From Dissertation to Book Contract in Seven Steps

This week, Erstwhile presents a guest post from Kara McCormack, a Thinking Matters Fellow at Stanford University. Kara recently completed the process of getting her dissertation under contract with the University Press of Kansas, and shares her experiences about the process with us.

Hard Work, Humility, and Luck: From Dissertation to Book Contract in Seven Steps

When I was writing my dissertation, in the back of my mind I knew I wanted to get the work published one day. More pressingly, however, I needed to meet the requirements of my department and the individual demands of my committee members.

Once I graduated and miraculously secured a three-year post-doc, I was free to return to research and the quest to publish. I decided it was time to send my dissertation – now called a “manuscript” – to one or more academic presses I thought would be the best fit. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t even really know what to do. I found out along the way – and fortunately I had a great experience. While I solicited the advice of my former committee members, my advisor, and mentors, I mostly went with my gut in determining the best approach for me.

Many blogs will advise you to begin by editing your dissertation into a “publishable manuscript.” This was not very helpful to me because I had little idea how different a publishable manuscript would be from my finished dissertation. I didn’t feel comfortable digging into the project without a better understanding of what I needed to do. So I moved this particular step to somewhere later down the line. That said, my dissertation was a complete manuscript, and essentially what I want my book to look like. If your dissertation is overly laden with jargon particular to your field, is filled with literature reviews or sections you feel need to be greatly reduced or augmented, you should give it an initial edit before you begin the rest of the process. You should give it an initial edit anyway, as your voice may have changed since you completed your dissertation and you’ll most likely find cringe-worthy passages you want to change before you start the rest of the process.

For me, the process went this way:

  1. Find a suitable press.

The first thing I did was look for a press that was a great fit for my project. I went to my bookshelves and removed all the books I found to be the most relevant to my own research. Almost all of them had been published by the University Press of Kansas (UPK). That made my decision easy. If you want to send your manuscript to more than one press – which is acceptable, though you should keep it to two or three – you should let the editors at all the presses know.

  1. Do some research on the press.

The press’s website is a goldmine of information that could help you make the connection you are looking for. It will lay out all of the books and series the press publishes along with the editor(s) for each series, as well as give you the details on how to submit a book proposal and to whom. You may also seek out independent information about the editor(s) and the press. I discovered an interview with the UPK editor-in-chief in which he states that the press was looking to bump up their American Studies (my discipline) titles. Perfect!

  1. Craft a proposal based on the press’s requirements.

Most academic book publishers will have a portion of their website dedicated to new authors, with links to submission guidelines, manuscript preparation guidelines, and other information pertinent to sending your manuscript in for consideration. In addition to telling you the word limit for your proposal, the press will most likely require your proposal to include the subject, argument, and contribution to the field; intended audience; research methodology; length of work and number of illustrations; an annotated table of contents; and status of work (whether it’s a complete manuscript or a work in progress).

**At this point, I would also advise you to format the manuscript according to the guidelines they lay out on their website. That way you’re prepared to send it in if/when asked to do so. More on why in step five.

My proposal was nine double-spaced pages, approximately 2,600 words. I relied heavily on my abstract and dissertation introduction to develop the proposal, in addition to using the guidelines UPK provides. My goal was to make it concise, unencumbered by jargon, and inclusive of everything UPK required. It not only described the work, but also reflected my writing ability and style—both very important to the editor’s decision on whether he would want to read the manuscript.

In addition to your proposal, some presses might request that you send a sample chapter with your proposal. Some might mention that you “may” send a sample chapter. Others will not mention it. UPK does not require and I did not include a sample chapter with my initial email. If you write a strong proposal, your proposal appropriately represents your work and who you are as an author, and the editor likes your proposal, then the chapter may not be necessary.

  1. Email the press.

Most presses will have specific acquisitions editors for each series or topic they publish. At UPK, that person for me was the editor-in-chief. Editors receive a lot of manuscript submissions and proposals every day and I wanted to ensure my email stood out somehow. In the subject line, I wrote “Manuscript Proposal – American Studies,” and that seemed to work well. In the body of the email, I introduced myself and wrote a brief description of the work and what sets it apart from others he may have seen. For example, I told the editor, “While the work makes use of the methodologies of the history profession, it is decidedly an American Studies work, with popular culture studies at its core. It combines extensive film analysis, archival research, built-environment analysis, and ethnography to offer a comprehensive cultural study…” I told him that the work has the potential to reach a number of different audiences, and that it seemed suitable specifically to UPK because of a number of its other publications with similar approaches. (I included the authors and the titles of works I was thinking of.)

  1. Wait.

I have heard stories of people waiting for up to two or three months to hear back from the press. To be honest, I thought I’d have this amount of time to do some minor edits to the manuscript before being asked to send it in (if I was asked). But since I had targeted UPK specifically, I heard from the editor within four days, asking me to send in the completed manuscript formatted according to their guidelines. At this point, I got a little panicked, and felt it would have been prudent to format the manuscript and get through the manuscript before emailing the proposal.

  1. Send in your manuscript and wait again.

I was asked to email the manuscript as well as mail in a hard copy to the press. Again, I had to wait. This time it took about three months to hear back from the editor and the reviewers what they thought of the manuscript and whether they believed it publishable. Both of my reviewers gave extensive comments and suggestions to improve the work, comments and suggestions that will be vital to the revision process. As it turned out, one of the reviewers recommended publication with revisions, but the other did not. The editor-in-chief and the series editors were optimistic that with a carefully crafted response to the reviewers’ concerns, everyone would agree on the viability of the project and a contract would be forthcoming.

  1. Craft a detailed, grateful, respectful response.

To me, this was the most important part of the process. I needed to speak to every comment my reviewers made with a pointed approach or justification – either to the revision they requested or why I left it the way it is. I was also forced to truly consider what my book is about, what my main argument is, and how it is situated within the field. It was imperative that I demonstrate my authority on the topic and my knowledge and conversation with scholarship that informs my work, that I explain my choices, and that I show how I would edit particular paragraphs and conduct further research in accordance with their ideas. My response was 14 single-spaced pages (approximately 7,200 words). This may seem long, but I felt strongly that it was as long as it needed to be.

I cannot express how appreciative I am to my reviewers for doing such close readings of my work and for giving me such detailed comments. I am indebted to them for helping me – as now I see how my dissertation and my book will be different. I tried to express this in my response as well. It is humbling to read what amount to criticisms of a project you’ve been attached to for years. But it’s imperative to keep in mind that your reviewers are only trying to help you craft the best book possible, one that covers the necessary bases and that will be valued and valuable upon publication.

Apparently, all the effort I put in to my response paid off: the editorial board agreed, and I received a book contract – almost exactly six months after my initial email to the editor at the University Press of Kansas. I don’t know whether my experience is typical or not. I can tell you that my hard work was matched by my luck at deciding UPK was the press for me, partly because my project and the press are such a great match and partly because the people I’ve worked with so far have been so welcoming and supportive. I’m now onto the revisions and am looking forward to learning more about this process as I go.

s200_kara.mccormackKara McCormack, PhD is a Thinking Matters Fellow at Stanford University. She received her PhD in American Studies at the University of New Mexico in 2013. Her research is situated in cultural studies and popular culture, with emphases on the Mythic U.S. West, tourism, heritage, and science fiction.

Featured image by Flickr user danielmoyle.

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