Neil M. Coe, National University of Singapore
Editor of the RGS-IBG book series, 2011-14
I was privileged to be the human geography editor of the RGS-IBG book series from 2011-2014, a role I hugely enjoyed and learned a great deal from. Since stepping down, I have continued to follow the series closely, and am delighted to see that is gone from strength to strength. To my mind, it continues to occupy a unique place in the geography publishing landscape, even amongst other monograph series. In preparing to write this short piece, I dug out my application letter for the role from July 2010. In it, I distilled six attributes underpinning the distinctiveness and excellence of the series, which I still think remain just as relevant today.
First, the remit of the series is clear, straightforward and uncompromising, namely to publish the very highest quality scholarship in geography, period. Books are selected solely on their intellectual contributions, with the series offering a crucial niche in a publishing world increasingly driven by lowest common denominator textbooks and handbooks, and befitting an academic society-backed endeavour. At the same time, the underlying definition of ‘geography’ is suitably catholic and porous, allowing geographers to make generative contributions to significant interdisciplinary debates, as long as the geographical ‘anchor’ is there.
Second, and relatedly, the books in the series are of a uniformly high quality, which is no mean feat given its breadth and the 60-plus volumes it now offers. To my mind, this of course relates to the quality of the authors and their work, but also to the distinctive ‘editorial board’ model of proposal review. Under this model, series editors who themselves are strongly grounded in geography – not always the case with commercial presses – solicit detailed comments on submitted proposals not only from one or two domain experts, but also from a standing editorial board constituted by 8-10 leading scholars from across the full breadth of the discipline. This ensures that all proposals, whether ultimately awarded a contract or not, receive extensive critical-yet-constructive feedback from a collective that is highly invested in both the series and the discipline. I’m not aware of another series that offers such breadth and depth of commentary, and the books are undoubtedly stronger as a result – indeed several author endorsements on the series website attest to that fact.
Third, while there is some variability, another calling card of the series is that nearly all the books offer a judicious balance of both theoretical development and empirical elucidation. As a result, readers can be sure that they will be exposed to cutting-edge conceptual thinking in a subfield of geography, but also that those ideas will be put to work and demonstrated through extensive rather than illustrative empirical evidence. This makes the books a rich and rewarding read.
The remaining three aspects are more prosaic, but also highly important. The relative speed with which book projects can be brought to fruition, particularly in comparison to North American university presses, is important in a series that seeks to drive intellectual agendas. The consistent use of paperback publication from the outset allows the books to reach a wider audience than hardback-only series targeted primarily at libraries. And these are books with strong production values – they look good and feel good in your hand, with the care underlying the production being clearly evident to the reader, again contrasting favourably with rival series, particularly from commercial publishers. Whether this aspect can be preserved as readers increasingly switch to e-books remains to be seen.
In combination, therefore, the RGS-IBG book series seemingly hits a sweet spot that combines the intellectual rigour and production values of university presses, a breadth and freedom from direct commercial pressures linked to its association with the Society, and the production processes of a focused and supportive commercial press. Long may it continue.
Thinking back to 2011, there were three primary concerns on my mind in relation to developing the series (and that of the physical geography editor at the time, Jo Bullard). During what has been a bumper subsequent decade for the series, two have receded almost entirely, while one remains a perhaps insurmountable work-in-progress.
The first was simply whether there was space and demand for such a monograph series within the RAE/REF-inflected publishing landscape in the UK, and in a context where the range of publication outlets and options was expanding rapidly (a trend that has continued or, if anything, has accelerated since). The series received relatively few submissions in the late 2000s, raising these concerns, and leading to fairly low numbers of books being published into the early 2010s. Things soon picked up, however, presumably as a result of the attractions of the series noted above and a steadily growing reputation within the discipline. That very healthy level of output has continued into its third decade, with three books already slated for 2022 and many more under contract.
The second was a related desire to further ‘internationalise’ the series on multiple fronts: the constitution of the editorial board; the institutional affiliations and backgrounds of contributing authors; and the range of topics under study. The goal was to see the institutional base of the series in UK geography simply as an entry point into the translocal and transnational networks of contemporary geographical research. Not to say that was not the objective from the start, but recent years have seen a pleasing broadening of the scope of the series in all regards, including productively encompassing several Asian scholars and topics, for instance.
The third issue is a thorny and longstanding one, which relates to the nature of geography as a discipline, and concerns a desire to see more physical and environmental geography contributions to the series. A quick skim suggests that maybe ten percent of the published volumes fall under this category. It seems that what was a challenge back in 2011 remains so today, and that, in very general terms at least, different publishing modes and cultures continue to distinguish human and physical geography.
Our main idea a decade ago was to try and solicit some edited volumes on ‘big issues’ (e.g. water, pollution or energy transitions) that both human and physical geographers would contribute to. Tellingly perhaps, we could not get these off the ground, in part reflecting, of course, the relatively lowly status of edited books in many institutional contexts, alongside the challenges of working across the ontological and epistemological divides that fall within geography.
However, in the context of a world bedevilled by pressing topics requiring urgent interdisciplinary interrogation (not least climate change and the ongoing COVID 19 pandemic and its legacies), this still seems a space worth pursuing and one which this geography-wide series is unusually well-placed to facilitate. The recent 2021 initiative by the current editors to attract books in the area of climate change aligns with this perfectly, and I hope it is a highly successful endeavour.