps you’re in your first couple of years of course preparation now and you have been advised by veterans that the steep curve of prep levels out fairly quickly. Don’t forget, however, that young families rarely get less demanding; committee responsibilities can too easily burgeon (especially if you can help committee chairs demonstrate their commitment to diversity by including you if you’re non-white or non-male or non-straight); and this sort of essay only counts for—
Well, what? What does it count for, when it comes to promotion, tenure, and general advancement of your career?
Ah, well, that depends on two intangibles: prestige and significance. How much an invited essay weighs in the scales of a review committee is a question of who edited, and who contributed to, and who published the work; how well it was reviewed; and what the committee (and external referees, if involved) makes of your particular contribution. Since your essay wasn’t refereed on its own as a journal article or an entire book generally is, it generally stands or falls according to these other criteria and only somewhat in regard to the intrinsic quality of your work.
What, then, should you ascertain in responding to an invitation?
• Publishing: Who is committed to publishing this project? If no one is committed yet, who are the likely publishers? You don’t want to work hard on this paper only to find it stuck in a book (or “theme issue” of a journal) no one is likely to read, or even find.
• Chief Investigator/Editor: Any such project depends crucially on the editor’s competence and standing in this discourse. What has he or she previously published that establishes his or her credibility in the field? What successful experience has the inviter had in steering such projects previously?
On that credibility and experience will depend the likelihood of the editor identifying and enlisting excellent contributors and securing an excellent publisher. On that credibility and experience also will depend the likelihood of both important reviews and significant sales.
• Other editors: Big projects often require the editor to get help. Given the editor’s network, who else is likely to advise the editor and what do you think of them? How representative are they of the field and how significant are they in it? Again, the quality of contributors and the attractiveness of the resulting volume depend greatly on who is in charge.
• The Need: Is this project is necessary? Have one or more of the would-be editors surveyed the literature such that he or she is satisfied that a genuine lacuna exists? If the world doesn’t clearly need this volume, you can easily foresee what will happen to your contribution to it.
• Other contributors: Has the editor and publisher already lined up commitments from significant people in your field? These do not have to be “Old Masters,” but they do need to be recognized as capable of doing fine work. To change the metaphor, you want to be a good player on an excellent team, not a stand-out on a bad one.
Saying "yes" to an invitation such as this requires saying "no" to many other possible scholarly options. So get answers to these questions and ask a more seasoned person or two for counsel before you agree. These essays can richly reward the effort they require, but such initiatives will only frustrate and dismay you if you’re contributing to a doomed effort.