Your Dissertation is not Your First Book

Recently a friend wrote to tell me that my earlier two posts about the process of getting your dissertation published as a book really didn’t help answer the most critical question: how do you decide what to keep from the dissertation in the book? I’m chagrined at the oversight. The answer is a difficult one–so bear with my personal narration.

I think I turned in a perfectly serviceable dissertation. It was missing a couple of chapters, but due to the time constraints I was under I wasn’t going to be able to write them. There were some decidedly unserviceable sentences–and whole paragraphs–in what I turned in, but my committee was generous with their support and looked past those syntactic failures. All told, it felt like a dissertation: I tried out some ideas, got a lot on paper, and attempted to weave it all together.

At the time, I really tried to imagine writing my dissertation as a book. This was in part because of my admiration for one of my committee members, Jean Langford, whose first book, Fluent Bodies, is a lightly revised version of her dissertation. Jean had had a professional career before returning to do a dissertation, so she had a wealth of writing experience to rely upon. I had written a couple of clunky MA theses and started on a couple article manuscripts. Thinking my dissertation could be quickly revised into a book manuscript was pure, graduate student hubris.

Meanwhile, down the hall from Jean’s office, David Valentine, was insisting to me that no two words in his dissertation and first book, Imagining Transgender, were the same. In retrospect, David’s experience was more like mine than Jean’s was.

I always advise people to not immediately try and turn their dissertation into a book–teach some classes and work through the literature in your field. Write some article manuscripts and get some peer reviews from total strangers. The experience of dissertation writing is–by necessity–an experience of narrowing one’s attention. Dissertations are written to meet institutional expectations, as meted out by one’s dissertation committee. They’re written for a very small audience, who, very likely, is onboard with the project and has been for quite some time. They–hopefully–want to see you succeed and move on. Writing a book is about capturing a broader audience and speaking to more general concerns in the literature.

It took me a couple years of teaching to understand what my book should be. In that time, I taught several medical anthropology courses–both introduction classes to the subfield and upper division theory classes. I distinctly remember in a lecture on medicalization that I realized what the book was about and things snapped into place. I imagine the rest of the lecture was basically an out of body experience as I worked through the book in my head.

In many respects, the content of the dissertation and my first book, The Slumbering Masses, is roughly the same. I did, much like David Valentine suggested, rewrite every word though. The big changes were how the project was pitched (its “intervention”) and the tone of the language.

Dissertations are anxious documents. Having read several of them as a committee member now, they’re often kind of claustrophobic and caught up in demonstrating one’s expertise. I found that whenever I tried to copy and paste text from my dissertation, tonally it was very different than anything I was writing after defending my dissertation–and my writing has continued to get looser and more precise over time.

Here’s the cover of The Slumbering Masses for old time’s sake. It depicts the title of the book screen-printed on a pillowcase. The pillow that the pillowcase is on is scrunched up and arranged vertically.

So, here’s the recommendations: Seriously, send out some article manuscripts based on the dissertation. Get a sense of what other people see in your work. Teach some courses if you can. If you can’t, write up some mock syllabuses for courses you would teach based on your dissertation’s topical and theoretical areas. Work through what other people in your field are interested in and what you can add to the conversation. Also: remember what you disagree with in other people’s approaches.

Then, excise all of the empirical content from your dissertation. Put it into piles (virtual or material). See what other kinds of stories it can tell. Consider what kind of stories it can tell put together.

Often, dissertations are organized around a key idea or topic in each chapter. That can make a successful dissertation, but it often translates into a book that isn’t well integrated. What works about making an argument about an idea in a chapter results in a book that lacks a heart. The best books are those that have an idea that flows throughout the whole text, motivating the reader’s attention and also pulling together all of the little arguments and insights. The constraints of writing a dissertation often make it hard to see the possible sweep of the dissertation’s empirical content.

In the conversion process between the dissertation and the book, I dropped a lot of the ethnographic work that focused on everyday life in the clinic that I conducted the bulk of my research in. By the time I was reworking the book, some early articles had been accepted for publication, and that relieved the need to include that material in the book. I was also a little haunted by a comment by one of my committee members who told me that “no one needs to read another laboratory ethnography,” which I agreed with–yet, a lot of my material was precisely that kind of stuff. It’s worth thinking through what the “laboratory ethnography” in your field is–what have people read too much of?

