Turning the Dissertation into a Book

Benjamin Sawyer is a Lecturer at Middle Tennessee State University.  This piece originally appeared  as A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online.  Ben’s Twitter handle: @Ben_Sawyer

At a recent conference of the Association for Slavic, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES), representatives from several academic presses and scholars who had recently published monographs based on their dissertations held a roundtable dedicated to giving graduate students tips on what they should prepare for if they intend to turn their dissertation into a book. As someone currently working on turning my own dissertation into a book, I found the panel to be valuable in terms of both my specific discipline (history), and the conference included scholars from across the social sciences and humanities) and in terms of the ways publishers are thinking about the relationship between more traditional channels, such as formal academic presses, and newer media. Below is a summary of some of the major points that I thought would be useful for others to keep in mind while writing their dissertations.

 1) Your Dissertation and Your Book Manuscript are Not the Same Thing

                Panelists agreed that scholars should be prepared to produce a manuscript that is quite different from their dissertation. One of the scholars on the panel suggested that parts of the dissertation be completely tossed aside and rewritten from scratch. The general consensus was that, while some authors produce a dissertation that is closer to a book than others, it is essential for graduate students to know that they’ll likely write stuff that they have to throw away later.

2) Making Your Dissertation Available Digitally Does Not Discourage Editors From Publishing It

                In response to a question about the effects of digital dissertations on publishing, one panel member noted that dissertations had been available on microfilm for decades, and that the digitization of dissertations simply marked an extension of a process that had been taking place for decades. He thus noted that this is just another reason that scholars should keep point #1 in mind when they work to turn the dissertation into a manuscript. Another editor noted that scholars should, however, publish no more than about a third of their dissertation in academic journals.

3) Make Your Cover Letter Concise

                Most panelists agreed that when you decide to submit a proposal to a publisher, the cover letter should be short and to the point. One panelist suggested that scholars ask themselves “what is the one thing the publisher needs to know about my work?” and to limit their letter to answering this question. Another panel member reiterated this, noting that your cover letter, no matter how well written, will never be published.

4) If You Choose to Submit Proposals to Multiple Publishers, You Should Be Open About It

                Panel members disagreed on the appropriateness of submitting proposals to more than one publisher, but they all agreed that it was important to keep them in the loop regarding other offers and the decision to go with another press. A few of the panel members noted that their awareness that a good proposal was under consideration by other presses could be beneficial to the author by encouraging the editor to get moving on the review process.

5) Maintain Composure in the Face of Criticism

                A few of the panelists addressed the importance of keeping cool when reading reviewers’ comments on their manuscript. They encouraged scholars to maintain a positive attitude and resist the urge to respond with snarky comments. One panelist suggested going over the reviews with an established scholar, such as a senior colleague, who can help you figure out how to respond effectively to these comments and how to navigate multiple reviewers. Overall, editors understand that scholars cannot address every remark that reviewers make, but authors should at least address major criticisms, even when the scholar disagrees with a reviewers’ comment.

Summary:  Editors Want to Help Scholars Publish Good Work

                In several cases, editors made clear that what we, as beginning scholars, may take as evidence of an editors’ neglect, is rarely so. Editors emphasized that scholars should not assume that the editor is on the reviewers’ side, and that they are well aware that reviewers don’t always produce valid critiques of scholars’ work. In addition, delays in reviewers’ comments are often as frustrating for the editor as they are for the scholar, and do not reflect a lack of concern on behalf of the press. In any case, panelists emphasized that scholars should not hesitate to contact them at any point in the publication process, noting that, considering the amount of correspondence they handle every day, no single inquiry can make a scholar appear as a “burden.”