Your Dissertation Isn’t a Book—But It Can Be

Credit where credit is due: much of this is based of a spiel from Bigbossman to grad students attracted by the promise of free food and cheap books.  By the way, locusts descending on a ripe field have nothing on a bunch of grad students who have heard that there are $3 books.  Also, a lot of it I may have discussed already; however, there were a few new things, and some points of discussion worth, well, discussing.

You’ve screwed up before you even started: Your advisor probably thinks 15th century Welsh epithets in Snowdonia is a great topic for a dissertation.  Nobody’s written on it (gee, I wonder why), it’s focused enough you can get out the door quickly (which looks good on the departments stats list), and, to be honest, by the time they’ve thrown in enough capricious side requirements to make your life a living Hell, it’ll be padded into a dissertation.  Do I have any idea how to publicize a book on that?  Nope, and neither does anyone else.  If your topic isn’t broad enough to justify paying $60-$70 for when published, we won’t touch it.  That’s not to say your dissertation wouldn’t make a good starting place for a chapter or two of your first book—but, no matter what your delusional/out-of-touch/clueless committee may think, it won’t be a book as-is.

Your director doesn’t necessarily have a clue: This is an especially bad problem if your director is one of those Extremely Emeritus silverbacks—you know, the kind who got his PhD in 1957, still refers to female students as “co-eds,” and sees e-publishing as a sign of the Apocalypse.  Back in the day (pre 1970), the standards for what academic presses would accept, especially as first books, were noticeably lower.  Presses could automatically sell anything in a series to libraries that had blindly subscribed to them; this bankrolled a great many things for the presses, but also meant that not every project had to be perfect.  There are some things in our cold storage from the 50’s and 60’s that would never be considered at our press today, and not simply because we cut subject areas like nursing and education to focus our operations and remain solvent.  Now, it was also expected Back In The Day that you’d spend your entire academic career publishing with one press, so a wet-behind-the-ears junior prof was allowed some slack with his first book if he showed signs of becoming an academic powerhouse later down the road.  Needless to say, times have changed.  Academics no longer stick with one press for their entire career, so presses are less likely to nurture you into being a developed writer—why would we when all our work will be for the benefit of the other press that’s publishing book #2?
However, if your director entered the arena within the last fifteen years, is unusually active in publishing, or just seems to generally have a clue about the world beyond their research, you might want to listen to them—though their advice will likely be “this isn’t really a book.”

You’re not actually writing a book: Your director wants to see certain things from you that demonstrate competence.  It’s their job to turn you into a first-rate researcher and writer; it is not their job to get you published.  What they want to see is a certain benchmark of scholarship, one that’s up to their standards.  On the one hand, this means that you’re not writing for a general audience, but for an individual—and some individuals, especially the ones who come from an earlier era, have standards very much different from us.  Putting in gratuitous foreign language quotes because “everybody” can read Latin and French is no longer acceptable—actually, it costs us extra to typeset, and if there are errors, our copyeditors will never catch it.  Those long block quotes and 900 footnotes that make you look Scholarly?  We think you’re padding, and those cost us a premium as well.*  When you write a book, it’s for a general audience that assumes you’re an authority on the subject already; you don’t need to go through all the piddley hoop-jumping your director forced you to do for the rest of the world.

Make your director’s capriciousness work for you: “Oh, you’re 50 pages short of the length requirement.  Why don’t you include a chapter on Cornish epithets as well?”  So you tack a chapter of all the anecdotes you learned along the way to the end, hoping nobody cares that it has nothing to do with the rest of your dissertation.  As expected, they don’t.  We do care, though, and, if we see that kind of thing still there, you’ll fail the five-minute intern review.**  However, there’s probably a nice article in there—and, if we see that you have a well-placed article or three in areas similar to your proposed manuscript, we’ll be willing to believe that you might be an up-and-coming scholar we’d be wise to take a chance on.

Your bibliography is your friend: Want to know where to publish your beast?  Check your bibliography.  If you have lots of books from a few publishers, start there.  Or, more accurately, if you have a disproportionate number of books from a few publishers, start with them.  Sure, you may have five books from both us and Cambridge, but Cambridge puts out 1500 titles a year; we have less than half that in our catalogue.  A five out of thirty-five ratio is a lot better than five out of 15oo.  You might also want to let us know in your proposal that you rely on five of our books; it tells us that you fit well with our focus, that our readership is likely to be your readership (and your buyers), and that finding reviewers won’t be a problem for you.***  Seeing a new version of the old familiar (but now almost dead) faces is a very good thing.  If we think you’re the new “they kept our press afloat for thirty years” author, we’ll actually take a serious look at your proposal.