Addressing that question in your writing is mostly rhetorical. Where in the dissertation something might lead a chapter, in the book it appears later in the same chapter. Even though the empirical content is the same, by placing it later in the chapter it has a different rhetorical effect–it feels less like a laboratory ethnography and more like something else (I’m not sure what, exactly). It’s worth working through what content you should lead with–what will be the most compelling to a wide readership?–and what might be better supporting content. Karen Ho once told me to start writing based on the stories I kept thinking about from my research, and it’s solid advice: what sticks with you is the stuff to lead with. The other stuff, while important, might be best tucked away as supporting content.

My dissertation was really organized around sleep and its interactions with everyday institutions in the US–family life, workplaces, school, law, etc.–but the book takes the same stuff and reorganizes it into smaller chapters. Instead of a few very long chapters, The Slumbering Masses is several much shorter chapters that are thematically organized. The 20,000 word (or more) chapter that your dissertation committee waded through is probably not the same thing you want to unleash on the world. Even if it’s relatively unchanged, breaking long chapters into two or more chapters will make them easier for your audience to read. This might also lead to excising content that can go live in an article manuscript instead of the book.

The rule I heard from several editors is that no more than two-fifths of your book should appear in print elsewhere. If you send modified versions of a couple dissertation chapters out as article manuscripts and then rework the content of the dissertation into a new format, this shouldn’t pose a problem–likely there will be little or no duplication (which is also good for things like tenure and promotion!). If you can’t or don’t want to rework everything, it’s worth keeping this two-fifths rule in mind though. It may mean writing new, additional chapters or holding back on publishing some material as articles.

All that said, the key to the transition into a book manuscript is moving away from the “fill a gap” mentality that shapes a lot of dissertation writing. Filling a gap in the scholarship is important, but it’s rarely enough to appeal to a wide swath of readers and book acquisitions editors. Instead, they want a bigger story that addresses concerns in your discipline. Teaching classes and sending stuff out for peer review is one way to identify these concerns, especially their most contemporary iterations by being in dialogue with students and other scholars.

Giving that lecture on medicalization–which I had probably given three or four times at that point–made me realize that as much as the linkage I made between American traditions of capitalism, work, school, family life, and sleep made sense in my dissertation, it didn’t quite rise to the level that something outside of a small group of people would be interested in. Even though I don’t agree that medicalization has all the answers, it provided a hook into the material I had that was legible to a broad audience and made sense of the empirical content I could rally behind my argument.

Which isn’t to say that the whole book has to be about that idea, but finding ways to address ideas of general concern–and particularly ideas that make sense to people–is an immediate way to appeal to people who aren’t as well versed in your materials as you are, or as your dissertation committee was. So having a sense of what these big ideas are and how you can arrange your materials to speak to them–while doing the other work that needs to be done–is a way into reconceptualizing how the dissertation can become a book.

The other very palpable memory I have about the process of turning my dissertation into a book is sitting in an apartment in St. Paul while on a return trip to Minnesota. I didn’t have a desk, so worked at an old dining room table with an uncomfortable chair. Next to the dining room table, somewhat incongruously, was a day bed. My dog, Turtle, would lay on the bed staring at me between naps as I rewrote The Slumbering Masses. To my left was a printed out version of the manuscript, before me was my laptop. I would read a sentence in the manuscript and then type a new version of it. I tried, wherever I could, to make things easier to read, less anxious, and clearer in their intent. I had three months to do it, and it was grueling. It was, ultimately, a total reworking of the manuscript. Luckily Turtle was there to get me away from the screen for daily dog walks–and there were friends to visit and other things to do–because the process was no fun. The Slumbering Masses is better for being reworked. Although I can’t really read it, I’m told it’s pretty easy (and sometimes fun) to read.

Soon, I’ll write about the process of writing a second book, which is a whole different ball of wax…

If you’ve converted your dissertation into a book–or if you haven’t–what was the process like? Post sharable stories in the comments if you like.

From Dissertation to Book, Part 2

This is the second part in a two part series on the dissertation-to-book conversion process. Part one is here.

