My Top Five Tips for Turning Your Dissertation Into a Book–A Special Request Post

Today is another Special Request Post.  This one is from Maria, who asks, do I have a template (like my Foolproof Grant Template) for turning a dissertation into a book?

No, Maria, I do not.  The process of turning the dissertation into a book will be different for every writer, and doesn’t lend itself to a template.  But there are some tips that I can offer for easing the process and making it more efficient.  This post is my Top Five Tips for Turning Your Dissertation Into a Book.

Why should you turn your dissertation into a book, you ask?

If you are in a book field, the fact is, your dissertation must be transformed into a book to be of full value to you.  The dissertation alone counts for little in the academic career.  The dissertation serves you only insofar as you can quickly transform it into the commodities that bring value on the market—peer reviewed articles (preferably published before you defend and start the job search), high profile grants that funded the research, high profile conferences in which you present the research publicly, and finally, the advance contract for the book from a major (NOT minor) academic press.  These are the tangible accomplishments that you must have to be competitive for a tenure track position at this point in time.

So here are The Professor’s Top Five Tips for Turning your Dissertation into a Book.

1)  Write the dissertation as a book to begin with.

Write from day one with a wide market of undergraduates in mind.  You want the book to be assigned as a text in undergraduate courses in your field.  Write it so those undergraduates can read it.  Don’t spend endless pages on tiresome, tedious obscurities of interest to 10 people in your sub- sub- sub-field.  Remember that the methodology section will be entirely removed from the book mss.  And the literature review will be almost entirely removed, with a small section folded into the Introduction or other chapters.  Conceptualize and write the entire thing remembering that these sections, while critical to your committee, are short-lived.  Don’t obsess about them; do the minimum, and move on.   In the meantime, put extra effort into a catchy, appealing Introduction and Conclusion.  These speak to readers, and to the editors and reviewers who will judge your mss. for publication.

2)  Make it short.

Academic publishing is in the same epic financial crisis as the rest of the academic world.  Publishers are going out of business right and left, and those that remain are under pressure to publish books that actually sell and make a profit (unlike the old days when it was understood that scholarly monographs rarely broke even).  Publishers must keep their production costs low, and this means they want shorter books.  I can promise you that if you present them with a 500 page monograph on the significance of the turtle as a symbol in 12th century religious iconography in Spain, for example, they are going to send it back with a polite email telling you they won’t be considering it until it is cut in half.

3) Know your market.

The dissertation may be treated like the intellectual achievement par excellence in your doctoral program, but in the real world of jobs with benefits, it is a commodity that has value only when it can be traded for gain on the market.  Ask yourself what sort of class your diss/book is suited for.  Do a google search of such classes and find out what kinds of books are assigned.  Take a look at those books and see what their main selling points seem to be.  Then ask yourself how you can adjust and mold your dissertation to be the kind of book that serves that market (without losing sight of your actual project and findings, of course!).  When you send the mss. to presses, you will be able to feature this “market research” prominently in your cover letter.

4) Don’t be boring.

Write with style and flair.  Just because you *can* write clunky, graceless prose in academia, and get away with it, doesn’t mean you *should.*  Be provocative.  Be original.  Be incendiary.  If your committee shies away from such showmanship, write a shadow chapter that you include once you’ve defended and are ready to send the mss. out to presses.  Presses are not interested in “solid scholarship.”  They are interested in products that sell.  Products that sell have to be differentiated from the competition–ie, they have to be exciting, new, and different.

5) Remember that your committee is not the world.

You have to please your committee to get a Ph.D., but you have to impress the presses to get a career.  Your committee controls you for a few years, but your book establishes your career trajectory for decades.  Set your eye on the prize, and don’t lose sight of it.  Do what you have to to satisfy your committee, but don’t ever forget who is in charge:  you.  You have an agenda, and that is publishing an influential, high-profile book with a top press.  Do not be derailed by committee politics and wrangles over whether you included XX citation in chapter 3 or properly acknowledged ZZ’s work in chapter 4.  Follow your own star, defend your positions, compromise when you must, and move on as efficiently as you can.  The best dissertation is a finished dissertation that is already a press-ready mss.

