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…

From Dissertation to Book, Part 1

This is the first in a two part sequence of posts on the dissertation-to-book process. The second installment discusses the behind-the-scenes processes that occur once the book is under contract and being prepared for publication and is available here.

A lot of recent graduates feel like the first thing they need to do once they get their Ph.D. is to turn their dissertation into a book manuscript and to get it under contract. This often means dropping everything, and working assiduously on the book manuscript and book proposal. I did; I shouldn’t have. My first book proposal was all wrong, and my thinking about the book version of the dissertation needed a lot more time to mature. That being said, if an editor gets in touch with you and wants to talk about your book, you should do it. It’s a low pressure situation: they want to know what it’s all about and when it might be ready for peer review. Chatting with them can make sure that they remember who you are and look forward to your eventual book proposal. But before you get to the proposal, here’s what (probably) needs to happen:

First, get a couple articles out for review, for two reasons: Getting feedback on your ideas from your peers (who aren’t your dissertation committee or people you’ve known in your grad program, which can often be an insular world of ideas) helps to expand your thinking about your material. And publishers want to see that your peers take your work seriously — so having a publication or two on your CV when you send it in with your book proposal is pretty important. So, really, the first thing you do out of your Ph.D. — if you haven’t already — is to get a couple publications out into the peer review process. (Check out the professionalization timeline to plot this stuff out in advance.)

Since you’ve been living with your dissertation in a pretty intimate fashion for a number of years, it’s also a good idea just to spend time away from it. Give yourself a year to work on a new project or develop some new syllabuses — you might need this time to prepare for a new job anyway, and explicitly setting it aside can be psychologically less stressful that taking that time off and feeling like you should be working on your book. When you come back to the dissertation, you might feel a little less tied to it in its current state, and be ready to mold it a little differently.

Now, when you do get back to the dissertation to turn it into a manuscript, there are some things that surely need to go: Long literature review sections need to be cut out in their entirety, although parsing them out and putting them in as end notes is a good first step, since some of this content is important to retain. Long discussions of theory needs to be cut as well — it might have been important for you to write, but it can moved into the end notes now. Incidental, orienting discussions of theory can still be useful, but for the most part, most theoretical discussions can be cut. If you have whole chapters that fall into the lit review or theory review realms, they might be excised — and with revision — sent to area studies or theory focused journals as articles.

The logic behind these cuts is to really highlight your work — your empirical and theoretical contributions to the field. And this is really critical for developing your book proposal.

Book proposals are rather mysterious things — when I wrote mine, I couldn’t find any really detailed guidelines online, and the people I asked for proposals from had proposals that were a few years old. Like anything related to the academy, the genre is in flux, but there seem to be some constants. From a few conversations with editors over the last few years, this is what I gather they should be: First, they should be no longer than 2 single spaced pages (with normal margins). One editor described them to be as ‘morning coffee documents,’ i.e. an editor should be able to read through a stack of them over morning coffee. Secondly, it needs to lead with your contribution, not some juicy anecdote (as you may have been trained to lead with). When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense: every project has at least one juicy anecdote, but not every project makes a clear contribution to the field (or they might, but authors might not be able to articulate them yet). Seeing that an author knows their contribution sets a proposal apart from the juicy anecdote types. And, third, the proposal needs very, very short summaries of each of the chapters — like 2 sentences each. The editor should walk away from a proposal having a good sense of what the book is about, but they don’t need to know all of the empirical or structural detail. And bear in mind that most book manuscripts are about 100,000 words long, give or take 10,000 words, and you may need to cut or add to get the book to that length.

Now, in thinking about your contribution, there might be some major changes to your manuscript. Many dissertations are written — explicitly or not — as case studies. They’re rather narrowly focused, and the contribution they’re making is usually to a circumscribed literature. It might not feel that way at the time, but it’s often the case. What many books need to do is realize the more general contribution to the discipline that they make. So if your dissertation was about England, it now needs to be about Europe; or if it was about sleep (as in my case), it needs to be about medicine. Most of this work can be done in the new Introduction you’ll be writing shortly… But it also needs to be captured in the proposal. More than anything else, this is the thing that I find people struggle with. And, as I mentioned above, getting some peer reviews and taking some time off from the manuscript can really help you to see its contents differently. It may also mean doing new research to expand the scope of the manuscript; so, if you’re moving from England to Europe, it may mean doing new research to be able to sustain that transition.

I often tell people that I didn’t know what The Slumbering Masses was about until I was nearly done with its second set of revisions. Which leads me to my big caveat for this entry: I didn’t get my first book under contract with a blindly sent proposal; an editor contacted me about seeing the manuscript based on a conversation he had with a third party who knew my work. He rushed the book through peer review — from my perspective, at least (I wasn’t really ready to send it out, since one of the chapters was only half complete). But I got great reviews back from reviewers that knew it wasn’t a final manuscript, and responded to their reviews in my first round of revisions. When I sent it back, it was a very different manuscript. I don’t think more than 2 pages were the same… And when it came back with more comments, I was able to turn them around relatively quickly to make the final version of the book. So when I say I didn’t really know what the book was about until the last couple months of final revisions, it was that I wasn’t entirely sure of all of the contributions it was poised to make. And once I realized them, I just had to align some of the content differently.

I should also say that I don’t know a single person who has gotten a book contract from an unsolicited book proposal. (If you have, let me know your story.) My editor asks me with some regularity if I know of any interesting books-in-process, and I send him lists of names; I imagine many people have this kind of relationship with their editors. So it’s really important to make sure that the people you know who are getting books published know what you’re working on and what it really looks like — not the five second summary they often reduce your work to.

If you have specific questions about anything related to early stage book manuscripts, post them below and I’ll either address them in comments or in a future post.