So You Want to Publish Your Dissertation (Tips from an Academic Editor)

Last fall Roger Haydon, Executive Editor at Cornell University Press,* came to visit Central European University to meet with a series of hopeful authors and give two talks–one on turning the dissertation into a book and another on changes in the academic publishing world (discussed in a separate post).

Why is book publication important to scholars? Publishing one’s research in the form of a monograph has long been the coin of the realm in much of the social sciences and humanities—helping one to score a good tenure-track job, secure tenure, and literally forge the scholar’s academic reputation in his or her research community.  It is certainly still true for most scholars of international relations and comparative politics that one’s reputation hinges on publishing excellent books at prestigious presses.

With a long record of cultivating scholars and award-winning academic books, Roger was a great guest speaker on the topic of academic publishing.  Here are some of his best tips on turning one’s dissertation into a book, summarized below (see Roger’s full-text handout here, which he adapted from Emily Andrew, at UBC Press):

Should You Publish Your Dissertation as a Book?

This is the first question you should tackle; the answer depends on the nature of your dissertation, the conventions of your field, and the relative urgency of getting out publications.

Dissertations are not books. This may be the most worn-out cliché in the biz, but it bears repeating. Dissertations and books have similar lengths and organization, but the dissertation is usually written in a highly specialized manner—rife with academic jargon, lengthy literature reviews, and lots of technical models, graphs and charts that risk alienating the average book reader. To put it differently, although the dissertation may look superficially like a book, “the accepted language, format, and mode of argumentation are generally very different.”

The dissertation is also written for the supervisor and 2-3 other people, whereas books are “written to entertain/confuse/enlighten/infuriate lots of people who have to be seduced into reading it.” In dissertations, for example, students are required to demonstrate knowledge of the discipline in the form of a “literature review,” which goes at the front end of the document. When it comes to books, such passages tend to be boring, assume too much reader knowledge/interest, and are overly pedantic. Therefore, book editors advise authors to significantly reduce, or even eliminate, the literature review.

In the end, you must weigh a number of factors in deciding whether to publish the dissertation. Roger suggests the following considerations:

(1)   First, does your particular field or subfield value journal articles or academic books more highly? Here, you should follow the convention of your (sub)field. If you are unsure, seek out the advice of your supervisor and/or others familiar with the standards for junior scholars in your field.

(2)  Does your argument require 80-100,000 words? Or is it best summarized in 10,000 words? Significant historical or anthropological (or other field or archive-based) research or close reading of texts may require a book to develop and push through an argument. However, if it is a singular conclusion based on straightforward primary research, then it might make sense to go for journal article publication, where the dissertation is broken up into multiple journal articles.

(3)  Will your dissertation have a long shelf-life? If the dissertation is likely to date quickly, it is perhaps best suited for article rather than book publication, as books should aim to be relevant for a decade or more.

(4)  Do you have the luxury of working on the book manuscript for at least 12 months (the minimum amount of time that is usually needed to get the dissertation into book shape)? If you do not have a long-term employment contract (tenure-track job or a lengthy post-doctoral fellowship), then it might make more sense to go for article publication.

Shopping Around the Manuscript

If you decide to go the route of book publication, you need to think about how to approach book publishers. Develop a book proposal and shop it around to presses (often at major conferences, where editors congregate in the book rooms). The book proposal should be 4-15 pages long and include the following:

(1)   A rationale for the book (“What’s new and exciting here? Why should we invest scarce capital in publishing it?”);

(2)  A discussion of who the audience would be—what is the market for the book? Who would want to read it? Undergraduates in an upper level seminar in field X? Practitioners in a given field of public policy? This should be as specific as possible;

(3)  A statement of its general argument and findings (abstract);

(4)  A short review of the literature (this should be a list of similar, possibly competing titles, as well as an explanation of how the author’s manuscript this fills a niche and/or takes on some existing arguments or common wisdom);

(5)  An expanded (or annotated) table of contents, where chapter headings are followed by a paragraph explaining the content of the chapter;

(6)  The author’s CV (just a one-page summary).

