Do I rat him out?
April 29, 2012 8:28 PM   Subscribe

Would it be unprofessional to tell my editor that it is my co-author's fault that our book manuscript is (once again) going to miss it's delivery deadline? Or is the right thing to do to keep telling her that "we" aren't ready?

I am a postdoc. I am co-editing a volume of collected papers together with a senior professor (let's call him Dr Disorganised). The volume is all ready to go to the publisher (typeset, proofread, refereed, revised, etc) except for two things: Dr Disorganised wants to make some more changes to his own paper, and he has not finished writing the introduction. This has now been the case for around 9 months.

Over the past year we have missed three deadlines the publisher has set for us, while waiting for Dr Disorganised to get these things done. The next (and final deadline, beyond which the contract says we will be penalised, although I don't know if that really happens in academic publishing) is 15 May. Our editor has just written to me again asking what the status of the book is. Three contributors to the book have recently emailed and asked about it too.

I cannot complete the introduction myself. The area is too far from my own field of expertise. To be honest, Dr Disorganised was being nice to let me be credited as co-editor, since I have really been doing more of the technical work on the book - proofreading, figures, communicating with the contributors - rather than the content. I do have a paper of my own in it, though, so I don't want to wash my hands of it completely.

At this point I'm pretty sure Dr Disorganised will not make the May 15 deadline. He has just injured himself badly enough to be in hospital (although is out now), so for once has a reasonable excuse. His writing is also typo-ridden to the extent that I imagine it would take me several days of work to proof-read and tidy it up so that it could be sent off, so even if he gets it to me on May 15, which is maybe barely possible, I would not be able to submit it in time.

Up until now I have been protecting him by telling the editor and contributors only that, "The manuscript is nearly complete: we are just waiting for some final changes by one of the contributors."

My question is whether it would be unprofessional at this stage to do any or all of the following:
(a) answer the editor's and/or contributors' email inquiries by telling them that it is Dr Disorganised we are waiting for, so they can stop bugging me and bug him instead
(b) send in the manuscript as is on May 15 and let him look bad for the incomplete introduction and unrevised paper.
(c) send him an email telling him I will be sending in the manuscript as is on May 15.

I have sent him numerous emails begging him to get the damn thing finished - explaining that it makes both him and me look bad, and that the contributors are concerned about the delays. I don't see what else I can do along those lines. I have offered to do anything I can to make it easier for him to get the work done. He is not in the same country as me, so I can't go to his office and stand over him while he does it, even if that weren't horrifically inappropriate.

Further important info: he used to be my supervisor, and I rely on him for letters of reference for jobs.
posted by lollusc to Work & Money (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Further relevant piece of information: until very recently, Dr. Disorganised thought the deadline was 30 April (I wouldn't have told him the true deadline if I had known this, believe me!). He STILL didn't get his stuff done yet. This makes me even more certain he won't make the May 15 deadline.
posted by lollusc at 8:32 PM on April 29, 2012

What type of penalty does the contract specify? It seems to me that you're overly frantic, but the specific nature of the penalty matters re: what's appropriate/professional to do here.
posted by J. Wilson at 8:36 PM on April 29, 2012

Were I your editor (and I have been a book editor) I would absolutely want to know the real reason for the delay.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:37 PM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm with ocherdraco; I've been in this situation as the editor, and I have always much preferred the truth. You don't have to play any kind of blame game -- just send an email that explains "Almost everything is finished, but we have been waiting for X and Y from Dr Disorganised since Day B."
posted by shamash at 8:43 PM on April 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: The contract says that they may withdraw from publishing the book altogether, and/or that they may charge us for their time spent on layout and other preparation.

Also clarification: the editor I am talking about is the representative of the publisher, and I'm sure she DOES want to know the real reason. The only question is whether I owe some sort of loyalty to my co-editor, and whether there is anything practical to gain by talking to the editor about this (beyond making myself feel a bit better).

Maybe I am being "overly frantic". I am just at my wit's end with this guy. It probably doesn't help that we have another co-authored journal article together that is in the same situation (sitting on his desk for nearly two years now, waiting for him to finish his bit.)
posted by lollusc at 8:44 PM on April 29, 2012

Best answer: I'm so sorry to hear that you are in this situation. It sounds frustrating and difficult, and further complicated by the fact that Dr. D isn't a completely unsympathetic character here, and that he will still be writing you reference letters.

Pragmatically speaking, alienating Dr. D by choosing A or B will be worse for you, in the long run, than walking away from this co-editing gig and losing the publication. Not only is academia a social guild, where a good letter can go a long way, but it is a particularly judgmental demographic when it comes to acts of betrayal, especially in teacher/student relationships. Fifteen years from now you'll never regret it if that first edited volume was delayed by 6 months, or if it fell through and had to be reorganized down the line. You will regret it, though, every time there is awkwardness between you and Dr. D and professional events, or when you get a momentary glimpse at the shadows of some one-sided anecdote about you jumping the gun.

