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Why reference editors are more like Gandalf than Maxwell Perkins

By Max Sinsheimer


Recently I was chatting with a regular at my gym, an Irish man named Stephen, when he asked me what I do for a living. I told him I am an editor in the reference department at Oxford University Press, and he excitedly launched into a description of the draft manuscript he had just completed, a novel about his wild (and illicit) youth spent between Galway and the Canary Islands. Stephen was looking for an editor to help him smooth out his dialectical writing and horrible grammar so that it didn’t read quite so much like Trainspotting. His concern was humorously underscored when, I thought at first that he had written a novel about his horrible grandma, having misunderstood his thick brogue. After shaking off visions of Livia Soprano, I gently suggested I might not be the editor he was looking for.

Stephen, like many people I’ve spoken to, assumed that my job entails revising manuscripts and helping authors write more clearly and forcefully, while picking off the occasional dangling modifier or the incorrect use of “effect” vs. “affect.” That’s the editing process people are familiar with, the craftsmanship that adds style and coherence to writing once the big ideas are down on paper. Editing to “let the fire show through the smoke,” as the author and editor Arthur Plotnik once said.

dictionary definition of editor

The trouble is, that doesn’t remotely describe a reference editor’s job. The truth is that I’m more like a project manager than a Maxwell Perkins (legendary editor to Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others). I plan scholarly reference works (mostly print and online encyclopedias), and then I guide them through to publication. Because these reference works are so complex, written by dozens, if not hundreds of authors, the publisher needs to take a very active role in the publication process, much more so than with single-authored books.

Ok, but a project manager? Snore. How about you just think of me as Gandalf? Like Gandalf, I assemble and lead a fellowship of individuals who each play an important role in a grand (publishing) quest. Like Gandalf, I know each leg of that quest, our final destination, and all the potential dangers along the way. While I’d prefer to go by Gandalf, in publisher’s parlance I’m actually called a commissioning editor, as opposed to an acquisitions editor. Acquisitions editors review query letters, or partial or complete manuscripts, and then make decisions about which ones to publish, or compete with other publishers for the rights if the title is popular enough. But as a commissioning editor, I come up with an idea for an encyclopedia or reference website, and then I go out and find, or “commission,” the experts to make it happen – my merry (occasionally not-so-merry) fellowship.

My job is to partner with a subject specialist, usually the Editor-in-Chief, to think through the scope of the work (how many articles, and on what topics?), author assignments (who will write each article?), and the composition of articles (will there be abstracts? Keywords? Bibliographies and further reading sections?). Because the Oxford editor has a macro responsibility for the project, we do relatively little actual editing of individual articles. The Editor in Chief, usually with the help of an Editorial Board of area experts, spend the most time reviewing and suggesting revisions to individual articles, while dedicated proofreaders and copyeditors focus on the writing mechanics.

Recently I’ve been acting as the Grey Wanderer for the Encyclopedia of Social Work, which is free for you to explore throughout the summer and has the added benefit of illustrating some unique aspects of digital publishing. The Encyclopedia of Social Work is considered the standard reference work in the field, a classic reference work last published in four volumes in 2008 through a partnership between Oxford University Press (OUP) and the National Association of Social Workers Press (NASW). It contains overview articles on most major social work-related topics, from Alzheimer’s disease and caring for the elderly to migrant worker populations and violence in urban practice. Around 2011, OUP and NASW decided it was time to transform the print Encyclopedia into a dynamic online reference resource.

My first task was to write a proposal outlining OUP’s and NASW’s shared vision for the site. I highlighted key factors that I felt would make it successful, such as discoverability (users should be able to find it through a simple Google search), flexible publishing schedules (we should commission online-only articles and be able to quickly publish them once they pass peer review), and comprehensiveness and internationality (users should be able to find articles on any major topic of interest to social workers, including on global issues). I also decided that, since online publication frees us from length constraints (i.e. no physical page count limit), we could allow authors to write lengthier articles that cover their assigned topics in greater depth.

Once the proposal and accompanying budget were approved, I needed to think about editorial oversight. This project was unique in that OUP had a publishing partner, NASW, dedicated to serving social workers, and so I followed their recommendation that we build a standing online editorial board of thirteen subject specialists and one Editor in Chief, Dr. Cynthia Franklin of The University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work. I reached out to the area editors and to Cynthia, discussed the work that they would need to commit to, and contracted them. I next worked with them to build out the headword list, or list of articles included in a reference work. The existing 2008 print edition had a headword list of approximately 400 subject articles and 200 biographies, and I wanted to add at least 100 new articles within the first year of launching the site. I asked each Editorial Board member to come up with twenty ideas for new articles within his or her area of expertise, and I solicited further suggestions from social workers unconnected to the Encyclopedia.

In addition to commissioning new articles, I realized that some existing articles needed to be revised. For instance, the articles often included outdated demographic data, since the Census Bureau has now released census data from 2010. And legislative changes, such as the Affordable Care Act, had implications for social work healthcare. I asked the Editorial Board to come up with a few articles that should be extensively revised as a matter of priority, while at the same time inviting all 437 existing contributors to update their articles in minor ways, such as by incorporating more recent books and websites into their bibliographies and further reading sections.

The content of a work is obviously very important, but a commissioning editor is also responsible to a certain extent for the look of it. If I were working on a new print edition of the Encyclopedia of Social Work, that would mean picking out an appropriate trim size for the binding, deciding whether it would be paperback or hardcover, whether it would have images, and if so, whether they would be color or black and white, and offering feedback to the designer on different cover options. Since the Encyclopedia is an online product, I collaborated with a large team of XML content specialists, graphic designers, marketers, and site developers to ensure that the articles display cleanly, that the homepage is attractive, and that users can easily navigate to the content they are looking for. Seemingly minor questions, such as whether the Browse-by-Subfield box should be collapsed or expanded by default, required thought.

And, presto, we have a new reference site up and running! Ok, obviously I’ve glossed over some steps (the Encyclopedia of Social Work site took about two years to plan and execute!), but in its simplest form that’s what it takes to build a large-scale reference work. Admittedly, the idea of working with a single author, on a single manuscript, is at times appealing. (Am I the only reference editor who has ever had an anxiety dream in which the database I use to track my most complex projects turns into the cockpit of an Airbus, and I don’t know how to fly? I doubt it). But when all the moving parts of a project come together to form something of lasting value to a community of people, you have a sense of pride from having been there from the shires to the mountains of Mordor.

Max Sinsheimer is a Reference Editor at Oxford University Press in New York.

The Encyclopedia of Social Work is the first continuously updated online collaboration between the National Association of Social Workers (NASW Press) and Oxford University Press (OUP). Building off the classic reference work, a valuable tool for social workers for over 85 years, the online resource of the same name offers the reliability of print with the accessibility of a digital platform. Over 400 overview articles, on key topics ranging from international issues to ethical standards, offer students, scholars, and practitioners a trusted foundation for a lifetime of work and research, with new articles and revisions to existing articles added regularly.

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Image credit: Photo of Concise OED definition by Alice Northover via Instagram.

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3 Responses to “Why reference editors are more like Gandalf than Maxwell Perkins”
  1. Annie Morgan says:

    A beautiful, succinct description of your work. It was a joy to read.

  2. [...] University Press explains why reference editors are more like Gandalf than Maxwell Perkins, asks if religion can evolve, and tells of seven things we didn’t know about [...]

  3. Warren Sinsheimer says:

    What a simply wonderful explanation of your most interesting job. It is clear, informative and well-written.

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