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August 8, 2012 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

From Dissertation to Book, Part 1

This is the first in a two part sequence of posts on the dissertation-to-book process. The second installment discusses the behind-the-scenes processes that occur once the book is under contract and being prepared for publication and is available here.

A lot of recent graduates feel like the first thing they need to do once they get their Ph.D. is to turn their dissertation into a book manuscript and to get it under contract. This often means dropping everything, and working assiduously on the book manuscript and book proposal. I did; I shouldn’t have. My first book proposal was all wrong, and my thinking about the book version of the dissertation needed a lot more time to mature. That being said, if an editor gets in touch with you and wants to talk about your book, you should do it. It’s a low pressure situation: they want to know what it’s all about and when it might be ready for peer review. Chatting with them can make sure that they remember who you are and look forward to your eventual book proposal. But before you get to the proposal, here’s what (probably) needs to happen:

First, get a couple articles out for review, for two reasons: Getting feedback on your ideas from your peers (who aren’t your dissertation committee or people you’ve known in your grad program, which can often be an insular world of ideas) helps to expand your thinking about your material. And publishers want to see that your peers take your work seriously — so having a publication or two on your CV when you send it in with your book proposal is pretty important. So, really, the first thing you do out of your Ph.D. — if you haven’t already — is to get a couple publications out into the peer review process. (Check out the professionalization timeline to plot this stuff out in advance.)

Since you’ve been living with your dissertation in a pretty intimate fashion for a number of years, it’s also a good idea just to spend time away from it. Give yourself a year to work on a new project or develop some new syllabuses — you might need this time to prepare for a new job anyway, and explicitly setting it aside can be psychologically less stressful that taking that time off and feeling like you should be working on your book. When you come back to the dissertation, you might feel a little less tied to it in its current state, and be ready to mold it a little differently.

Now, when you do get back to the dissertation to turn it into a manuscript, there are some things that surely need to go: Long literature review sections need to be cut out in their entirety, although parsing them out and putting them in as end notes is a good first step, since some of this content is important to retain. Long discussions of theory needs to be cut as well — it might have been important for you to write, but it can moved into the end notes now. Incidental, orienting discussions of theory can still be useful, but for the most part, most theoretical discussions can be cut. If you have whole chapters that fall into the lit review or theory review realms, they might be excised — and with revision — sent to area studies or theory focused journals as articles.

The logic behind these cuts is to really highlight your work — your empirical and theoretical contributions to the field. And this is really critical for developing your book proposal.

Book proposals are rather mysterious things — when I wrote mine, I couldn’t find any really detailed guidelines online, and the people I asked for proposals from had proposals that were a few years old. Like anything related to the academy, the genre is in flux, but there seem to be some constants. From a few conversations with editors over the last few years, this is what I gather they should be: First, they should be no longer than 2 single spaced pages (with normal margins). One editor described them to be as ‘morning coffee documents,’ i.e. an editor should be able to read through a stack of them over morning coffee. Secondly, it needs to lead with your contribution, not some juicy anecdote (as you may have been trained to lead with). When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense: every project has at least one juicy anecdote, but not every project makes a clear contribution to the field (or they might, but authors might not be able to articulate them yet). Seeing that an author knows their contribution sets a proposal apart from the juicy anecdote types. And, third, the proposal needs very, very short summaries of each of the chapters — like 2 sentences each. The editor should walk away from a proposal having a good sense of what the book is about, but they don’t need to know all of the empirical or structural detail. And bear in mind that most book manuscripts are about 100,000 words long, give or take 10,000 words, and you may need to cut or add to get the book to that length.

Now, in thinking about your contribution, there might be some major changes to your manuscript. Many dissertations are written — explicitly or not — as case studies. They’re rather narrowly focused, and the contribution they’re making is usually to a circumscribed literature. It might not feel that way at the time, but it’s often the case. What many books need to do is realize the more general contribution to the discipline that they make. So if your dissertation was about England, it now needs to be about Europe; or if it was about sleep (as in my case), it needs to be about medicine. Most of this work can be done in the new Introduction you’ll be writing shortly… But it also needs to be captured in the proposal. More than anything else, this is the thing that I find people struggle with. And, as I mentioned above, getting some peer reviews and taking some time off from the manuscript can really help you to see its contents differently. It may also mean doing new research to expand the scope of the manuscript; so, if you’re moving from England to Europe, it may mean doing new research to be able to sustain that transition.

I often tell people that I didn’t know what The Slumbering Masses was about until I was nearly done with its second set of revisions. Which leads me to my big caveat for this entry: I didn’t get my first book under contract with a blindly sent proposal; an editor contacted me about seeing the manuscript based on a conversation he had with a third party who knew my work. He rushed the book through peer review — from my perspective, at least (I wasn’t really ready to send it out, since one of the chapters was only half complete). But I got great reviews back from reviewers that knew it wasn’t a final manuscript, and responded to their reviews in my first round of revisions. When I sent it back, it was a very different manuscript. I don’t think more than 2 pages were the same… And when it came back with more comments, I was able to turn them around relatively quickly to make the final version of the book. So when I say I didn’t really know what the book was about until the last couple months of final revisions, it was that I wasn’t entirely sure of all of the contributions it was poised to make. And once I realized them, I just had to align some of the content differently.

I should also say that I don’t know a single person who has gotten a book contract from an unsolicited book proposal. (If you have, let me know your story.) My editor asks me with some regularity if I know of any interesting books-in-process, and I send him lists of names; I imagine many people have this kind of relationship with their editors. So it’s really important to make sure that the people you know who are getting books published know what you’re working on and what it really looks like — not the five second summary they often reduce your work to.

If you have specific questions about anything related to early stage book manuscripts, post them below and I’ll either address them in comments or in a future post.

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