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Dissertation to Book

Dr. Laura Otis, Professor in the English Department at Emory University, has generously provided the following advice on publishing academic books as a followup to the GECC session at HSS 2008.   She does so with two caveats.  First, it was written during her tenure at the Max Planck Institute for people trained outside the U. S.   Second,  she was trained as a scientist and literary scholar, not a historian, and is more familiar with reviewing of books about literature than about the history of science.  She encourages you to compare her advice with that of other people, editors and senior historians.

The GECC would like to thank the presenters at the “From Dissertation to Book” roundtable at HSS 2008 for contributing to the discussion of this important issue for graduate students and early career scholars.

For further reading, see also:

Advice about Publishing an Academic Book in the United States

by Dr. Laura Otis

The following suggestions apply only to the U. S., since this is the only publishing culture I feel qualified to write about. Even in the U. S., the great variety of academic presses makes it difficult to generalize, so you should take my advice with skepticism and caution. I thank Professor Lorraine Daston at the MPIWG and Karen Darling at the University of Chicago Press for their input, which I have incorporated into this updated version of the publishing advice sheet.

Converting Your Dissertation into a Book

This is standard practice among young American scholars in the humanities and some of the social sciences, since the ability to get tenure (to keep your job and advance from assistant professor to associate professor after a six-year trial period) at most research universities depends on the publication of at least one book. For most people, it makes sense to expand the research you’ve already started doing for your dissertation and revise your thesis rather than begin a whole new project that you might not be able to finish in 6 years. People generally take 1-3 years to turn dissertations into books. Investing more time than this can be psychologically and professionally risky, but it depends on the project. If you need to spend more time to do justice to interesting new sources you’ve discovered, then by all means spend it.

Converting a dissertation into a book means turning something people have to read into something they’ll want to read. Look at it as an opportunity to publicize (the original concept behind the word “to publish”) your project so that as many people as possible can learn from the years of work that you’ve done. Even before you start to revise, think hard about whom you’re writing for and how you can make your ideas accessible to as many people as possible. If your dissertation was written in academese and involved imbricated but epistemically free-floating signifiers, try to translate it into language that people outside of your field will understand.

Books have an organic wholeness that many dissertations lack. As you revise, try to think in terms of the whole rather than individual chapters. Make the book as reader-friendly as possible. In your introduction, say what’s at stake in your book, what you’ll be arguing, what your methods will be, and what evidence you’ll be presenting. As you go through each chapter, remind readers what you’ve shown so far and refer back to previous chapters, making connections to things that were demonstrated earlier. As much as you can, try to put yourself in the place of the reader, of someone who’s seeing your work for the first time.

Choosing a Press

To select a press for your book, use human connections. Ask everyone you know and trust. Use the web, but try to confirm anything you think you’re seeing with people who’ve recently published books with particular presses. Find out what books presses have published in the last two or three years. Depending on who’s in charge, the goals and reputations of presses can change very fast, so do your best to learn about conditions at a given press right now.

Learn about what series presses are doing and who’s editing them. If you want your book to be part of a series, your best bet for an initial contact may be the series editor, a senior scholar in your field, rather than an acquisitions editor at a press.

Find out how strong the marketing engines are at the presses you’re considering. Do they have the resources to get your book to the people you want to read it? Do they have display tables at the conferences you think your readers will attend? Do their books get reviewed in the top journals in your field? How much money can they afford to invest in advertising? Ask your colleagues how hard their presses worked to market their books.

From your colleagues, find out what the turn-around time is for a manuscript at a particular press: how long it takes from the time you submit a proposal or full manuscript until the time that the press gives you readers’ reports and a definite decision. It should take only about three months for a decision on a proposal and six for a decision on a full manuscript. It can take much less, but it shouldn’t take more. In both cases, the rate-limiting factor is usually the selection of readers, that is, the ability of acquisitions editors to track down people who know something about your field and have the time to read a long manuscript. Again, since things change quickly in the publishing world, consider only information about the last five years. A press that was slow ten years ago may now be one of the most efficient, and vice-versa.