Your contacts are your other best friends: You may think your work speaks for itself, but so does everyone else’s.  It helps if you speak for it as well; having professors that are also our authors and reviewers put in kind words helps even more.  If someone who’s published with us in the past tells us we should look at your proposal, we probably will.  Oh, and hire yourself a $5 spokesman at the nearest bar or coffee shop—thirty minutes over a beer with the acquisitions editor means you’re a known character.  We’ll feel bad about rejecting your proposal, which is one step closer to us not rejecting it.
Also, some of your professors may be series editors.  Though most book series got cut or scaled back in the 70’s, there are still some left.  These often function in a grey area; the press may sponsor these projects and handle their production, but editorial control—what gets published, what doesn’t—isn’t necessarily in our hands.  Who would you rather work with when trying to get your book published: the press director you’ve never met, or the professor you’ve gotten drunk with, whose spouse and kids know you, and who thinks you’re worth the trouble?  One of them actually wants to see you in print, and is in a position to make it so.

Your first book doesn’t have to look like your dissertation: In writing about Gregory Thautmaturgis, you probably ended up translating a lot of his Greek into English.  You’re also probably just a little familiar with Greg.  Our press may have published our once-a-decade book on him, and nobody else has so much as an intern who can pronounce his last name.  Don’t give up, though!  All that stuff you translated?  Clean it up, complete it, and turn your dissertation into a 30-page introduction and notes.  Our press may not be able to take your critical study of Thautawhoever, but we could probably sell that—or at least put you in touch with people who can!  Dragging the odd creature that is your dissertation all the way into being a proper book takes a lot of work, dismemberment, and slogging anyway; why not do it in a way that, though it seems drastic at first, is no worse than what you’d have to go through to get published anyway?  Be creative about it.  Just because it’s not Ye Olde Classical Monographe doesn’t mean it’s not a valid scholarly book to put on the CV.  As a special bonus, translators often get paid up front—not only are you unlikely to see $3000-$4500 in royalties over your book’s lifetime, but that much money is just what a junior professor trying to scrape by needs.

Time yourself: We want proof you’re a good investment of our time and money, so build some cred, publish some articles, give some talks, and make yourself seem up-and-coming before you send us your manuscript.  However, if we see from your CV that you were hired five-and-a-half years ago, we’re going to guess that you’ve got six months until tenure review—sorry, but there’s no way in Hell we’re touching that one.  Books take about 18 months from proposal to print, assuming things go relatively smoothly.  The peer review process takes at least two months, more usually three or four, and that’s assuming it’s not during summer break, when reviewers evaporate and the editorial committee doesn’t meet.  If you’re facing a decision, your proposed book won’t be part of it.  Had you submitted a year ago, we might have worked something out—but you didn’t, so we can’t.

Yes, the odds are against you.  While I can’t/won’t go into specifics, you have a better chance of landing a tenure-track job than of getting your dissertation accepted by a publisher.  It does happen, though.  The above tips are only the most important/less obvious things; in general, you want to give us reasons to keep reading your proposal and feel reluctant to reject you.

It can be done.  It can even be done by you.

*Let’s not even get into font and encoding issues for things like Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, or math.  Oh, and did we mention that Chicago-style footnotes, since they mess up the layout/involve different typesetting rules cost extra?  We probably did, but it’s worth repeating, since so many authors don’t seem to get it.
**Okay, since I’m the intern, it’s really the ten-minute review—thirty seconds deciding whether or not your proposal is worthwhile, nine and a half justifying that decision.  I’m not sure if Bossman even needs three minutes to justify his conclusions.  Yes it sounds harsh, but it’s how you cut through the slush.  If we haven’t talked about your manuscript before, you’re slush—kinda melted slush, too.  Remember, if you can make Bossman and me feel bad about printing the Form Letter of Death, you’ve just earned our full ten minutes.
***If you suggest reviewers in your proposal, we’ll take you more seriously because you just saved us some very serious work.  Given the choice between two books of equal quality and sales potential, we’ll take the one that’s easier/possible to do.  Make our lives easier and we’ll return the favor.

One thought on “Your Dissertation Isn’t a Book—But It Can Be

  1. Pingback: An Education for Academic Writers, Part I | Intentio Lectoris

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