Here is my dissertation story:

I wrote a doctoral dissertation on why some young, single Japanese women in the early 1990s were demonstrating a striking enthusiasm for studying abroad, living abroad, working abroad, and finding white Western men to be their lovers and husbands.  My peers and professors in my graduate program severely disapproved of this project, and I was told by countless people that it wasn’t “legitimate” anthropology.  However, when I sent the mss. out to presses, not only did I get two competing advance contracts, I ended up getting an actual ADVANCE from the press.  This is practically unheard of for young academic writers peddling scholarly monographs.  The reason?  My book was provocative. It was original.  It had some naughty pictures.  I ignored the negative comments in my department.  And I wrote it to sell.


Comments

My Top Five Tips for Turning Your Dissertation Into a Book–A Special Request Post — 31 Comments

  1. while I absolutely agree with your advice–and I realize the process is idiosyncratic–it is pitched to a graduate student rather than an assistant professor in the throes of the manuscript revision. any more nuts and bolts advice?

    • Dear Junior TT, thanks for asking. If you have a specific obstacle that’s afflicting you, please tell me what it is, and I’ll respond.

      For now, I do have one piece of nuts and bolts advice for the TT folks, that trumps all other advice, in fact all other advice put together, which is: you must get leave from teaching to write the book. You cannot do it while maintaining a full teaching schedule. It is, actually, impossible. So, if you’re not actually staring down the barrel of year 5, then take a break, and apply for grants. Even one-term or one-semester internal grants can put you over the top. I myself ended up with 2 full years of leave, which is how I both wrote a book and had two children (!) but in any case, schedule in preliminary time to ensure that you are released from teaching to write the book. If you do not succeed in gaining funding, then ask your Head/Chair for a special dispensation. A good department and Head will release junior faculty from teaching to get their publishing done.

  2. Karen,

    While I find most of your advice useful, I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about “knowing your market” (#3 and #1, to some extent). I work on literature, and based on my experience (both as an undergraduate and as a teacher of undergraduates), we rarely, if at all, read secondary criticism in our courses. So I am having trouble trying to imagine how to pitch my book for an undergraduate audience/class. I understand your point about obscurity and also the need to make my research, however specialized, accessible to a broader audience, but I’d appreciate if you could write about this point more.

    Thanks!

    • Maria, OK. I would approach this a couple of ways. I’d find out what other books have recently come out from major univ. presses that are similar to yours. I’d study them to get clues about their length and density and jargon level. Id’ study their match with the press that published them–what are the clear emphases of different presses, and which matches your project best? Figure out the most likely “best match” press for your mss. and look at their most recent spring and fall lists. Figure out what their current orientations are, and speak DIRECTLY to those in your mss. Don’t bury them in chapter 4. Find a way to refer to them in the Intro, and to cast your project in that light as you think about the cover letter you’ll submit to the press.

      Second, You HAVE to include a discussion of “market research” in any cover letter that accompanies your mss. to a press. So, here, if your market is not undergrad classes, then what is it? I’d move up to graduate seminars, and finally of course to the scholarly fields your project speaks to. You are far, far, better off if your book intervenes in several fields rather than just one. You want to be able to say, “this book will have an impact on, and be adopted for courses in, fields as varied as women’s studies, comparative literature, media studies, and global studies.” You also have to say what other book(s) your book is “similar to.” So figure that out, and figure out how that book was marketed by its press.

      There is a LOT of detective work that you can do to figure out how to situate your work within markets, and also how to subtly adapt your book mss. to meet the emergent needs of the market.

  3. Thankfully, I am only entering year four and I have a fellowship year up ahead that I won in a national competition. Otherwise I would be (much more) terrified.

    My problem is finding quality mentorship about book writing beyond: you need to get your book done (from my third year review) and “you just need to sit and write it” (which is all ever anyone tells me when I ask them about their process, like it was magic or something). Again, although I realize the diss to book process is different for everyone, it could use a little more demystification.