When approaching publishers, it makes sense to ferret out from among publishers likely to accept your manuscript, those who are most likely give your work a platform that will help you to reach your audience. This means making a list of the publishers (and possibly series) that carry books most similar to your work. In the process, it makes sense to consult your supervisor and other mentors in your field, for they will be able to give you good advice concerning where to pitch your work (and, hopefully, put you in personal contact with an editor that they know personally).

Personal referrals from reputable scholars can capture the attention of an editor who is typically inundated by emailed requests from hundreds of hopeful authors. The higher the profile of the press, the more difficult it is to get an editor’s attention—the odds are stacked against any single prospective author. (It is well-known that Roger will give anyone a shot, not caring about referrals or prestigious graduate programs, but in general a personal contact will probably help you and certainly will not hurt.)

If the editor indicates interest in your proposal, they will often ask for 1-2 chapters to assess the quality of the writing and manuscript. If this passes muster, then they may ask you to submit the entire manuscript, commissioning two or more anonymous reviews. (Note: you can shop a book proposal around to multiple presses simultaneously, but presses usually only commission formal reviews of the manuscript when they can be assured of an exclusive review.)

A positive set of reviews can lead to a contract offer; a more mixed set of reviews can lead to a “revise and resubmit” wherein the author is asked to make a series of changes before a contract is offered. (Roger cautions here that authors should always read the contract carefully, as these book contracts usually “bind the author, but the publisher can always bail if the final manuscript isn’t up to scratch.”)

The Revisions Process

Assuming you are offered a contract, you will need to complete a set of revisions to make the dissertation into a proper book. Besides eliminating or reducing extraneous technical notes, references and figures (or placing them in appendices), the author must go through the reader reviews and the editor’s comments and decide which make sense to incorporate and which do not. Much of the end-stage revisions can be about how to package the ideas, market the general argument/idea in the book, and how to write in an engaging, accessible way that will appeal to the broadest possible audience.

The Upshot

Publishing your dissertation as a book with a reputable press is no cakewalk, there is no question about it. Academic books don’t have big audiences—they won’t make you famous, and they certainly won’t make you wealthy.   Moreover, the publishing process is grueling and long, tests one’s patience, and may even shorten your life.

Despite all the obvious downsides, my dissertation-book was my greatest accomplishment to date, something of which I am very proud. Assuming academic book publication makes sense for your career, you will find it was well worth all the blood, sweat and tears when you are finally holding the book in your hot little hands.

*Full disclosure: I worked with Roger on my first book (originally a PhD dissertation), and am currently working with him again to publish my second book, which should be forthcoming in 2015.

  • Sara Mitchell

    Nice post Erin! I would add that having someone who has published with a given press approach the acquisitions editor on your behalf before you talk to them is also very helpful, especially for the first book.

  • Eric Heinze

    Great post. Some other things that come to mind on this topic: 1) How to know which presses to submit to, and which ones to accept a contract from. Is it best to shoot for Oxford or a smaller university press, what are the pros and cons of commercial vs. university presses, what presses ought one avoid (i.e. vanity presses or those known to accept unedited dissertations). 2) This process of submission, getting a contract, revision, etc.. probably won’t be the same for one’s subsequent books. Assuming you’ve had your first book published following this model, once you’ve established a name in the field, one can often get an advanced contract before having written anything. 3) The ethics of multiple submissions. It used to be the case, unlike journal submissions, that it was generally accepted to have your book MS under consideration by multiple presses at the same time. This has largely changed, but it is not always obvious from reading the press’s guidelines. My general sense is that you can submit your proposal to however many presses, but once you allow a press to consider your MS for review, they usually want exclusivity. Happy publishing!

  • erin jenne

    Thanks Sara, I agree with you! But Roger pointed out that this can sometimes even backfire if the person is not held in high esteem with the press/editor (although presumably if they have published this person’s work, such a reference would help). Also, he noted that if the referee is too overweening, hovering around like a “proud parent,” he begins to wonder how much of the prospective author’s work is their own.

  • erin jenne

    Eric, great questions! I kind of think these are better kept for a separate post, but I will have a follow-up soon, where I touch on a few of these points. You are right that you can shop around a book proposal, but presses generally expect an exclusivity when it comes to review. In this, the review process is just the same as article reviews for academic journals.