Laying it All Out: On Moving from Dissertation-to-Book Series


by Russell T. McCutcheon

In this new series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars who have published in the field to share some insights on the dissertation-to-book process–what to do, what to avoid, to put it all together.

  1. So, your dissertation is done—lesson one is that, once it has been accepted by your school, it ceases to be a dissertation and, magically, transforms into a book manuscript. Classification matters, as they say (well, as I say), and although it may still read like a dissertation (more on that below) you likely want readers (or, at least to start with, various publishers’ acquisition editors) to come to the text free of all the assumptions (fairly applied or not) that the term “dissertation” carries with it; instead, like everyone else in the field, from the most junior to the most senior, you want them to see this as a piece of original research that you’d like to see in-print. So, variations on the introduction’s “This dissertation will argue…” need to be systematically sought out and replaced. “This book argues….”
  1. How much do you trust your own sensibilities and those of your advisor(s) and examiner(s)? For the second lesson is in learning to invoke your own judgment concerning the state and shape of that ms. By now you’ve read and read it so often, and likely passed drafts of its chapters by your advisory committee so many times, that there’s little in it that strikes you or them as unexpected or maybe even novel. But sending it to an acquisition editor…, passing it by a fresh set of eyes…, having a rather different set of sensibilities assessing it (for, unlike your committee, editors wonder if it will sell)…. That’s risky. So before even getting out the manila envelopes and address labels you need to decide what you think of sending that ms., as it is, to an editor. Does it need rewriting (i.e., more than just replacing the word “dissertation”)? Were there contests between you and your committee that required you to acquiesce, to include this or exclude that against your own better judgment. What do you make of those decisions now that the defense is behind you and any ownership your committee might have once had over the chapters and the words is no longer in force? For while some dissertations cum books can leave their author’s desks immediately after the defense, and head out to their wish-list of publishers, others need significant rewriting (sometimes years’ worth). So what do you think of that ms. on your desk? Does it need revisions? Or would it be wise not to invest excessive time tinkering (time is precious, after all) in a way that isn’t directly requested by an interested publisher? After all, you might spend four months writing a new chapter or two that a press later tells you needs to come out.
  1. Next is a lesson on different genres. If you do decide to do some revisions, one thing to keep in mind is refashioning it (as mentioned above) to read less like a dissertation—for dissertations are an exercise in demonstrating your research and argumentation skills, all in an effort to gain a credential, making them often about covering your ass. For example, you casually say something in the main text and then, strategically, you drop a lengthy footnote at the bottom of the page which, in so many words, says to your examiners: “Look, I know that I just used a contested term with a troubled past, and while this isn’t my main area of research, here’s all the stuff I read on the debate; I know what I’m talking about, so just go with me on this.” But a book often doesn’t need that sort of defensive style; instead, readers (unlike the book reviewers who, if you’re lucky, will tackle the book once its out) generally trust you to know what you’re talking about instead of sitting there examining you and prepared to pounce at any sign of weakness. Not that the results of your revisions are filled with unsupported declarative sentences, of course; but, unlike your dissertation, your book will likely have far fewer substantive footnotes (i.e., if its worth saying maybe it should be in the main text) and will get to the point a lot quicker—you’ll therefore see your authorial voice start to develop, I bet, feeling freer to start telling a reader what you think and why, instead of spending so much time telling them what everyone else before you has thought about something.
  1. If (or once) you’re satisfied with the ms. then you’ll likely want to get it in the hands of an acquisitions editor. For the days of putting a carbon copy of your dissertation in a desk drawer and never publishing it have long passed us by. While there’s no requirement to publish it, of course, if you want to gain a foot-hold in academia today you have to take seriously that having successfully written a dissertation and earned a Ph.D. is the level playing field on which everyone stands. So, while not wanting to overlook the tremendous accomplishment that is the earned doctorate (congrats!), you’re not the only one who has received it and, unless you’re in one of our field’s few specialized areas that are sadly under-represented and therefore in big demand, it’s a buyer’s market (in case you’ve not heard—it’s been that way in the Humanities for decades). So you need to do whatever you think best to distinguish yourself in the eyes of future colleagues (a published book is only one among many marks of the profession, of course). And given that the amount of time you dedicated to your dissertation—err, your book ms.—might be the last time in your career that you produce a piece of research based on such an extended period of focused research (you may be surprised, if you begin work in academia, how much of your time goes to teaching and service, that is), why not take full advantage of that and publicize the results of all that time in the library or in the field? Now, savvy early career people all already learned this lesson—though you’d be surprised by the number of grad students I meet who report having been given advice not to publish that early in their careers or not to worry too much about getting teaching experience, which suggests to me that jumping on the work of getting a dissertation into print might be news to a surprising number of our younger peers today. While carving the dissertation up into peer review articles is a rational choice, the peer reviewed monograph is still the gold standard of the field—so aim high.