    Everyone told me over and over again not to worry when I was writing my diss that it was “not a book,” to hurry up and “get it done” because “you got job, so you don’t have to worry about it.” Well, believe me it is definitely “not a book” and I am unfortunately facing that music right now the hard way. You do, eventually, have to “worry about it.” However, even a few years in, I feel as ill prepared to write a book as I once did starting the diss. I am a hard worker and I write every day, but I am frustrated to be dealing with similar issues as I did during the diss–the fumbling, the confusion, the dead ends, rough prose–but without a committee whom I can talk to about my progress or whether or not I am on target in terms of quality, my timeline, or to help me with questions like–is my project too ambitious? do I need to add that historical chapter? etc.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on getting the most out of a fellowship on that critical 4th year–as well as what a *realistic* revision timeline looks like for a diss that needs a lot of TLC. It is so easy to get bogged down and get discouraged because things aren’t progressing fast enough–and the unrealistic goals I set for myself don’t help. Thanks!

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  5. I finished my dissertation last April, and I very quickly received requests from two European publishers to turn my dissertation into a book. I was thrilled about this, knowing I had VERY FEW publications. My advisor and another committee member were not so keen on this “dissertation-turned-book” idea, saying it would be better to publish several articles from the dissn. They also had reservations about the publishing houses. In fact, when I did not reply quickly enough, one publisher became a bit pushy about sending my manuscript. I politely declined the offers of both publishing houses, only to get yet another offer from a third publisher (who had bought one of the other publishers).

    After reading your blog, I wonder if I made a mistake? Should I have converted my dissn to a book? Thanks!

    • this is an excellent question. And like all excellent questions, it doesn’t have a single easy answer. The main issues here are to me, that you mentioned that the publishers are European publishers. You do’nt mention your field or where you are based and hope to work. If your field is some form of European studies, and/or you are based in Europe or hope to work in Europe, then those publishers might be a reasonable choice. But if you are based in the U.S. and want to work in the U.S., then you most likely made an excellent choice in not accepting their offers.

      Don’t accept the first offer of publication that comes your way!!!! Especially for your book! Play hard to get! And yes, go the hard route–the route of actually publishing a few articles as peer reviewed pubs, and then writing up a proposal for the book and submitting it to the very top presses in your field, most likely based in the United States. This is all time-consuming and difficult and carries more risk of rejection at various points. But the rewards are the REAL rewards, the big rewards, the tenure track jobs and the major fellowships and promotions. A book published by some little-known press does not carry a lot of weight as a tenure-book in the U.S., and it can’t give you the street-cred and the exposure/credibility that articles from the top journals and a book from the top press can.

      Many, many students of my acquaintance have fallen prey to the siren song of the eager publisher anxious to publish their book, and thrown away their primary claim to fame on a publisher that nobody’s heard of, and that doesn’t have the wherewithall to actually promote and advertise the book. And then they are crushed and wonder why even with a book they aren’t getting shortlisted for jobs. That is why. The status of the publisher matters. Go for the very, very best that you can.

  6. Can you publish parts of your dissertation as articles and still publish it later as a united book? Or is it an either/or question?

    • Typically you can get 2 articles out of the book, and in fact you *should* get two articles out of the book (ie, two of its chapters) because putting those out early in high profile journals gives you name recognition and clout when you shop the book to presses. More than two, and you start getting in trouble because presses don’t want to publish a (first) book that isn’t substantially new material. So in the case of a typical 5 chapter book, two chapters out as articles is the baseline to aim for. Of course everyone’s case will be slightly different, and if you have related material that is on the topic but not used in the book, definitely put that out to journals as well.

      • Have you heard about publishing more chapters in other language, that is, two in English and one or two more in other language? I’d assume editors won’t care, since the non-English article won’t be considered duplicate by librarians, but I’m not sure.
        Thanks!

  7. Are there any benefits to self-publishing in the absence of a traditional publisher? Competition for publication in Peer-reviewed sites can be a factor. What about publishing on Scribd and others? What are the benefits and downsides? If nothing else, it gets me found on the web besides in Rate-my-professor.

    • Responses coming in on Twitter and FB: innovative online publishing/blogging is increasingly valuable for exposure, etc., but self-published books will play no real role in establishing an academic reputation. The issue comes down to peer-review.

  8. Pingback: Turning my dissertation into a book « Dr. Stacey Margarita Johnson

  9. I wrote my dissertation on seven working class girls in a deindustrialized urban neighborhood as they made the transition from 8th grade to high school. A university press said they are VERY interested in it, so I am busy this summer rewriting it as a book. What do I do with the literature review? What do you mean by folding it into the introduction or sections?

