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07/15/2021

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Mysterious book publisher

Here's my recent experience, for what it's worth. I'm four years out of my PhD from a top program, currently in a non-TT job, and have a book under contract with a top 5 press (according to a list published on that grumpy guy's blog). This book is - or rather will be - a significantly revised and expanded version of my dissertation. Here's what I did to get the contract:

First, I did NOT send my entire dissertation to a publisher, for two reasons. The first reason is that I hate my dissertation, as I had to rush to complete a 'good enough' version of it in order to graduate on time. I actually see my book as a way to fix all of my mistakes and turn the dissertation into what I initially thought it could be. The second reason is because I attended a publishing workshop as a PhD student, and a philosophy editor from a major press told me that he hates receiving full dissertations. They do not have the same purpose as a book, and as such (with a maybe a few exceptions), make very lousy and unmarketable books.

What I did instead was begin to establish a publishing record in the area of my book. I published a bunch of dissertation chapters as stand-alone articles in decent journals and developed a reputation as someone who works in the field. This way, when it came time to prepare my proposal, I could say that I had published a number of articles that I am now developing into a monograph, and the acquisitions editor could get a sense of the quality of my work and how it has been perceived by my peers.

In terms of preparing the proposal: I first contacted a few acquisitions editors at the presses that I most wanted to publish with and asked them if they were even interested in receiving a proposal. One said no on the grounds that they don't publish books based on dissertations (which is actually not true, but that's beside the point), while two said yes. Of those two, I selected the more prestigious one and prepared a proposal in accordance with the instructions their acquisitions editor sent to me. They reviewed the proposal, said it didn't fit with their current priorities, but told me it was a promising project and would probably be a good fit with some other publishers, one of which was the next on my list.

So I revised the proposal in accordance with the second publisher's format and sent it to their acquisitions editor. The editor ended up being really excited about the project and asked to see some material. So I sent three sample chapters that included previously published material. These chapters, along with the proposal, were sent out to two anonymous reviewers. A few months later, I received two positive and very helpful reports from the reviewers, and an offer for a book contract. As Marcus notes, the contract does stipulate that a certain percentage of the book must be previously unpublished material. In my case, this is going to be fine, but it won't be in all cases.

Hope this helps :)

Author

I think Mysterious book publisher gives great advice, and their story is a typical one. I am a more senior person with my third book coming out with one of the two big publishers.
Publishers hate dissertations. Oddly, some people asked me - at the time of my finishing - if I was going to try to publish my dissertation. I did not, and I am glad for it. It is a fine piece is work, but it lacks the coherence of a book, and given I was virtually unknown then, it would not have sold.
I think publishers are more lenient on how much previously published stuff is included in the dissertation than Marcus and Mysterious imply. I think about 40% of my first book was previously published, but it was significantly reworked for the book. I knew more, and I wanted to connect that material to the new material in the book.

Tim O'Keefe

I echo the advice everybody gives above, that you should probably hold off on trying to publish a book based on your dissertation for a little bit, and that this book is going to need to be significantly different from your dissertation.

In my own case, I had published 3 papers based on my dissertation, but several other papers in my field but on different topics. I was contacted by the acquisitions editor of a press about five years after I had defended by dissertation, asking if I had a proposal to run by him. When I submitted the proposal, they wanted to confirm that there would be enough new material to warrant publication.

Most of the main claims and arguments in the book were drawn from the dissertation, but I totally redid the organization, jettisoned a lot of the lit review, and rewrote the thing.

I think it was useful to be able to return to this material after having moved on to other topics, and after having experience writing journal articles on other topics. Looking at my dissertation with fresh eyes, I cringed pretty often, although sometimes I said to myself, "Hey--that was pretty good!" I don't think I would have been able to write the book I did if I had started revamping the dissertation shortly after defending it.

anonymous

I am in a similar position as Mysterious book publisher -- a non-TT faculty member with a forthcoming book based on my dissertation at a top press -- and I would second everything they said.

When thinking about the best strategy for approaching book editors, it can be helpful to think of the process from their perspective. They are flooded with pitches, especially from recent PhD graduates who want to publish their dissertations. Just sending a book manuscript out for review signals a significant investment in the project -- much more so than a journal editor's decision to send a paper out for review -- since presses pay their reviewers.

So before taking that step, university press editors are looking for evidence that the project will be of interest to scholars in the field and that the prospective author will actually deliver in finishing the book. There are various ways to demonstrate that evidence to an editor.

If you have an advisor or other distinguished faculty member who is a champion of your project and knows editors at top presses, their contacting an editor about your book project can be very helpful in getting the editor to seriously consider it.

If no fancy pants professor opens such doors for you, there are still ways to get a book contract. Publishing one or two articles from your dissertation shows that others in your field are interested in the project and that you can survive the peer review process. That makes your pitch to a book editor more compelling, especially if you are a recent PhD graduate who is reaching out cold to book editors, which was the case for me.

When you have a book proposal, some sample chapters, and ideally a journal article related to the project, that's a good time to reach out to book editors about it. You can email them your book proposal and CV a couple months before a conference to see if they would meet with you there to discuss the project. You'll get a sense of those who are interested and those who aren't.

Lots of editors told me they weren't interested in the project, but two expressed interest -- one at a top press and another at a decent but less highly ranked press. When I completed the book manuscript, I sent it to the former editor and offered him an exclusive right to review it, so that he knew he wouldn't be competing with other presses. That can help you, especially if you're a junior scholar whose early stage research program isn't likely to precipitate a bidding war between different presses. I also let the other editor know that the manuscript was under review at a different press as a courtesy. There's no reason to burn bridges unnecessarily.

Best of luck! Writing a book is a lot of work and a multi-year process, but it can help distinguish you in an increasingly competitive and absurd job market.

Mike Titelbaum

Really great advice above, all of which I agree with. One further thing to add: A lot depends on what kind of dissertation you're writing. It's become more popular these days to write a dissertation that's really just a set of interconnected articles preceded by an introductory survey chapter. That sort of dissertation makes for a terrible book! But even a more unified dissertation may need additional/different material to become a plausible book. Personally, my dissertation was very unified and interconnected—it tried to build a new formal framework that solved a number of interconnected problems. But before submitting it as a book manuscript, I had to add a lot of material, much of it designed to demonstrate to the reader that my framework had significant applications. What you're trying to accomplish in a book is often very different from what one tries to accomplish in a dissertation.

John Ramsey

Folks might want to check out William Germano's _From Dissertation to Book_. I recommend this to my clients who are contemplating revising their dissertations into something else.

The first five chapters offer some considerations as to whether one ought to (or has time to) revise the dissertation into a compelling manuscript that editors at academic presses would want to invest in. Remember, for them, it's still a business venture.

The second half of the book offers advice about planning and conducting the needed revisions. These chapters offer a sketch of a months-long process and so might not be all that helpful.

In short, the conventions of dissertation writing (as well as meeting the various institutional norms and the expectations of your advisors) are rather different from those of monograph writing and selling books. So, unless you set out to write a book that you submit to fulfill your dissertation requirements, you will likely have to overhaul what you have written. The exception would be specialized dissertation series that published lightly revised dissertations. One example is the Routledge Outstanding Dissertations series—you have probably seen a volume of the series...recent issues have an all-blue cover with wispy smoke and white lettering.

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