  1. If you’ve already learned how to date then you’ve got a leg-up on getting your book published. Sure, they’re rather different activities (sprinkling perfume or aftershave on the ms. probably won’t help get it published but, heck, give it a shot maybe), but in surprising ways they’re related, and both a lot like fishing or writing a catchy pop song, i.e., you need a good hook, whether that be the title, the brief (say, 50 words) description of the book, or the more detailed one (say, 250 words)—once contracted you’re the one who will have to write these, by the way, not some crack team of in-house marketers. For, as suggested above, while editors who know the field might be keen on the discipline-shaping book your supervisors might have kept talking about wanting you to write, many publishers have editors who aren’t much up on the ins and outs of the field and they’re all mainly looking for a title that will move and thus sell rather than sit in their warehouse. For academic publishing is a business no less than any other and learning this early on will probably help you out. Now, I don’t want to reduce it all to crass consumerism (for who doesn’t want to think that there’s something ethereal about writing and reading big ideas), but failing to understand that print capitalism is, well, capitalism will probably not help get that book into other people’s hands (people who will exchange their hard-earned money for the opportunity to read it). So crafting a prospectus for a publisher is an effort to help them to understand the book as commercially viable, such that they’ll be willing to argue for it at an editorial meeting and thereby take a risk on this new author—a risk that, should it pay off, will result not just in your book selling but with you probably bringing a second and a third and a fourth book to them in the future. For, somewhat like a car dealer (sorry, editors, for the possibly unflattering analogy—or, come to think of it, should I apologize to car dealers?) who, in selling you a car is likely trying to put in place the conditions to have you back some other day to buy your second from them, and then your third, a strategic acquisitions editor is probably trying to develop a relationship with an author that will extend into the future, thereby making their own job easier down the line. (The contract you eventually sign might even give their press the right to be the first to see and, if uninterested, to refuse your next book, in fact.) So, to help this process along, what do you think of your title? How can you describe the book’s argument and audience succinctly? For who knows how many envelopes and emails that editor opens each day and who knows how long he or she has to look at each item before they have to make a tactical decision. And, importantly, in thinking about how to talk about the book (such as in the opening sentence of the cover letter you send to the press) think not of writing for your supervisor or committee but, instead, think of writing for educated but general readers—make that editor (whose expertise is surely not as thick as yours but who more than likely reads far wider than you) aware of the various groups working on this material (i.e., possibly buyers), the possible classroom applications of the work (in this economy they’re all very focused on class adoptions as a dependable market), as well as what singles your ms. out from the rest, so that they understand why people in your field (and others!) will seek out this book.
  1. Part of helping editors make their decision is giving them enough information—but not too much information. You’re trying to hook them, after all, and, much like a first date, there’s some coy flirting going on and it’s surely best not to show too much too soon. So my advice is to: craft a very succinct cover letter that briefly describes the thesis, data, historical period, region, etc., that’s addressed in the book, also noting the groups who will find the book useful and interesting; include an annotated table of contents (such that an editor can glance it over quickly to see the argument, see the places the book takes a reader, the direction its narrative moves, and thereby easily plot it into their press’s publishing mission); and, finally, add what you think to be your strongest sample chapter. Maybe that’s the introduction, so anyone who reads it gets a good sense of the project, or maybe it’s one of your main chapters (the one of which you’re most proud—best foot forward, and all that—there’s a reason we dress up for a date after all). While your letter says you’ll happily send the full ms. if they’re interested, thereby inviting their return letter, your initial submission is manageable, taking seriously that the majority of presses you submit to will likely not want to see the full ms. anyway. (Aside: I once had two different people at the same publisher reject the same book proposal within a week or so of each other—no room for misinterpretation there.) So why waste all that paper at this stage?
  1. Where you send that prospectus is sometimes a pretty easy decision for you’ve probably already learned who publishes the important books in your field. (Though, come to think of it, in my experience not everyone knows this if asked.) Where do people in your field go to find new books? Is there a series into which you think this ms. fits nicely? So send it out to the top 10 list, even the top 15. Like I said earlier: aim high. I’m old school enough to think there’s something intangible that’s conveyed with tangible mail and manila envelopes but maybe you’re sending it as a file attachment (the latter is certainly cheaper). Did you go to the most recent main conference in the field and stop by a book display or two to get a business card and learn who’s who at various publishers? Are you cruising around their website looking for the instructions on the “For Authors” or “Submissions” page and thereby identifying who’s the director of the religion division or the acquisition editor(s) in your area? Or maybe you’ve benefited from the accumulated knowledge in the heads of your friends and committee members, to figure out whose name to put at the top of that cover letter. If submitting to a book series then you’ve got to make a call on whether to send it to the publisher’s acquisitions editor or the (more than likely) profs who act as the series editors; personally, I don’t think there’s much at stake in who you send it to in such cases (for responsible parties in that working relationship will alert each other of submissions they receive), so long as you name the series its intended for if you send it straight to the press. For whether the series editors are interested in it or not, they’ve got to persuade the publisher to contract it so keep in mind that, at the end of the day, it’s usually the acquisitions editor who matters most—not unless the series editors have such a relationship with the press that it quite trusts their judgment. (Note: in some cases series editors are not all that involved in the series, merely lending their names as imprimaturs.) In the best case scenario you’ve got series editors in your corner who don’t have an uphill battle to persuade the publisher.