If I were you, I would email Dr. D a version of option C, and I would sugar the pill. "Dr. D you have been so incredibly generous, despite your busy schedule, to include me in this project. We are at a critical point right now, though, and we have to make a decision. My strong preference is to tell the editors and contributors that we're sending in the manuscript on May 15, and that we turn in whatever we have in terms of your writing. I am willing to help, of course, in these ways..."

[On Preview, re: similar 2 year old precedent] It sounds like this guy is worse than I thought. I still think that a firm hand is always more effective in a white glove, but I'm less worried that anyone who knows Dr. D would blame you for taking action.

Good luck to you!
posted by farishta at 8:47 PM on April 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

If the editor knows what the hold-up is, they may be willing and able to exert some leverage directly on the blockage. No telling them means that, in their eyes, you are the blockage. If that matters to you.

I would send Dr D a very sugar-coated version of (c), then follow-up in it if he doesn't come through. You could either copy the editor on the e-mail or send them a separate note confirming that the manuscript will be provided by the deadline 'even if some parts of Dr D's contribution may not be as polished as we would like ...'.
posted by dg at 8:54 PM on April 29, 2012

Best answer: I'm an editor, and once had a situation that was almost identical (ridiculously late two-author essay that was starting to fuck with my entire book production schedule to the point where I was forced to cancel my own vacation to deal with the chaos), right down to the senior author on the project causing all the problems while the junior author was forced to make excuses and cover up. Eventually the junior author told me (in confidence, for all the reasons of academic politics you list -- which I believe any editor would understand) what was actually going on, which was a huge help because then he and I were able to talk frankly in order to strategize realistically about what steps to take, which did eventually result in the essay being completed in time (barely) to make it into the book (our situation was complicated by the fact that the essay was being written in German, so needed to be translated first before I could even edit it). If he hadn't told me the truth when we had, we probably would have had to drop it from the book entirely. As it was, knowing the exact situation allowed us to exert the appropriate leverage on the senior author, which finally got her to cough up her work.

Here's the thing: at this point, the editor needs to know the factual reality of the situation in order to make a series of decisions about the material reality of getting the book seen through completion. For example, maybe the editor decides that there is still time to farm out the introduction to another author -- but they would need to know NOW so that they have enough time to get a contract drawn up for someone else. Or maybe the editor decides that the publication date of the book can be pushed back a season -- but they would need to know NOW so that they can contact the printer to let them know they need to change the press date.

The point is, the longer the editor and publisher have their hands tied, the more their options narrow as time goes on. This is unfair from a labor and a business standpoint -- it impacts real people's work schedules (and not just the editor's; it's also the designer, the typesetter, the proofreader, and everyone else along the publication chain who are potentially affected) as well as the publisher's budget.

As for the penalty, it might be helpful to know what the publisher has stipulated (for example, X% penalty against the author's fee). We often find where common courtesy/consideration fail to move recalcitrant authors, the threat of losing a portion of their fee is the only thing that can make them discover their professionalism.

Good luck. I'm sorry your coauthor has put you in this position. On the plus side, if you 'fess up, your editor will probably at least remove the pins from the voodoo doll with your name on it that they've got stashed in their bottom drawer.
posted by scody at 9:01 PM on April 29, 2012 [28 favorites]

I really recommend checking out How To Write a Lot, which actually has a section on managing this kind of situation.
posted by spunweb at 9:07 PM on April 29, 2012

Tell the editor. Diplomatically, and in a problem-solving way ("Dr. X just sustained an injury, and I'm afraid he's been swamped with other work and got a bit behind on this project--how can I help you set a deadline that works for you and for Dr. X?")

I would also suggest to Dr. X that, in light of his injury, etc., that you and he meet to brainstorm out loud about the introduction. Prepare questions in advance and record the session. You may be able to get enough information in the session to at least make a start on the introduction. I have done this with blocked/disorganized/overcommitted clients, and it has worked wonders. Now that you have the injury as an excuse, so you don't have to address his procrastinating ways, seize the opportunity!
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:13 PM on April 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Do not tell the editor. Go to the senior person and tell them to talk to the editor because it has escalated beyond what you as the junior party can deal with. He has the seniority and must deal with this. Go in, talk to him personally and ask him to cc you on the email. Then say that if this is not an option that you will write the introduction and send it in. For real. As someone who edited a book and could not get a reply from two contributors about needed cuts to their pieces I just said I'd do the cuts and send them in, and if they were happy for someone who knew nothing about their topic to make the decisions about what wasn't necessary then that would work out nicely. I then sent them a copy of my edited version of their papers. The replies came pretty fast in one case, in the other I sent the damn thing in with my edits. So if you don't hear back from him write the introduction. You can do it if you've read the papers - just make it not a particularly ambitious state of the discipline introduction, but more a summary of the contents of the volume one. Then make the edits to his paper that he has said he wanted to. It's not fair, but unfortunately at this point it is your best option. And then send the entire thing in.