The human factor is very important in your selection of a press. Your working relationship with your acquisitions editor will have a huge effect on the speediness of publication and the care with which your manuscript is treated. Many acquisitions editors of presses with serious commitments to the history of science go to meetings specifically to talk to people with interesting projects and to recruit manuscripts for their presses. Publishing is a business, and even though many academic presses are officially non-profit organizations, they compete with each other to acquire the most intellectually high-powered and best-selling books. Keep this in mind when you meet with an acquisitions editor and consider that as the executor of a brilliant project, you are not a beggar but a creator with something valuable to offer. If you’re going to a meeting and would like to publish a book in the next few years, it’s a good idea to contact acquisitions editors beforehand and set up appointments. They will want to do this, and you should prepare your pitch carefully. They will want to know who the readers of your future book will be, how long it will be, what kinds of images it will have in it, what new sources or previously unknown materials it will present, and most importantly why it’s interesting, why they should publish it, and why people will want to read it. What are you doing in this book that no one has ever done before?

Preparing a Proposal

Think of your proposal as a justification of the existence of your book. You will need to give clear, convincing reasons why your book should come into being. Your proposal is an answer to the acquisition editor’s and the editorial board’s question, “Why should we publish this book?”

First, go to the websites of the presses you’re considering. Almost all of them post guidelines for proposals, along with information on how to contact acquisitions editors.

Be truthful and accurate, and don’t exaggerate too much. Acquisitions editors are smart and will know right away when you’re exaggerating or stretching the truth.

In preparing a proposal, you will need to balance the intellectual value of your project with the practical sales appeal. The value of a book in terms of truth, new discoveries, learning, and wisdom is a necessary but insufficient condition for getting it published. In the last 10-15 years, libraries have stopped automatically buying all the new books of major academic presses. They can no longer afford it, and the presses can no longer rely on several hundred libraries to buy everything they publish. The internet is changing the nature of the publishing business. By publishing your book, a press is taking a risk. Even as non-profit organizations, presses won’t print books on which they think that they’ll lose money. To break even, they need to sell several hundred copies, and in your proposal, you will have to prove that they will be able to do this.

The most important thing you’ll need to show in your proposal is who will want to buy your book and why. Who will your readers be? For whom are you writing? Many presses are now looking for “crossover” books that will appeal to educated lay readers as well as academic scholars. Think as hard as you can about people who might want to read your book whom you hadn’t thought about before: doctors, engineers, lawyers, mothers (not mutually exclusive categories). Is there any possibility your book could be used in teaching? Could parts or all of it be used in undergraduate classes, graduate courses, or both? What kinds of courses? Give names and examples. Many academic books are linked to exciting stories. What historical period are you dealing with, and is the science you’re writing about linked in any way to interesting historical events? Try your best here to communicate your passion for your project. Why is it important for people to read about what you’re writing about? By publishing your book, how will the press enhance its intellectual reputation, as well as its profits?

Next, most presses will want to know about the competition. Who else has written books on this topic? A good move to make here, as long as it’s true, is to say that your book is unique and no one has ever written anything like it before; however, there are a few related books you could mention. Briefly discuss the 3-4 books that you think are most closely related to yours in terms of subject matter and methodology. How successful were they? (On webcat, look to see how many libraries own them.) In terms of method, organization, and writing style, how good do you think they are? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Most importantly, why is yours better? What are you doing that these books failed to do, even if people have respected them? Does your work complement, continue, or refute the work of these authors? By publishing your book, what will the press be contributing to this field?

The acquisitions editor and editorial board will also care a great deal about how well you can write. This means not just your sample chapter(s) but the shorter summaries of your book that they will request. If you can’t describe your book in terms that the editorial board and marketing staff can understand, they probably won’t want to publish it. Work as hard as you can on your short summaries, and try them out on people. Avoid long, elaborate sentences and strange words known only to a few philosophers and historians. This doesn’t mean “dumbing down” your research. Think of it more as a challenging translation.

In addition to the things just mentioned, most presses will also ask you for a table of contents, one or two sample chapters, and an estimation of the length and the number of images you will be using. This lets them calculate the approximate cost of the book. Since images, especially color images, can be expensive to print, let the press know about any sources of funding you have (private research grants or grants from your university or research institute) that could help pay for the printing costs of your illustrations.

Finally, the people reading your proposal will want to know how far along you are. How much have you written? What is your schedule for completion? When can you deliver a complete manuscript?

If you have sent out a proposal and haven’t heard back from a press within a month, contact them. Try calling editors on the phone as well as sending e-mail messages. Presses vary greatly in terms of their responses to proposals. In one case, I sent out three proposals and heard nothing from two of them for almost three months. When I contacted the presses, it turned out that two of the proposals (sent by regular mail in those days) had gotten lost. The editors said that they’d never received them. When I resent them, one of the two presses turned down the proposal within two days of receiving it, and the other never responded, despite repeated e-mails and phone calls. The third press, which got the proposal the first time, published my book.

