From dissertation to published book

Posted by admin on April 28, 2014  /   Posted in Blog


So you’ve completed your brilliant dissertation—or a good portion of it. How do you turn your hard work into a published book? It’s a question common among doctoral candidates—especially those seeking tenure, for which book publication is de rigueur.

In an attempt to ease the transition from scholar to manuscript peddler, the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) sponsored a workshop titled “Publishing Your First Book” during its spring Capitals conference at New York University. Organizer of the session was Sophia A. McClennen, a member of the ACLA board and Chair of the group’s Publications Committee. McClennen is also Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at Penn State University as well as that institution’s Director for Global Studies.

McClennenMcClennen brings empathy to her chosen topic, admitting that she was “terrified” when she first approached academic presses. “Publishing your first book is a fearful process,” she says. That emotion arises partly from a misunderstanding of the working environment. “The book publishing process carries an aura that is out of sync with reality,” says McClennen, noting that many authors look upon the process as somewhat mystical.  “The reality is that publishing is a business run by people who are a lot like you. They care about their fields and they want to see good books come out.”

Another damaging misconception, adds McClennen, is the negative view held by many authors toward publishers. “Presses probably get bashed more than professors,” she says. The reality is that people at the presses are all peers in a common academic community. “They are working really hard for their authors.”

Before you can hope to approach presses successfully you need to prevent your valuable work from escaping into the wild. That means protecting your dissertation from distribution through channels created by the so-called open access movement which—working under the rubric that “information wants to be free”—promotes the posting of dissertations on publicly accessible web sites, making work available to anyone with a twitchy computer mouse. Before participating in such a site, understand that your book’s only market of importance will consist of academic libraries—and those institutions will not purchase any book which is already available in dissertation form on the Internet, whether in open access or on ProQuest.

“If we can’t sell your book to libraries we can’t publish your book,” says Jerome Singerman, Senior Humanities Editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press where he acquires books in a number of fields including literary medieval, early modern, and Jewish studies. “Academic libraries buy their books through approval plans from one dominant wholesaler. That wholesaler has people checking to see whether a book is a revision of a dissertation.”

The dissertation title, of course, is one give-away: A book laden with one might be added to a ‘do not buy’ list. (Which brings up a related piece of advice from Singerman: “Don’t waste your title on your dissertation if it’s the perfect title for the book.”) Unfortunately, just changing your book’s title is not protection enough: Availability of your dissertation proper on the Internet can also limit your chances for publication.

While the existence of your dissertation on the Internet is not a death knell for the book, it does mean you will be in for some significant labor. "The availability of an open access version of the dissertation greatly raises the bar on the amount of revision you will need to do before publication," says Singerman. "You'll need to really transform the work so that it could never be mistaken for the open access or the ProQuest version."

Singerman points out another downside of publishing your dissertation on the Internet: It might be less than prudent to publish a version of your work that will likely be later improved through peer review and editorial revision.

Keep in mind that if your institution has an “open access” policy for all its dissertations you may be able to opt out. Says McClennen: “If your dissertation is an open access you need to do everything you can to get it out—right now.”

Get me re-write

Once you’ve fenced in your dissertation it’s time to eyeball some revisions. All of the panel participants caution against believing a dissertation can be transformed into a book with little editing. That’s not the case, and the author who rushes to submit unrefined work is destined for rejection. “My advice is to set your dissertation aside for a while,” says Singerman. “Give yourself time to think about how a dissertation written for a committee differs from a book written for the public.”

That difference being? Voice, primarily. “A dissertation is an apprenticeship work in which you need to show that you’ve read all of the scholarship and covered the field,” says Singerman. “By the time you publish the book it’s assumed you know all that; you are no longer an apprentice. You are writing from a position of authority and the book should be written in an authoritative voice.”

The successful book, adds Singerman, takes a stand. A dissertation will usually be more research driven, its argument subordinated to sourcing that is wide and deep. The book switches things around as its research is trimmed and honed to support a strong argument. Nailing down that argument is key: “If the argument has not been made, additional research and writing needs to be done,” says Singerman.

Pick your publisher

What publishers should you approach? Compile a list of candidates by looking through your dissertation bibliography, seeing who’s been publishing the work in your field that you find most interesting. But pay attention to publication dates. “Publishing programs change over time,” cautions Singerman. “Just because a hugely important work was published by Press X fifteen years ago doesn’t mean that they’re still developing that field.”