You might also talk to this person about this as a career issue: you need this publication on your CV - as he's your supervisor that might help. Email in this case is probably too easy for him to avoid.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 12:48 AM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: There's a lot of good advice here: thank you. Unfortunately some of it is contradictory and each time I read a comment I am convinced it is right, until I read the next one, and then I am convinced that one is right. I'm marking some mutually incompatible best answers anyway, though, so I can easily see which answers to return to to think about some more.

I'm tending towards following lesbiassparrow's advice. Or farishta's/dg's advice. But scody is quite convincing too.

Sidhedevil's suggestion of meeting with my co-editor and lesbiassparrow's thing about email being too easy for him to avoid are unfortunately not possible, since he is on the other side of the world from me. But I might try a skype call at least.

Thanks, everyone.
posted by lollusc at 5:25 AM on April 30, 2012

Response by poster: Also, ha ha ha, "author's fee"! I'm guessing you're at a bigger press than our book is going through. I think we get some tiny portion of the royalties if the first run sells out and they do a second printing (which won't happen). It might even come to $20 a year if we got super lucky. I'm guessing forfeiting that would not be much of a threat. The contract said the publisher can charge us for their time if we miss this deadline, but they did not say how exactly they would do so. It can't be taking it out of any imaginary sum we might get, especially since they can also choose not to publish the book at that point after all. I'm not actually seriously worried about this penalty clause very much - I doubt they would go through with it. I'm more worried about my professional reputation.
posted by lollusc at 5:30 AM on April 30, 2012

I was in a similar situation as you as far as co-authorship a few years ago. I had done my part but my senior author was not concerned with the deadline at all. I was all stressed; he was not. The difference was that he was the liaison with the editor/publisher. I am wondering what would happen if you kind of forced Dr. D. into that role. You say that the editor and other authors are asking you for a status update - what does Dr. Disorganised say in response to this question? Despite my thinking that we were going to ruin the whole book by being so late, my senior author had enough clout that it really didn't matter and everything turned out fine. Or maybe things happened behind the scenes that I didn't see. Can you forward the emails and whatnot to Dr. Disorganised to answer and stress over?
posted by Tandem Affinity at 6:13 AM on April 30, 2012

Skype call. Seriously, that's the only way this thing is ever going to happen. Tell him that the editor's breathing down your neck, and given his injury and whatever else is going on with him, the quickest way for him to get this done is to do an audio debriefing with you.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:10 AM on April 30, 2012

Seconding the Skype call. By this stage in his career this person is a pro at ignoring emails and he's probably very familiar with angry editors and not taking their threats seriously, so you're really going to have to be really clear about how much this is freaking you out and how much you need this publication and him to take some of heat.

Good luck. This is a bollocks of a situation, and it isn't fair, but going from my experience it's just far less stressful to do the work yourself in these circumstances.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 7:57 AM on April 30, 2012

The only question is whether I owe some sort of loyalty to my co-editor, and whether there is anything practical to gain by talking to the editor about this (beyond making myself feel a bit better).

What about his loyalty to you and to the other contributing authors?

As for what there is to gain: the editor may be able to convince Dr. Disorganized to get his shit together where you've been unsuccessful.

You have been lying (either outright or by omission). You're afraid of being cast as "mean" or "petty" or whatever, which I totally get, but it's only been hurting you and the other authors. What is there to be gained by continuing to lie?

This is what cc-ing is for. It makes you seem innocent because you're just trying to "keep everyone in the loop!" like a nice little efficient worker. You can either send an email to Mr. Disorganized, copying the editor, saying "Hey, how's it going? Sooo sorry you're in the hospital, bummer! So when do you think you'll be able to get me your introduction? Have you been able to work on it since the last time I asked you about it/the last time the editor extended our deadline, [insert date]? I'll need a few days to edit it to make sure the style matches the rest of the manuscript. Since the deadline is May 15, how about May 10?" This may be enough to put a fire under his ass.

Or you can email the editor and cc Dr. Disorganized. You avoid looking like you're going behind his back, since you're cc-ing him. "Hey Editor, I just wanted to give you a status update vis-a-vis the approaching May 15 deadline. Everything is all set except for a couple of pieces from Dr Disorganized. Unfortunately he just got out of the hospital, but I know that he's been continuing to work on it since the last time you extended the deadline, [insert date]. Please let me know what I can do to help you further this along, or you can get in touch with Dr Disorganized directly to get more information on his status."
posted by thebazilist at 8:59 AM on April 30, 2012

It may also work to replace occurrences of "May 15" with "in two weeks". A date can be abstract and far-off, but a time frame may bring it home harder.

