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.