Picking the best publisher from the scores of prospects can be daunting. One important factor is reputation, notes Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek, editor of a series on Comparative Cultural Studies at Purdue University Press. “Start with the stars and then go down,” he suggests. Those “stars” are the historically elite presses, Harvard and Stanford among them. At the bottom of the incline, he cautions, are some independent publishers who do not enjoy the reputation required by tenure committees.

While you want to be as high as possible on the publishing house food chain, that should not be your sole criterion. A successful publication can involve striking a balance between the reputation of a press and the company you keep. “You also want to be publishing in the company of the scholars with whom you want to be seen, the people with whom you are in dialogue,” says Singerman. “Consider what placing your book with a specific publisher would do for you professionally.”

One easily overlooked pathway to publication is the matching of a proposed book to an established series, notes Jonathan E. Abel, Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Comparative Literature at Pennsylvania State University. (Abel is himself a recent first time book author.) “There are a couple of reasons why I would recommend fitting your book into a series,” says Abel. “Acquisitions editors tend to look at your work in a marketing way. Series editors, though, are generally academics who were given their series because they know the field in a certain way. They have made a proposal to put a number of books into the field because they see a gap.”

Your ability to fill that gap can become a justification for your text, notes Abel. “A series editor can, in a very powerful way, make an argument to the acquisitions editor for your book. That’s like having an inside advocate for your text early on.” A bonus is that series editors very often know the best and most agreeable readers in your subject field. One caveat: Not all series editors are active in acquiring new titles; it may be prudent to submit your proposal to both the series editor and the house’s acquisitions editor.

Once you’ve prioritized your candidates you can avoid untimely delays in your career by sending your proposal to several publishers at the same time. This practice is accepted and recommended by the industry. However, you must not send your completed manuscript to more than one publisher simultaneously.

Track your quarry

Now that we’ve entered the topic of marketing, just how do you get the word out about your proposed book? Good networking skills will bring you into contact with more powerful people who can help you approach acquiring editors. “You have to make connections,” says McClennen, who suggests drawing up a list of prospective networking partners. “I always tell my students to pretend their book is sitting at a table having a beer with three other books. Now ask ‘Who are you going to have a beer with? Who’s drinking with you?’” Those people, she adds, are your potential networking partners. “If you think your work is connected to those people, you should reach out. Send them emails. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. You’re in a conversation; you’re are at the table because you deserve to be there.”

Feeling self-conscious and shy about all that? Seek help and support, says McClennen. “Maybe networking feels corporate and ‘businessy’ but it is important today. You have to be able and willing to make statements such as ‘I met so-and-so at the University of Chicago last week and he recommended I talk with you.’” Networking can not only help you impress publishers but help you buddy up with good prospects for blurbing your book.

All this may require a personality overhaul. “Be a little more open—not aggressive, but extroverted–about promoting your work,” suggests McClennen. “If you can’t stand in front of someone and talk about your book and explain quickly why it’s important, it’s reasonable for a press to wonder whether they should invest their time and energy in you.”

Pitch your wares

AbelSpeaking of being outgoing, one of the best sales techniques is to approach acquiring editors at academic conferences, says Singerman. “At any conference that has a book exhibit, one of the people attending from each press will be an acquisitions editor. We’re not there because we’re particularly good at selling books. We’re there because we want to talk with authors about their projects. So take advantage of it.” It’s good to have a prospectus and a CV on hand for those editors who ask to see one.

The panelists suggested laying the groundwork by contacting editors in advance to set up meetings. Your approach can be as simple as sending an email saying something like “I’m going to be at the ACLA conference in New York and I’m working on a project about X. (Then give a really brief description). Would it be possible to meet with you there?” You might even take a personable approach by offering to buy the editor coffee.

It’s smart, too, to show that you have done some background research on each press you are approaching. This shows that you respect their work and understand what they need. “It is important to approach people and presses personally,” says Tötösy de Zepetnek, who urges gathering background information from the Internet.  “Before you start anything, Google.”

If you haven’t been able to lay the groundwork before the conference, go anyhow and introduce yourself, asking if the editors have time to chat with you about your proposed book. And while you’re there, suggests McClennen, why not buy a few books from those publishers you want to impress?

Distance selling

Can’t go to the conferences? There’s always email and snail mail. In either case, though, the same personalized approach holds. And take time to find out the name of the appropriate individual—the ‘acquisitions editor’ or the ‘commissioning editor’ for your subject area. “You want to get your proposal to the right person,” says Singerman. “You don’t want to send your proposal to the director of the press, the editorial director, or the managing editor who usually handles copy editing.”