Multiple Submissions: A Controversial Issue

It is standard practice for people to send proposals to several different presses. Sending out your full manuscript is a different story. Scholars disagree about whether this is acceptable, and you will get conflicting advice, which will vary from field to field and from individual to individual depending on their experiences. As a graduate student in the late 1980s, I was taught that it was unethical to submit a full manuscript to more than one press, and I have never yet done it. When a press receives a full manuscript, it invests time and money. The acquisitions editor has to round up readers and pay them to evaluate the potential book. However, because it has become so much more challenging since then to publish an academic book, views on multiple submissions are changing.

Last summer, a senior scholar told me that it’s now fairly common for people to submit a full manuscript to more than one press. If you’ve sent your book to only one press and the readers recommend against publication, then you have to start all over again. If time is an issue and you can’t get tenure and keep your job without publishing a book, you may want to involve more than one press. Before doing this, speak to as many trusted senior people in your field as you can. Keep in mind that if two or more presses like your book and want to offer you a contract after they have invested time in your manuscript, the ones you turn down are going to be unhappy, and you might want to work with them in the future.

From the press’s perspective, what matters is that you be open and honest. If you send your complete manuscript to two or three presses, let them all know that other presses have it and that you’ll decide which press to give it to when all of the readers’ reports have arrived. Once you decide on a particular press, let the others know immediately. Try to keep things cordial at each place so that you have the option of working with them again.

Who Are These Readers, Anyway?

When an acquisitions editor receives your proposal and thinks that your book is intellectually valuable and may sell well, s/he will start looking for people to review it. In some cases, presses will ask you to include the names of potential reviewers in your proposal, but they will usually also ask someone you haven’t mentioned so that they can hear from someone they trust and whom they hope has no connection to you. They may ask the people you recommend, and they may not. It’s up to them. If you recommend people as potential readers, it’s usually a good idea to their permission before submitting their names to a press.

Generally, presses seek reviewers more senior than yourself who are actively doing research in a field closely related to yours. That’s the ideal—as they get more desperate, they may turn to people in fields a little further away. They may also intentionally try your proposal out on someone in a more distant field (history of biology instead of history of physics, for example) to see whether the appeal of your book is really as broad as you claim it is in your proposal. In any case, you can be sure that the reader will be a hard-working academic person like yourself who has to balance teaching, research, service to his/her university, and family life. For $100.-$200. or twice that amount in the press’s books, s/he will be taking time to read several hundred pages and write a 3-5 page report. Readers are generally given 2-3 months to do this, and when there are delays, it is often because the report was due at an especially busy time and the reader didn’t have time to write it until the semester ended. Long turn-around times for proposals and manuscripts are almost always due either to difficulty finding readers or to trouble hearing back from readers, who do things like run off to Berlin without writing their reports. Not surprisingly, many people turn down requests to serve as readers, since it means taking time from their own research. I get asked about once every few months and usually say yes when I respect the scholar’s previous work and think that I can learn something from his/her new project that will benefit my own research.

The review process should be completely confidential. You should never find out who your readers are, and probably you never will. Most people are very good at keeping quiet about what they review, but occasionally someone will talk, saying to a friend at a meeting, “Hey, I’m reviewing Joe Schmoe’s new book, and it’s really great!” This is not a good idea. Sometimes a person who thinks that you need encouragement or that you need to hear something s/he doesn’t want to put into the report will contact you and say, “Hey, I’ve got your book, and it’s great but you need to write more about sperm whales.” This is an even worse idea. For the protection of everyone involved, the process should remain confidential. However, in some cases a reader will tell an editor that it’s OK to give the author his or her name so that the author can correspond with him or her directly in editing the manuscript. The reader might fear that s/he misunderstood parts of your argument, or s/he might love the project so much that s/he wants to be actively involved in your development of it. Be wary. On two occasions, readers have “outed” themselves to me via editors. You can learn a great deal from an “outed” reader, but it can also be an uncomfortable situation.

Normally, without disclosing the names of the readers, the press will send you their reports on your proposal and/or your full manuscript. The editor will want you to learn and benefit from the readers’ suggestions, and after you have read them, you will usually need to submit a formal response saying how you will edit your manuscript to incorporate their ideas. You don’t have to do everything they say, and it’s fine to disagree with points about which you feel strongly or where you suspect that they misunderstood you. In your response, consider seriously everything that they’ve asked, and do not insult them. If you are not willing to make changes that they’ve requested, give good reasons.

