I defended my dissertation this past December. In the defense’s afterglow, I started to wonder – what’s next? I knew I wanted to turn it into a book, but I had no idea where to start. Should I contact publishers? Start writing a book proposal? My advisor suggested stepping away from the project to gain perspective. Still, I was skeptical. I didn’t have a job and thought the only way to get a job (or even a post-doc) was to have, at the very least, the book under contract.
After taking some time to think through this, I did what any good millennial would do: took to Twitter. I received a staggering number of replies from professors, publishers, and graduate students offering advice or commiserating about the opacity of the publishing process. I am distilling the substance of the discussion into five points, in the hope that in the future they can guide graduate students wrestling with the same questions.
1. Take a break. Writing a monograph-length dissertation is a long and, oftentimes, arduous process. In so doing, it is easy to lose perspective. In my case, I had largely stopped reading books outside my narrow subdiscipline and immersed myself in the project’s archival and primary sources. Most Twitter respondents recommended putting the manuscript aside, focusing on other projects (an article, teaching a class, etc.), and returning to it with fresh eyes after between six months and one year. By then, the hope is that you can bring a new perspective to the project.
2. Read other things. Fresh perspective cannot be attained through idleness, however. When taking a break from the manuscript, respondents’ advised that you delve into books outside your disciplinary niche. Many recommended reading fiction, since its emphasis on narrative and readability are two qualities lacking in many manuscripts. Others recommended reading prize-winning books. These could act as models for a book proposal or provide insight into how to best frame arguments. For Twitter respondents the message was nearly universal: the best writing begins with omnivorous reading.
3. Network. Like any other employment opportunity, finding a publisher for your manuscript is easiest achieved through networking. The best place to find these networking opportunities is at academic conferences. Respondents in the publishing industry shared that they meet many first-time academic authors at conferences. Larger academic conferences (AHA, OAH, MLA, etc.) usually have the greatest number of publishers, but smaller conferences can present greater opportunities to meet and have sustained discussions with publisher representatives. If conferences are too expensive (and for many graduate students they are), rely on your existing social network. Ask your advisor, faculty in your department, or alumni if there is anyone at their publisher you could speak to about your manuscript.
4. Write your dissertation as a book. If you have not yet completed your dissertation or are in the beginning stages of your graduate career, you may want to think about your dissertation as a book. This is a polarizing approach and one that will need to be worked out with your advisor. There are at least two ways of thinking about a dissertation. First, the dissertation-as-certification approach, which sees the dissertation as a document proving your abilities as a scholar. This generally means lengthy forays into historiography, rigorous citation using mostly archival sources, and favoring argument over narrative. Scholars advocating this approach see the dissertation as a showcase for all the skills you have learned as a graduate student and the defense of the project as certification that you belong in company of other professional academic historians. Second, the dissertation-as-book believers argue that since the real disciplinary standard is a publishable manuscript emphasis should be placed on those traits publishers find desirable – narrative, clear argument, and a clear writing style – over skill demonstration. While there is disagreement over which approach is best, writing the dissertation as a book has obvious benefits in the transition from manuscript to published book.
5. Write a different book. The most surprising suggestion I received was not to transform the manuscript into a book at all. Instead, these respondents suggested to think of the book as a totally different project than the dissertation. On the surface this seems ridiculous. I just spent five, six, seven years writing a dissertation and now you’re telling me to scrap it and start over! What a waste of time! Yet, when you think more deeply about divergences in form and audience, thinking about the book as a new project makes more sense (particularly if you took the dissertation-as-certification approach, as I did). One respondent put it particularly succinctly, “You don’t revise your dissertation; you steal from your dissertation while you’re writing your first book.” Thinking about your manuscript as a second project can free you to think more capaciously about your manuscript topic than trying to revise a dissertation project intended for a narrower audience and with more limited objectives.
These five points are heuristics for the manuscript-into-book transformation that I intend to follow over the next six months. I’m sure there will be disagreement and all of these points are subject to debate (and if you have further questions or comments feel free to post below). Thank you to everyone who responded and I hope this short memo will help graduate students feel a little less lost after they defend.