Check out each press’s website for information on how and to whom to submit a proposal. While you’re there pay attention to any idiosyncratic requirements. Each publisher will have specialized requirements and preferences. Some editors do not want to see proposals at all. “I hate them; I don’t want to see them,” says Tötösy de Zepetnek. “I’m not interested in your trying to sell yourself. All I want to see is the text. If it’s good or has potential I’ll do it.”

Package yourself

What goes into a successful submissions package? It starts with an attention grabbing cover letter which pitches the project “broadly and accessibly,” according to Singerman. “It should give some sense of what the intellectual stakes are of the project and where it fits in the larger landscape. What I really want to see in the cover letter is not something like this: ‘Although this was written as my dissertation I really wrote it as a book.’ That actually works against it. Instead, what you want to say is something like this: ‘Although this book originated in my dissertation, since that time I have done X, Y and Z to it.’ I want to know the distance that you have moved from the dissertation.”

Your package should speak to the specialist while also addressing what Singerman refers to as “the otherwise mythical creature which is the educated general reader.” Write your cover letter and prospectus in a way that looks sophisticated to the specialist, but which convinces the generalist that the topic and treatment is worth caring about. Follow your ‘why should you care’ paragraphs with simplified chapter summaries. Then talk about other major scholars with whom you are able to communicate or with whom you have had relevant discussions. As for recommended lengths, your cover letter might run a page or two; your prospectus maybe four to six pages. Says Singerman: "You might stretch the prospectus to eight or ten pages, but if you’re getting much beyond that you’re getting too long.”


Have access to subvention? Plug it. “It’s certainly useful to tell publishers as part of your initial information packet that you have access to subsidy funds or that your university has a program to which they can apply,” notes Singerman. Some editors require subvention, while others—Singerman among them—only require it for those books that are unusually expensive to produce—perhaps because of their length or because they require color. Conversely, Singerman notes that he would “never accept a book simply because there’s subsidy money available.”

You may want to apply to the new First Books Subvention Awards from the ACLA. The value of the award goes beyond its dollar amount. “The award can be a signal to a press that a manuscript has already been vetted by a committee of the ACLA,” pointed out McClennen, who instituted the program which will grant up to three $3,500 awards each year. To put that amount in perspective, note that the printing and binding cost of 700 copies of a 50-page book might come in around $8,000-$10,000 according to Singerman. Build in overhead, editing and other costs and each title can cost from $25,000 to $35,000.

This is perhaps a good place to note that most academic books, particularly first time ones, do not pay author royalties even when called for in the contracts. That’s because sales very often fail to cover production costs. The typical academic book sells only 150 to 500 copies. Even some of the more successful titles rack up fewer than a thousand sales.

Note also that a royalty, because of accounting necessities, can add substantially to a book’s price tag. As a result, says Singerman, “it’s often just not in the interest of the book to have the author paid royalties on the first printing.”

Publish and cherish

Zepetnek_002Have you published an article or two in one of the major journals in the field of the dissertation? “That’s a good thing to note in the cover letter because it amounts to a kind of pre-vetting,” says Singerman. “It shows that you’ve gotten a ‘seal of approval’ already.” But pitch your articles to the most prestigious journals—anything less won’t do.

If the published articles are taken from your dissertation, that can add still greater oomph to the vetting process. “The publication of a couple of articles from a project makes me want to look at it more carefully,” says Singerman. (If you find yourself trimming your bulky dissertation to meet a book’s word count, consider publishing the castoff material as articles, which you can then tell prospective publishers came from the same project).

Singerman cautions, though, that over-publishing can backfire. “If all of the chapters from your book have been published in articles there’s no reason to publish your book.” The moral here is to keep everything in proportion. “For a four chapter book with introduction and conclusion, two chapters published as articles is pushing it,” says Singerman. “For an eight chapter book I wouldn’t mind three articles.”

After the cover letter your submission package should include your curriculum vitae. Then include an abstract or prospectus that goes into greater detail about your project and answers questions such as these:  What are the stakes? Why should the editor care? Why is your book important to the field? What are the works or the scholars with whom you are engaging? Follow this with a chapter by chapter narrative synopsis of the book.

Finally, include a sample chapter. “The chapter should be one that best represents your project,” says Singerman. “You have one shot to put your best foot forward and your chapter should be part of that best foot.” Bonus tip: While it’s tempting to select the introduction as your sample chapter, avoid doing so if it is simply an elaboration of the prospectus proper.

