The Art of Editing Engineering Handbooks
Column Editor: Myer Kutz (President, Myer Kutz Associates, Inc.) <[email protected]>
In this column I’m going to talk about how I develop an engineering handbook, comprised of chapters written by contributors, from conception of the idea for a title to submission of a manuscript to a publisher. This process can take as little as eighteen months to two years, but in many cases, perhaps the majority, it can take much longer. Because I make a significant part of my living from handbook royalties, there is an economic need to keep the process as short as possible. But an academic, say, with more professional commitments than I have at this stage of my life, might keep a publishing house waiting much longer than it would like. Generally, publishers’ deadlines for manuscript submission have been soft and delays have been granted with no more fuss than an aggrieved sigh. But now one of my publishers has begun to insist on hard deadlines without an ounce of mercy.
The ideas for most of the ten handbook titles — most of them in multiple editions – I’ve worked on over the past thirty years have come mostly from me. (This is also true of the seven books in a series I dreamed up.) There are a couple of exceptions. The first handbook I worked on was intended to be a new edition of a handbook that had fallen into neglect. (The old title was discarded eventually and the update became my own, entirely new handbook.) In another case I put together the fifth edition of an existing title, and one time I produced a reference book in response to an acquisitions editor’s request — although it didn’t turn out to be exactly what he’d had in mind.
I favor broad topics — the name of an engineering discipline (mechanical, biomedical, or environmental engineering), a major sub-discipline (transportation or plastics engineering), or an activity like materials selection for engineering applications, environmental degradation of engineering materials, design of machinery used in food production, or how engineers and scientists measure things. Over the years, I’ve made enough contacts in STM publishing that I can get an acquisition editor’s ear for an engineering handbook idea without too much trouble. Unlike trade publishing, an agent is not required.
From this initial, and preliminary, point forward, the process becomes more formal for everyone, even for someone like me who has a leg up in getting a publisher to say yes. Publishers have standard proposal forms which require authors and editors to provide a great deal of information about who they are and what they have in mind. A proposal form can ask for a detailed description of the book being proposed; if the book is to a contributed work, who potential contributors might be; a full table of contents; the benefits the proposed book will provide to users; an analysis of any competing works; even how many pages long the work will be and how many equations and figures it will have. Years ago, I used editorial boards to put handbook Tables of Contents together. But given not only my STM publishing experience, but also my having worked as a mechanical engineer (I hold engineering degrees), I put that editorial-board crutch aside after the first couple of projects.
Once the proposal form has been completed to the satisfaction of the acquisitions editor, the proposal goes through an approval process that may include a single higher-level decision maker or an editorial board or committee charged with deciding which proposals to accept and what changes they might like to see made. The contract offered to an author or editor is rather one-sided — in the publisher’s favor, of course. For authors and editors not used to the language lawyers find necessary, indemnification clauses, say, and other contractual provisions regarding timely delivery and acceptability of manuscripts will sound intimidating. I blithely sign these documents. Contributor contracts of similar menace exist. But for more than a decade, I have used my own, brief handshake-style agreement with contributors to my handbooks. It specifies the due date for a chapter, how long I want it to be, that the contributor warrants that the chapter is his or her own work, that permission must be obtained for anything borrowed from a copyright holder, and what the contributor gets in remuneration — these days, a copy of the book. (It’s a miracle that I can get contributors and that more than eighty percent of them actually deliver high-quality chapters.) The agreement fits on one page. It’s much shorter than anything a publisher sends out.
So basically I contact with individual chapter contributors and a publisher contracts with me alone for a complete handbook. I’m a packager, more or less. Currently, one publisher, with a new head of contracts– a lawyer, of course — is balking at this procedure, which has worked well for years. This publisher’s own contracts have gone out to contributors to a new handbook, and some of them are also balking, no surprise to me.
Thirty years ago, when I undertook my first handbook project, I’d been working in STM publishing for some time. I’d started as an acquisitions editor, I’d travelled a great deal, mainly to university campuses, to recruit authors, and I’d built up a large Rolodex of engineering professors and other professionals. At that time I used the telephone to look for potential handbook chapter contributors, going to one possibility, getting names and phone numbers of other possibilities if that person couldn’t contribute, and on and on until I found someone who would. (Around that time I ran into a legendary acquisitions editor who told me that his contact method was a formal letter, sent without prior contact. I thought he was barmy.)
Nowadays, of course, I use the Internet. Engineering schools make faculty expertise and contact information freely available, and clever use of search terms can expand the possibilities to industry and government. You can find anyone, anywhere, who knows about any particular thing. Whether that person will be willing to contribute a handbook chapter is another matter. To inquire, I use a standard, one-page email under a subject like Invitation to Contribute Handbook Chapter. I think it’s important to keep the request brief. I mention the particular handbook at issue, of course, the topic of the chapter I’m asking for, when I’d like to receive it, how long it ought to be, and the technical level at which it I’d like it to be written. Under my signature, I list all the contributed reference works I’ve published.
Sometimes I get a reply instantly. If I haven’t heard anything after a couple of days, I resend the email under the subject, Second Request. I don’t keep statistics on success rates. It can take as many as a dozen tries to secure a contributor for a chapter. Sometimes the first invitation works. Occasionally, I can’t find anyone. It’s all random and unpredictable.
Filling out a contributor roster can take months. I have been pleasantly surprised on occasion, however. Getting a dozen contributors for a book on sustainable manufacturing took less than a week. I give contributors nine months or so to submit their chapters (the human gestation period just feels right). I often have to wait longer, and sometimes I have to hound people, mindful always that handbook contributors don’t get paid — although recently one of my publishers sent contributors to one of my handbooks a modest honorarium. (The publisher’s email request for tax ID information provoked suspicions of an identity theft scam.) The success rate of obtaining chapters pretty much adheres to the positive side of the eighty-twenty rule.
In a future column, I’ll discuss what happens after I receive an acceptable chapter. For now, I’d like to turn to the question indicated by this column’s title: Is editing engineering handbooks an art? Of course, it does take some imagination, an essential factor in making a work of art, to think up a topic that will work. Then it’s not merely a matter of dreaming up chapter titles and slotting them properly into a TOC. You also have to feel confident that you can find contributors for those chapters. Rooting around the Internet for a while, and seeing whether there might be multiple contributor candidates for some chapters, can help put your mind at ease. Once you actually start filling out the contributor roster, other considerations arise that require experience and imagination. When you find someone who seems to have the expertise you want for a particular chapter, you have to somehow assess whether that person will be willing to sign a contract, and having done that, actually deliver the chapter nine months or so later. It’s seeing into the psyches, or souls, of people you’ve never met, and getting it right eighty percent of the time, that strikes me as an art.