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I've noticed that many academic expositions are written in such a way that a different expert supplies each chapter, and one editor brings it all together.

I can understand why such a format makes sense in a "The Handbook of something-or-other", for example, where exhaustive coverage and authoritative material are sought. But I've seen it used, just recently, in The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory, a history book, and in The Psychology of Music, an exposition of an academic field.

My question is: how and when did this practice arise? (I don't recall seeing such a practice in books published more than 50 years ago). What are its upsides and downsides, and what makes it attractive?

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    I don't know how you intend to pin down what "many" means. Maybe just the ones that contain the material you're interested in have been like this of late by pure coincidence. – zibadawa timmy Apr 9 '17 at 16:38
  • At the moment you ask two or three different questions. Please can you choose a single one? You can always post multiple separate questions if necessary. – user2390246 Apr 10 '17 at 9:23
  • Say that you find someone who's so obsessed with doing research that they've acquired enough mastery to write a whole book. How do you get them to stop long enough to write it? – Nat Apr 10 '17 at 21:08
  • History seems like a perfect subject for separate experts to author different chapters. Courses for history of early western music, baroque, classical, etc. are usually taught by different professors, because they specialize in those fields. It would make sense to also split the book up in that way. – mattliu Apr 11 '17 at 6:04
  • Note that under modern "researcher evaluation" systems, people may be required to achieve a certain number of "publications", regardless of quality or word count. Contributing a chapter to a book allows you to add one "book" to your publication count. – pjc50 Apr 11 '17 at 13:23
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Many times such a book is dedicated to a broad subject with many sub-subjects and experts from each sub-subject are invited to write the relevant topic. This is actually very good. The potential downside might be that different authors might have much different writing style and flow and it can lead to a highly non-uniform book if the editor does not pay the required attention.

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One upside is that it's usually easier to persuade an expert to write a chapter for a book than to persuade him or her to write a whole book. It's also easier to nag an author of a chapter ("All the other chapters are written; when can you get yours done?" or "If you miss this deadline, we'll publish the book without your chapter") than to nag the author of a book.

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    But if there's just one author, "All the other authors have written their part; when can you get yours done?" is still correct! ;-) – David Richerby Apr 11 '17 at 13:21
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    @DavidRicherby Absolutely right, but somehow I'd feel less guilty about holding up the publication of everybody else's parts if everybody else is nobody. – Andreas Blass Apr 11 '17 at 13:46
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    Good point. Nobody deserves to be delayed like that. – David Richerby Apr 11 '17 at 13:58
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    @DavidRicherby Yeah, screw nobody! – Myles Apr 11 '17 at 16:07
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I'd say that knowledge is expanding so rapidly that it might be difficult to be an academic expert on each sub topic which is forming a different chapter in the book. I'm not sure of the prevalence of this trend, but I have seen it at times in books meant for graduate students or scholars

5

Academic books are generally not very profitable. To reduce the costs, the editor would:

  • Ask for different authors to contribute. Most of the time, those authors simply copy-and-paste from their existing publication.
  • The topics would be too complicated and diverse for anybody. Nobody would have the knowledge to write the whole book.
  • 1
    Anyone who has walked into a college bookstore recently would surely disagree with you ;-) – Unknown Coder Apr 11 '17 at 16:08
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    @DMS College bookstore textbooks are a narrow slice of the academic book market pie. – Fomite Apr 11 '17 at 21:12
2

I agree with the other responses given. In addition, edited works typically have some level of peer review, since the editor(s) is an expert in the field that the individual chapter authors are submitting their work to. This is also different from a person writing the entire book and publishing alone.

2

I have been a co-author on two technical books and I can tell you that the answer is this: it's because writing books is hard!

I would have to come up with the materials, validate all references and then also do my own screenshots/code/graphics. You'd think that some people would do that for you, but writing is actually quite solitary work.

From there it's shipped to the editor who puts it through a peer-review process with 4-5 people, each with their own perspective. It get's shipped back to you with dozens and dozens of comments and questions. No matter how good you are, you are always going to have various comments to address. The editor wants to see you address every single one and some of the comments will be very good and can spark new ideas in you and add sections to the books. Other comments will require you to re-do some of your screenshots/code/graphics.

After you ship that back, the better book publishers will put it through another peer-review process and you have to go through the same cycle above until you get down to a reasonable level of comments.

And all of the above is just for ONE chapter!

Think of a book with 20+ chapters and hundreds of pages. The writing is (almost) the "easy" part - the review process will cause you to tear your hair out. If you're a true professional, working in the field you're writing about, you really just don't have the time needed to write a book completely on your own. The person in the other answer who said it takes 6 months to write a book is clearly wrong - if you go at it yourself, you're looking at 18 months, more like 2 years to be realistic. So it only makes sense to involve other people in the process to keep your sanity in check.

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It takes about 6 months of full-time work to write a full length book. If the subject is specialized, you'll be doing really well if you sell 5000 copies. 5000 copies at $50 = $250,000. The author might expect 10% of that, say $25,000 if you're really successful. In reality, sales of 1000 copies and royalties of $5K are more likely. That's no way to earn a living.

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    6 months??? For a technical book??? No, not even close. Working alone, it's minimum 18 months from beginning to end, more like 2 years. See my answer to this question. – Unknown Coder Apr 11 '17 at 16:18
  • We all work at different speeds. Mine took 6 months. – Michael Kay Apr 11 '17 at 18:08
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In the subfield I am aware of (signal/image processing), an edited book (with editors and contributed chapters) can expose the editors to a certain fame. Like a thing one has to achieve at a certain point of a career and in a resume. Note that chapters traditionally are not really considered in standard performance indices.

Writing a chapter allows one to dig into more details, like an overview paper, than in a traditional page-limited paper. A collection of papers can be made with art, or not.

  • with art: the editors work a lot on the homogeneity of the whole opus, setting common notations, managing overlap and coherence, typically with cross-author peer-review. This takes time, sweat and tears, but can be valuable.
  • without art: it is more a recycling thing. Each author does his job alone, and the collection is more a gathering than an original opus. Note that the latter can still be interesting when the collected papers are history, hard to find, then it is more a compendium.

A chapter contribution can also be a nice fate of a chapter in a PhD thesis. Or one can work on a novel chapter, and reuse a portion of it for a standard paper.

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