    • You want to remove the lit review for the most part, as that is one of the hallmarks of a dissertation that must be removed from the book. However, it is certainly valuable to refer briefly to work on the subject that plays a role in your analysis, so you’d break off chunks of it, and put some in the intro as appropriate, and/or some in the various chapters where they are relevant. But you don’t want a big fat tacky “lit review” chapter, or even whole section of a chapter, as that is a thing to leave behind in graduate school.

  10. Hi,

    I’m in my last year at university and I chose to write a dissertation. There aren’t many books in the area I’m researching. Once I finish my dissertation, do you reckon it would be possible to publish – considering I’ll only have done an undergraduate degree and no masters/PhDs?

  11. I wrote my dissertation back in May of 2009. My mother passed away quite suddenly during fairly routine heart surgery a few months later. It was devastating; she was my best friend. My father starting dating a neighbor three weeks later and this woman hates my sister and me. She stole many of my mother’s things, and convinced my father to sell the rest along with my family home, all without telling us. They moved to another town, and now I barely speak to my father. I tell you all this to explain why I was derailed when I should have been publishing chapters from my dissertation. I presented a couple of chapters at conferences, and received a positive response. I exchanged information with a fairly reputable publisher, but by the time she tried to get in touch with me, I was in a black fog. That was three years ago. Can I recover from this? Is it over for me?

    • I believe you can recover from this if you want to; you just have to start building up the record now that would have happened then, without the trauma. That’s difficult but doable.

  12. Dear Karen,
    If you have a four-chapter dissertation that you are turning into a book manuscript, is it still advisable to publish two out of four of the chapters as peer reviewed articles?
    Many thanks

  13. This is all excellent advice, thanks. I was wondering if you could also provide some more details on the actual structure of the all-important book prospectus? I’m working on one now.

  14. Hi Karen,

    Thank your for advising about publishing a dissertation as book. In my case, my dissertation was an exploratory study about the effect of ethics education on undergraduate accounting students in an African country, where ethics is not taught in accounting-related programs in public colleges. There a lot of studies published on this subject matter; but, none of those was conducted and/or published in such a country. Now, I am wondering whether to publish my entire dissertation in academic journals or, just publish parts of it as articles. Nevertheless, I am also wondering if it is a good idea to have my dissertation published as a book. Honestly, I am a little bit confused. Would you please advise?

    Thank you and best regards,

    Carlos.

  15. Hi!
    First, I’d like to thank you for having a blog like this because it’s so incredibly helpful for people like me. I just finished writing a dissertation of my own, and I’m looking to turn this into a book. The whole process seems so daunting that I’m actually wondering if it’s at all possible. Certainly my supervisor and faculty committee have all recommended that I get it published, but I do realise that a dissertation is very different from a book manuscript.
    My dissertation is based on US-China relations in East Asia.
    I’m not currently affiliated to any institution, though I have work experience in the field. My problem is that I don’t know quite how to go about adding anything of value to this, besides updating it and re-writing it to sound peppier rather than pedantic.
    Can you help with this?

    Thank you!

    Narayani.

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  17. I have a more practical question. So I am considering turning my dissertation into a book, but this is not something that I considered at the time that I started my dissertation. Although my participants were annonymous and used pseudonyms to protect their confidentiality, do I have to go back and track them down to get their permission…I am specifically thinking if I want to use a direct quote as in example. The participants signed the informed consent for the dissertation and were aware that it would be published as a scholarly journal, but not as a book that could be purchased. Please give me your perspective.

  18. Hi Karen,

    Thank you for this wonderful website. I always find such good advice here. I am finishing my dissertation and applying for some jobs and postdocs at the moment. My issue is that I don’t think it makes sense to revise my dissertation into a book. I think that two of my chapters would be great as journal articles, and I have what I think is a good plan for a closely-related second project that would make a good book. Do you think I have a case for postdocs if I’m proposing to start work on this second project during the postdoc, rather than to revise the diss? My advisor says this is a good plan, but he’s not particularly savvy about the current market. Thank you for your insight!

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