Include important supporting materials at suitable places in your proposal. Anticipate special production requirements such as color or photography. Include a list of names of experts whom your editor might ask to read your book. And ballpark a word count. Singerman notes that 90,000 to 100,000 words is the sweet spot, with the lower limit at 70,000. In specialized fields books of 150,000 words sometimes gets published, but are very expensive to produce.

Think of your proposal, in short, as a vehicle for teasing your reader into a positive mind frame. “I always think of the package as a building,” says Singerman. “You need to move the reader through successive doors to get further and further inside.”

Tyro typos

Just before you send off your proposal, check and double check your work for spelling errors and typos. “Editors are looking for reasons to reject you,” says Singerman. “If you have a cover letter that has typos in it you are not going to get into the next room. If you are sending out multiple letters and you have the name of the wrong editors on your form letters, it’s not going to do you much good.”

Conversely, a tightly written proposal can work wonders. “If I read through the cover letter, I read through the prospectus, I read into the sample chapter, and I’m still not finding reasons to reject the book but in fact I’m finding myself excited, engaged and drawn in, you’ve done your work,” says Singerman. “You’ve gotten the editor to the point where he or she is going to call for the manuscript with pretty much likely a commitment to send it out for peer review.”

Once your submission is in, how long should you wait before following up? Here’s advice from Singerman: “If you haven’t heard after a month–or better yet six weeks–it’s perfectly fine to send an email saying, ‘I’m following up on my submission. I wonder if you have a chance to look at it.’” No one wants to be a pest, but sometimes submissions do slip through the cracks. Singerman takes on some 36 new books a year and at any one time is handling about 100 projects at various stages of publication. “We are hugely understaffed and overworked,” he says.

Now your groundwork is done and—surprise—more than one press expresses interest. You can only send your completed manuscript to one publisher at a time, so start at the top of the pecking order and work your way down. “You don’t necessarily need to tell the other presses that you’re going elsewhere,” says Singerman. “Their interest will remain should things not work out at your first choice.”

Plan ahead

So how long does all this take? Maybe longer than you expect. You want to draw up a realistic timeline that will produce a finished book at the right time—just before you apply for tenure, for example.

“If you’re on a tenure track you have to think in reverse,” sad Abel. “Work backwards from the time you think the book has to be in.” He suggests looking upon your personal timeline as a combination of the institutional timeline and the press timeline. As for the first: “Sometimes the book has to just be out for when you go up for tenure, but sometimes you also want reviews by that point so you have to add maybe a year that it might take for reviews to come out.” As for the press timeline: “I took a lot of people out to coffee at conferences to find out what the timelines were at different publishers.  I found some of them take four years to get the book out, from the time the author submits. That wasn’t going to cut it for me because of my other timeline concerns at my institution.”

Think about any awards you want to apply for—such as subvention awards—and factor their deadlines into your personal timeline. “You have to figure out in a strategic way how those timelines are working with you and against you.” Of course, if your book is not a necessity for your tenure, then the timeline is less of a concern. That would be true for those institutions that only want to see your published articles.

The actual decision process, added Abel, can itself add a lot of front end time. Abel’s experience is illuminating: The series editor who eventually accepted his book took three months from proposal submission to ask for a couple of sample chapters. It took another three after those sample chapters were submitted before he asked for the complete manuscript. Then it was another three months before the series editor told his decision to the acquisitions editor and sent the book out for review. Finally, it took from three to six months to get all the reviews back.

An audience member asked about the best time to get permissions for quoted text and illustrations. For the most part you will not be able to do this until your book has been accepted. “Granting institutions usually want the name of the publisher, the print run and the price that the book will be at,” says Singerman. “That’s the kind of information we won’t have until the book is under contract.” At the same time, lacking permissions can throw a monkey wrench into your timeline. “You can’t submit a finished contracted manuscript for copy editing and production without all of the permissions in place,” notes Singerman. Bottom line: “Do your legwork in advance, but hold back a little bit.”


The path from dissertation to published book can be a long and rocky one. If there is any common thread to the fabric woven by the panelists, it is the importance of networking. And that means hobnobbing with more than just acquiring editors. McClennen suggests locating and comparing notes with other first book writers. “Networking with people who are actually in the system and who are at the same stage can be very helpful.”

And don’t overlook the importance of seeking a mentor—maybe even someone at an institution other than your own. “Keep your mind open about who might mentor you,” says McClennen. “I think too often our fears keep us from asking for support. I think you’ll be surprised how many of us like to help.”

Footnote. Because academic presses have decided their wares need to look more like trade books, they now use end notes rather than footnotes. And some editors and publishers accept neither. So ignore this.

Photos and story by Walter Idlewild
Posted April 28, 2014


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