My suggestion might be to take one of the emails from the editor and forward it--marked "high priority" and with read-receipt requested and whatever other flags and bells you can find in your email program of choice--to Dr Disorganized, with cc: to the other authors. Put a simple one-liner at the top:
Dear Dr Disorganized,

How would you like me to respond? Thanks,

posted by FlyingMonkey at 1:38 PM on April 30, 2012

I think scody has indicated very clearly the reality of the publisher's side of things. Your description of what you've done to get the project to this stage suggests to me that you've done virtually all the editing to date, and it raises the question of what, if anything, Dr Disorganised has actually contributed to the project, given that his essay and his introduction are the two missing pieces that are once again jeopardising the publisher's deadline.

I would suggest you send a diplomatically worded ultra-polite letter/email to Dr D, telling him that the publisher's editor has been in touch again, and reminding him of the deadline and of the sanctions that the editor has drawn to your attention. Then, treating him with the same professional courtesy you've already used with all the other contributors, tell Dr D that you need him to let you have a final draft of his introduction asap (i.e., 7 or 8 May) so that you can proofread and typeset it in time to dispatch it to the publisher (along with the rest of the material, which is already in that final state) in sufficient time to get there by 15 May. Explain to him that, regrettably, there is therefore no time left for him to make any substantial changes to his essay and that you are planning to proofread, typeset and submit his contribution as it currently stands unless he is able to send you his revisions along with his introduction.

Send the editor a copy of your letter to Dr D.
posted by davemack at 3:05 PM on April 30, 2012

My sympathies, this sounds like a really tough situation. I have been in a similar (though not quite so dire) situation before and the only thing I found that worked was to engineer it so the outcome for Dr D of not doing their part was bad enough that they were forced to do their part - or at least fess up to the editor themselves. As for what this means in your case, this is what I would do:

Tell Dr D that you absolutely have to have the introduction by, say, May 10th (before the May 15th deadline so that you have time to proofread it). If you don't have it, you will either: (a) email the editor and let them know precisely what the holdup is, for the professional courtesy reasons that scody has laid out; or (b) write the introduction yourself. Let Dr D choose which of (a) and (b) he wants you to do, but tell him that if you don't hear from him you'll pick one yourself (and tell him which you'll pick). When you're telling him this make it clear that you're just really worried about what this might do to your professional reputation, and the potential outcomes to your career; if he's a decent supervisor or person at all, he'll be sensitive to this and even if he doesn't get the intro in will do what he can to mitigate any damage to you.

The advantages of this is that Dr D has chosen the outcome, so can't really complain if you do one of the options you have told him you'll do. And by putting to him this way it will impress upon him how important this is to do. My guess is that he will either write back frantically promising to get it in (possibly at a later date, in which case you tell him that if it's past the deadline either he or you needs to tell the editor exactly what is going on in the meantime) or he will scramble to write something himself or he will talk to the editor himself. Unless he's pretty unreasonable[*] he's not going to object to you proactively managing this situation - chances are he feels massively guilty about being so late and is practicing avoidance, so you need to do something to make him realise that continuing to avoid it will be worse than just dealing with it.

[*] If he's pretty unreasonable then all bets are off.
posted by forza at 4:25 PM on April 30, 2012

Response by poster: You say that the editor and other authors are asking you for a status update - what does Dr. Disorganised say in response to this question?

He generally ignores all emails relating to this volume now, so I think the skype call is the way to go. I'll call him tonight. I asked one of his closer colleagues about this yesterday and they said his injury is bad enough that he can't write at all right now, so I'm going to offer to take down the rest of the intro by dictation. If he won't do that, I'll say something like what Farishta suggests. And then if that doesn't go well, I'll talk directly (in confidence) to the editor, as scody recommends.
posted by lollusc at 4:27 PM on April 30, 2012

Response by poster: In case anyone is wondering, he wasn't willing to dictate to me (claims it isn't necessary, and that there really isn't much work left to do, and that he'll get it done.) I straight out don't believe that he will, although I did reply by saying, "Well, if there's so little left to do, it won't be a total disaster if I just send it in as is on the 15th, so let's retain that as our back-up strategy in case you can't get it finished after all." The only problem with this is that he hasn't sent me what he has done, and getting that out of him might be difficult. The last version I have is a rough draft from nearly a year ago.

Then I replied to the editor with an email that outlined the truth of the situation, i.e. that the MS is all done and ready to send off except for what Dr Disorganised needs to do to the introduction, but I didn't mention that it has been this way for the past nine months - I figured that was unnecessary. I think she read between the lines, though, based on her reply, which sounded quite grateful for the update, and also commiserating!
posted by lollusc at 5:19 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

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