Once an editor shows interest in your book manuscript and asks for it, this is what you can expect from the time you turn it in to them:

First, they’ll send it out for peer review. They may ask you for a list of reviewers, or, more likely, they’ll have a sense of who they want to send it to already. Often, they send book manuscripts to authors who have previously published with the press, since they have a sense of the press’ needs. Or they’ll send it to reviewers who they’ve come to know are good reviewers. This can be a pretty slow process — from six months to a year, although many editors strive to ensure that it’s sooner rather than later. When the reviews come back, you can expect to receive fairly substantial documents — three or more single spaced pages from each reviewer (and there might be two to three of them). In addition, the editor may chime in on what he or she finds to be the most important elements of the reviews to help guide you in the revision process.

When you get these documents back, it may be time for your editor to offer you a contract. These come in two forms, advanced contracts and regular contracts. Regular contracts are that the book is now under contract to be published by the press, usually come hell or high water. Advanced contacts are like regular contracts, but they’re pending certain criteria being met. So, for example, you might need to submit a revised version of the book manuscript by a set date; in doing so, your advanced contract becomes a regular one. Advanced contacts can be precarious, and they aren’t a guarantee that the book will be published.

In order to offer that contract, the editor may need to get approval from a faculty board or some other form of oversight. This can require you to write a letter addressing the peer reviews and your plans for revision. Since these meetings often occur at regular intervals, this can take up to a month (or sometimes longer, in the summer) to finally happen.

After receiving comments, your editor will most likely give you a deadline for the revisions on the book manuscript. These can be rather flexible, and I’ve heard of everything from three months to a year. And I know of people who have taken much longer than that to return their manuscripts, with the permission of their editor. When it does get returned, it will usually be sent back to one or two of your previous reviewers, along with a letter that you prepare addressing all of the changes that you’ve made to the text. Expect another three to six months before you hear back from your editor. There may be some changes called for by your reviewers and editors, and this is the last window for substantial changes to the text. And if you have an advance contract, this is where it becomes a regular contract, and it may require your editor to get approval for that transformation.

It’s also possible around this time that you’ll move from being under the supervision of an acquisitions editor (sort of the face of the press) to a managing editor, who is in charge of the rest of the things that happen to your book as it moves from being a Word document to an actual book.

The first step of the production process is that it goes out for copy editing. Most likely, the press will pay a professional copy editor to read the entire text (including end notes and your bibliography) and correct your language. He or she will also identify textual obscurities and other issues with the text. This can take a few months, and your editor will give you a sense of the timeline. And when you get it back, expect to have anywhere between two and four weeks to complete the corrections being asked for. Once you make the corrections, the text will go back to the copy editor for final corrections.

Once the text is concrete, it goes out for typesetting, which can take a couple more months. You’ll get the galleys back to correct any typos (and there will be some), but will only have a couple weeks to do this. (A little typo anecdote: a comma was replaced with a period and it radically altered the meaning of the two sentences it was part of — so it’s important to read closely.) And during this process, you’ll also, most likely, need to put together your index. (I worked on mine while I was reading the copy edited version of the text, and finalized it with the galleys, which worked pretty well.) And then it’s off to the presses… Which can take another several months. And if you’ve ever wondered where blurbs on the back of books come from, this is when they get solicited — your editor may ask you for names, or they may use the reviewers who read the book. Finally, around this time, you’ll move from being under the managing editor’s supervision to being under the supervision of publicity and marketing staff.

In between some of this stuff, you’ll most likely need to fill out an author questionnaire that will ask you about which journals the book should be sent to for review, if there are awards it should be sent in for review for, key ideas from the book for publicity material — like catchy ideas in a sentence, and a lot of other questions regarding how to market the book and who it should be marketed to. And you’ll be asked to write a short author’s biography (about a page), and maybe conduct an interview with yourself to highlight some of the book’s content. You can see all of this stuff on the bottom right of The Slumbering Masses page at UMN press — it’s the press kit. And somewhere in all of this, you’ll be asked about ideas for the book cover, and eventually shown a version designed by the press (which you may or may not have any input in).

And then you get to sit back and wait for the reviews and royalty checks to roll in…

I think I hit everything. If you have questions about any of this stuff, don’t hesitate to post them in comments. It’s a long process — it will be about four years from the first conversation I had with my acquisitions editor to when The Slumbering Masses sees print. This is a little on the long side, but even the short version of this process can still be two to three years. And a lot of that time is just spent waiting. So it’s a good time to start working on new projects or getting other stuff done that you’ve put off. Like working on a blog…