What Makes a Good Edited Scholarly Book? By Luke Adams


From Handbooks to conference volumes, edited books are often part of the core academic literature.  But editing scholarly books can sometimes seem daunting and confusing.  Our Head of Law Publishing, Luke Adams, explains what makes a good edited scholarly work.

There has been a proliferation of edited scholarly books in recent years, thanks in part to the requirement from those funding conferences for some sort of published output, and to large, funded, multi-institution research projects such as those within the European Commission’s 7th Framework Programme (FP7). Rightly or wrongly, a rising scepticism prevails among some publishers towards this trend. But are edited books always the poor relation to single authored monographs? The fact is that the edited book category is not a single entity, but rather a wide-ranging spectrum that is characterised by a range of variables, making it difficult to apply one set of rules. As a commissioning editor looking for titles to improve my list, some edited book proposals in the in-tray make my heart sink. Others, perhaps more rarely, can make my week.

What makes a Handbook, at one end of the spectrum, so different from a set of conference proceedings at the other? Both comprise contributions from multiple authors, marshalled by one, or sometimes two, editors. Both also face challenges not encountered by single-authored books; those of coherence, consistency of voice, and how to achieve meaningful peer review. It is almost impossible for an edited, multi-contributor book, to present a single, unified message. I say almost because it can be done, but it requires almost Herculean effort, direction and control from the book’s editor. Edited books fulfil different purposes though, and can offer something just as valuable and meaningful to the corpus of scholarly literature as authored books. Indeed some questions can only be tackled meaningfully by a range of different voices offering varying perspectives and expertise. As a general point though, the increase in the number of edited book publications means that edited books have to try harder just in order to raise their heads above the crowd.

Now, just as edited books come in various guises, they can also come about through any number of means. That’s significant for the publisher, because a book proposal that comes as an afterthought to a conference (however stimulating that conference may have been) is unlikely to be able to achieve an outcome with the same level of coherence and sense of purpose as a book that has been pro-actively conceived (either by publisher or by book editor) with its chapters specially commissioned to meet a pre-determined aim. The Handbook can achieve the status of premium reference work because its journey from seed of an idea to publication has been clearly mapped out, carefully nurtured and earnestly shaped. Not all edited books can aspire to this, but as a general rule of thumb, the further along the spectrum towards this a book proposal appears to be, the better reception it will have from your commissioning editor.

Here follows a set of questions I find myself asking when considering edited book proposals (on top of the usual questions relating to market, fit-with-list, and commercial viability). Does it have:

  • A clear and interesting theme that seems to offer a new approach, or tackle an under-researched question?
  • a thread that runs throughout the volume?
  • a coherent structure and framework?
  • an editor with a strong reputation?
  • at least a proportion of internationally recognised and renowned contributors?
  • evenness and balance (ie papers of roughly the same length and tone)?
  • a willingness from those contributors to shape their contributions around the proposed structure and central theme, rather than the other way around?
  • a willingness from the editor to cut out papers that don’t fit the overall brief, and to consider commissioning new chapters to fill clear gaps?

It’s still not black and white. Some very good edited books may not fulfil all of these criteria, and yet still add something to a publisher’s list, but I would urge all prospective book editors, before proposing an edited book, to consider whether they have the capacity and commitment to undertake the sort of role that is required of them to turn a good idea, or a ready-made pool of authors, into a book that sticks its head above the crowd.

Luke Adams is Senior Publisher, Head of Law Publishing at Edward Elgar.

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