If you’ve gotten readers’ reports on your proposal, you will probably receive readers’ reports on your full manuscript as well. Your acquisitions editor will try to round up the same reviewers for the complete manuscript as for the proposal, but since people’s commitments change, s/he may not be able to get the same people. Don’t presume that the same individuals will be reading your full manuscript as read your proposal, and above all, don’t lose sleep trying to figure out who they are. You’ll probably never know, and it’s a waste of energy.

If you get two positive reports, your acquisitions editor will present your proposal and the reviews to the editorial board, a group of senior professors associated with the press. They will then vote on whether to publish it. Even at this stage, good proposals can be rejected due to personal or political conflicts, but this is rare. At some presses there is no editorial board, and the acquisitions editor will submit the proposal and reports to his/her boss, a more senior editor who has the right to execute contracts and send books to production.

The Contract

If a press votes or otherwise decides to produce your book, they will send you a contract. If they are making this decision on the basis of your proposal, they will offer an advance contract stating that you are committed to them but they are committed to you only subject to the approval of the full manuscript. With an advance contract, they still have the right to reject the book if they are seriously dissatisfied with the complete manuscript, but if they are, they are much more likely to ask you to revise it than to decline it unconditionally.

Your contract will usually specify when you have to deliver the final manuscript, how many copies they’re going to produce, how much you’ll be paid (if at all), and how many free copies you’ll get. Presses vary greatly on what they’ll offer you. Generally, if they think your book will be a money-maker, they’ll offer you some money when you sign the contract, when you deliver the full manuscript, and when the book comes out. If your book doesn’t look like a big seller (yet), they will probably offer you a percentage of the profits for all sales over a certain number of copies, typically 1000, which few academic books ever reach.

Before signing, you have the right to scratch out phrases in the contract of which you don’t approve, for example the clause that you have to show them your next book before you give it to anyone else. Think hard before crossing anything out, however, and ask colleagues for advice, since there might be issues involved that hadn’t occurred to you. For instance, the request that you offer this press your next book indicates their wish for an ongoing commitment to you and could make the review of your next book much speedier. Once you’ve signed an advance or final contract, you are committed exclusively to this press, and no other press should be seeing your book. If any other press still has it, inform them right away that you’ve signed with another press.

The Production of Your Book

When you deliver your full manuscript, you will be asked to submit documents showing that you have permission to publish every image and extensive textual citation that’s still in copyright. Check with your press if they haven’t sent you guidelines about acquiring permissions, since the policies of presses vary. Many presses will not send your book into production until you have gotten permission to reproduce every image and quotation not in the public domain or regarded as “fair use.” Obtaining permissions is regarded as the author’s responsibility.

Once the full manuscript, edited according to the readers’ suggestions, and all letters of permission are in, your book will be “launched” in a crucial meeting at the press. The acquisitions editor, marketing people, and production and art editors will all sit in the same room at the same time, read your proposal, and decide who will design it, what the production schedule will be, and how it will be marketed. Once it has been launched, the production can go quite fast. The fastest I have ever seen is 8 months from the time of submission of full manuscript to the appearance of the book in print. The slowest I have seen is about 18 months.

Your book will now be assigned to a production editor, and while your book is being produced, you should address relevant questions (such as “When am I going to get my page proofs?”) to him or her. Your primary contact for the book will remain your acquisitions editor, however. After the book has appeared, if you have follow-up questions (such as “How can I be sure that my book will be on the table at the next HSS meeting?”), write to the acquisitions editor first, and s/he will direct the question to the appropriate person.

At this point your book will be assigned to a copy editor, who will carefully check every sentence, bibliographical entry, and footnote. Copy editors are usually free-lancers gifted in language and writing who check other people’s manuscripts for money so that they can survive in careers where they wouldn’t otherwise make enough money to live. They may be grad students in English literature, novelists, dramatists, or poets. They vary greatly in their conscientiousness and willingness to intervene, from paying a bare minimum of attention to your book other than imposing house style, to rewriting your book for you and saying things that you didn’t intend to say. What they do to your manuscript will also vary depending on the press that you’re working with and the type of book that you’re writing. For example, if you’re used to writing academic books for a particular field, and you’re now writing a book for a wider audience for the first time, the copy editor may change your language and style quite extensively so that it will be easier for people outside of your field to understand. If you’re not a native speaker, you can expect a copy editor to correct your English. This is his or her job and is a reasonable demand. Your ideal copy editor is one who is rigorous, alert, motivated, tough, and willing to challenge you about anything you’ve written that’s unclear. Keep in mind that this person is doing you a favor. It’s a good idea for as many eyes as possible to see a manuscript before it goes into print.