  1. A tough lesson for some to learn is that once out of your hands who knows how long it’ll take to hear the much desired “Yes, please send us the whole ms. for consideration” reply. Accept the fact that most will decline outright (don’t take it personally—who are the next best 10 presses to send it to…?), and if more than one is positive concerning those materials you sent then you’ve got a decision to make. Although that prospectus went simultaneously to a bunch of editors, etiquette tells me to send the whole ms. only to one press at a time; for if you have a good long career ahead of you then you’re going to be dealing with these editors again and so the last thing you want to do is to invite them to invest a lot of time and energy evaluating a complete ms. only to tell them a few months down the road that you’re going somewhere else with it. Like I said, it’s business not personal, to be sure, but…, thinking the two can be separated that easily strikes me as rather naïve. (Did you hear the one about the guy in our field whose Facebook comments were cited by an editor as among the reasons a proposed book project was rejected?) So it’s in your own best long-term interest to be upfront with a press concerning where the ms. is, for the entire ms. might eventually get rejected by Press A, making Press B’s earlier interest something to follow up on a few months later. Or several months later. Or a year later—i.e., one can never tell how busy a press is, let alone how much of a priority your ms. is for whomever it is they send it to for that all-important outside opinion. You know how busy you are, so they’re just as busy—referees reports take time. Speaking from experience: I submitted the ms. for what eventually became my first book within a month or two of defending it back in January of 1995, it was contracted just a few months later, and it took me about 2 or 3 months to do the requested revisions. But the efficiency of the first stages soon ended since it took over a year just to get the copyediting from the press, which means that a final ms. submitted at the end of the summer of 1995 wasn’t published until later in 1997. Since you don’t control all those factors (a lesson in being an agent working within a larger structure), it’s likely wise to work hard to move as quickly as possible concerning the part of the process you do control—e.g., getting those revisions done promptly and getting it off your desk.
  1. Once you send the prospectus or, later, the entire ms., learn not to pester the editor. Unless it’s taking a little too long. How long is too long, you ask? You tell me. Given the above anecdote about how long it took to get the copyediting for my first book, it’s evident that they’re busy and that they have their own internal priorities of which you’re not aware. So patience is a virtue—though it’s fair to (passive aggressively, I know) “touch base” every now and then with your editor, maybe every few months. For that’s a good way to prevent what happened to me earlier this year when a big publisher completely forgot it was going to send out a project for refereeing. I waited about four months, heard nothing, so then dropped them a line by email asking how the process was going and, to their credit, they immediately apologized that they’d completely forgot to send it out. So that was a wasted four months, but so goes the publishing game sometimes. I’m now two more months into waiting for the report. But that’s just how it goes sometimes—so be prepared.
  1. Hopefully this all works in your favor—but you’ve got to know (to hearken back to those fishing metaphors) when to fish and when to cut bait. I once knew someone who had waited 3 or 4 years dealing with a press that hadn’t yet contracted the manuscript. Add to that another year or more to do revisions and copyediting and proofing and indexing, and, well, you arrive at a situation where you’ve invested so much time that other timetables (such as the tenure clock for those in tenure-track positions) might be jeopardized. So if you’re not lucky (and yes, we also have to learn that luck plays more of a role than we might care to admit), your book comes out within a couple years of this process starting (yes, it usually takes that long when things work well), but maybe you’ve gone through the top ten presses and then the next best ten, and then…, such that you get to a point where, if you’re thinking strategically, you know that the original research in the ms. is now a bit out of date, that the likelihood of a publisher taking it is diminishing, and so getting the work out as several peer review essays might be far more desirable than it once might have seemed (this process can take years too, by the way). Besides, you’ve more than likely now moved on to new research projects, so it’s in your best interest to just get the work out and into your peers’ hands—ideally, doing so in a way that benefits the other goals to which you’re working. Instead of just leaving those 300 pages of original, well-argued hard work in a desk drawer.
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