From dissertation to book contract (re-post from Feb. 07)

[Last year’s switch from MT to WordPress cost me most of my archives. Here’s a post from last spring that still seems to draw traffic, despite its non-existence, so: ]

Last week, Dr. Crazy wrote an excellent post about how she got her book contract. Her core recommendations are: be close to a finished ms before you start sending out proposals; don’t be afraid of simultaneous submission; a diss is not a book (and, most important, READ GERMANO); and self-promote away. She’s also asked people to describe their own experience, which I think is a good idea. There is something strangely opaque about the transition from dissertation to book, especially since most people probably work out that transition on their own–as, for instance, the only Victorianist or medievalist or whatever in the department.

My book came out in October with Ohio State as part of their Victorian Critical Interventions series. Like Dr. C, my experience has been atypical in some ways–for example, this was the only proposal I sent out–but I do think that there are some points that might be generally useful. (This won’t be narrated in the same detail, largely because this blog isn’t anonymous, but hopefully it will still be of interest.)

  • It is true that a dissertation isn’t a book, and it’s also true that, from a certain point of view, the best dissertation is a done dissertation. Letting the perfect be the enemy of the “good enough to finish” can, obviously, be counterproductive. However, especially in the overpopulated humanities disciplines (English, history, insert your discipline here) focusing on your prose while you still have committed readers (i.e., your committee, perhaps a dissertation support group) can help differentiate your project.
  • A related point is: If what you want is to publish a book quickly, then choosing the right committee matters. (And, “right” here just means, “a committee with a savvy sense of the book market.”) Pay attention to the post-grad-school trajectory of students in your area.
  • Another related point is that there’s no special merit in publishing a book quickly, unless you’re at an R1 school (or a school with R1 envy). A clear-eyed look, not only at your work, but also at your school’s promotion & tenure criteria, can help you distinguish self-imposed anxiety from legitimate concerns about your future. Too, if you’re hoping to “write your way out” from a first job, it’s not exactly clear what the marginal benefit of book publication is over several well-placed articles. It probably depends on the press, on the journals, etc. I’m not aware of any statistically meaningful analysis of this question.
  • If you’ve decided you want to revise your diss toward book publication, don’t get trapped into a specific image of what “the book” has to look like. Any given project might take several different forms, depending on the press (and, where applicable, the series). Your editor and the press’s readers will have a lot to say about its ultimate shape. For example, I had always thought that I would need to write two additional chapters to turn my dissertation into a book; in fact, this was not true. Because the Victorian Critical Interventions series has a specific model in mind, I actually had simultaneously to condense (“sweat down,” as one reader put it) some of the chapters, while making some theoretical claims more prominent. I think the resulting book is actually shorter than the dissertation. Had the project been declined by the series editor, however, even at the same press I would’ve needed to expand the ms.
  • Thus, it actually makes sense to research presses & series “too early,” long before you think the project’s ready. I had seen the VCI series announcement on Victoria when I was still in graduate school, and bookmarked the web page. Then, once I’d heard good things about the OSU P process, I was ready to move quickly. Had the press declined the proposal, I would’ve embarked on the new chapters. There’s no reason to think that that longer book would have been better, and, more to the point, it would have had no additional impact on my p&t process. Plus, once I had the book in hand, I could start on new projects, etc.

    To put this slightly differently: Had I waited to submit my proposal until I had written those additional chapters, not only would my book still not exist, but I probably wouldn’t even have a contract. I also presumably wouldn’t have my subsequent contracts with Broadview and Valancourt Books, because part of the hook-baiting with those presses was the completion of the first book. Dr. C has it exactly right: No one can say ‘yes’ if you don’t submit your proposal.

  • If you have even a passing acquaintance with someone who’s published at a press you’re interested in, ask them about it. One thing that sold me on Ohio State UP was that a friend from graduate school spoke so highly of her acquisitions editor. (And I would echo her recommendation: The staff at Ohio State UP are incredible.) I also did this with Valancourt: They had put out a request for proposals on Victoria-L, and, again, a former colleague had done an edition with them, so I took a flyer. (Because the press is small, though, the process was much more informal.)
  • The process at Broadview was different. I had known someone in marketing/promotions from her visits to our campus and to a conference I frequent. Since I use a lot of their editions, we’d chat, and she put me in touch with an editor as a likely person to do an edition. Then, the editor and I e-mailed back and forth over some possible texts, until we settled on one. Finally, I submitted a proposal for her to take to readers and to the board.
  • That reminds me: If you notice that certain presses sponsor book tables, not just at your discipline’s national meeting (MLA), but also at your specific area’s conference, then you should probably talk to whoever the rep is. Maybe it’s someone from marketing, but marketing people know editors. And maybe it’s an editor–for example, the person in charge of my book is always at the NAVSA conferences, chatting up interesting people. There’s no reason that can’t be you.

To recap:

  1. Pay attention to your writing while you have a captive audience, before you graduate and move to a school where there’s no one else in your area of specialization.
  2. You are not writing the One True Book about your topic; your project might take several different forms depending on the needs of your press.
  3. Wait until you have material to send before circulating a proposal, but don’t wait until the whole project is “finished.” There is no “finished,” anyway: There’s just the latest FedEx pickup time on the day before your deadline.
  4. People you know–friends, former colleagues, mentors, marketing and promotions people who’ve talked you into an examination copy, editors you’ve met at conferences–are an important resource in winnowing your list of potential presses. Don’t be shy about asking how a particular press works.
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