After working on your book for a month or two, a copy-editor will send you “queries” via e-mail or in hard copy. On page 62, you said Hermann von Helmholtz, but on p. 217, you said Hermann Helmholtz. Which is it? How could you be so careless? You have to be consistent! In note 137 of chapter 6, you haven’t given the volume number of the journal you cite. What is it? I think you get the picture. You should be able to answer most of the queries with a few days’ detective work, especially with the help of the internet. Some you may never be able to answer, but this is OK. The press won’t refuse to publish your book at this stage if you can’t track down every reference.

Keep in mind that copy editors aren’t perfect, and they won’t catch every mistake that you make. One failed to notice that I had cited the “Norton Critical Addition,” which I spotted only at the page proof stage. Feel free to go above and beyond what they’ve asked you to do when you correct the copyedited manuscript. Check every reference carefully against the book you got it from. This is your last chance to make corrections. Once you have proof sheets, you will have to pay for changes (beyond a certain minimum allowance) that alter things in the copyedited manuscript you have approved.

A month or two after you’ve responded to all the copyediting queries and the changes have been made, you will be sent page proofs to review. Generally you’ll have 2-3 weeks to check them and to prepare an index. In reviewing proofs, it is crucial to read them against the final copyedited manuscript. Even though the changes have all been entered by computer, the people who have entered them are human beings, and sentences and paragraphs can be misplaced, duplicated, or mysteriously disappear. Read sentence by sentence and make sure that every change you requested has actually been made as you asked. Probably you won’t find any major problem, but you may notice errors that neither you nor the copyeditor saw two months ago. Usually the press will let you make a certain number of changes not requested at an earlier stage before they start charging you for them, but rearranging pages at this stage can be costly. You shouldn’t think of this as a rewriting opportunity. It’s just a final check.

Marketing Your Book

Before production begins, usually just after you submit your full manuscript, you will be asked to fill out marketing forms. It’s a good idea for you to know about this now, even if you’re just starting to revise your dissertation, because seeing the kinds of things a press wants you to know indicates what a book means to them. Here are some questions you will need to answer. To do a diligent job on your marketing forms, you should spend several days, maybe even a week. It is definitely time well spent, because when trying to get your book to readers, a press has nothing to go on except the information you can give them. Here are some typical questions that you will need to answer:

In order of importance, name ten journals to which your book should be sent for review. To answer this question, talk to people, and go down to the library to see which journals have substantial review sections.

Give the names of 3-4 people (Ask their permission first!) whom the press can ask to “blurb” your book (write short statements for the back cover saying how wonderful it is). Ask people who are highly respected in a variety of different fields and whose names will be known to the readers you want to attract.

In order of importance, name ten journals in which your book should be advertised.

Name as many meetings as you can, in order of importance, at which your book should be displayed.

Give the names and addresses of as many people as possible who might use your book in classes they teach.

List undergraduate and graduate courses in which your book might be taught.

Give a 50-word and a 200-word description of your book suitable for posting on the net.

Give the addresses of list-serves on which your book might be advertised.

What would you like your book to look like? Can you suggest an eye-catching image for the cover?

Give the names and addresses of book stores at which you are known and where a special display of your book might be arranged, for example, “books by local authors” exhibits at your university or in your home town.

Give the names and addresses of media contacts (radio, TV) who might be interested in promoting the book. If you’ve ever appeared on a TV or radio show to discuss your previous work, might the same show be interested in hosting a show for the discussion of your new book?

I think you get the idea. Presses will be trying as hard as they can to let people know about your book, and you need to be an active part of the process.



1. Booklover1020 - September 10, 2009

I think when self-publishing works best for publishing an academic book since it belongs to a specific topic, (e.g. poetry book, photo book, cookbook). An academic book is targeted to a particular group too, so it’s wiser to have it self-published.

2. Shay - June 21, 2014

This info is invaluable. Whefe cann I find out more?

3. Satya Prakash - May 17, 2016

Dear Sir/Madam,
I want to publish M.Sc.(Ag) Thesis into book.Please give me guide line of procedure.

Dr. Satya Prakash
Assistant Professor
Deptt. of Extension Education RAU,Pusa( Samastipur) Bihar-848125

Knno - August 22, 2016

Have you found someone who can be of help?

Please share any helpful info with me, I’m trying to transform my thesis into book form as well.

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