Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is in: The Dissertation-to-Book Transition

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I was wondering if you could detail which aspects of a dissertation are most commonly tossed out when it is presented in book format. For instance, while the majority of my dissertation is written as a book, I reserved an entire chapter for methodology. I assume that section will be significantly condensed if not scrapped altogether as a book manuscript? Also, my adviser recommended I should approach certain safe, easy-to-please publishers. But given the amount of work it took to do this project, I would rather aim higher, and send the manuscript to a better-known trade publisher with a wider audience. What are your thoughts on that? And how do I avoid this whole process becoming a massive waste of time and resources?

So ... that is several questions rolled into one, and I am going to tackle them in order.

First: What gets tossed in the dissertation-to-book transition? Think about the function of those two “genres.” A dissertation is a synthesis of your acquired knowledge. It has to persuade your mentors that: (a) You know the body of literature to which you are contributing, and (b) you know what you are doing methodologically in terms of data collection and analysis. Hence most dissertations, at least in the humanities and social sciences, will have dedicated sections for methods and literature review.

But when you are publishing a book, you are not proving anything to anyone, you already have your expert credentials. With a dissertation, you are the student and your audience is your committee; with a book, you are the educator, and your readers are learning from you. You don't need to prove to your readers that you have deep knowledge of your field — they trust that you do. It’s implied by those three letters after your name.

To educate them, you just need to situate your book vis-a-vis the relevant literature, not give the longue durée treatment of every debate in your field and subfield that is even marginally related to your topic. So in the book, the lit-review section becomes much shorter. Same with methodology: Leave in just enough for your audience to understand how you executed the research project. The nuts-and-bolts of how dissertation took shape— the rationale for your particular set of methods, the play-by-play of your methodological microprocesses, the endless appendices with sample interview questions — all gets left behind when a dissertation grows up to be a book.

Now let me turn to the issue of publisher. You write, “I would rather aim higher, and send the manuscript to a better-known trade publisher with a wider audience. In fact, those are two mutually exclusive things. Debates about the ivory tower go on and there is lip service to making disciplinary knowledge more “public.” But at the end of the day? There is the symbolic economy of academic publishers, and you will be penalized in your academic career for publishing a book that appeals to broad audiences. It sucks but it is true.

Unless you are Stephen Hawking, Helen Fisher, or one of the handful of university professors who successfully double as public intellectuals, if you go the “popular” route, many faculty search committees will see you (unfortunately) as an untenurable hack. If you hope to climb the academic ladder, stick with scholarly presses, and, indeed, aim for the top ones in your field — at least to start with.

Now, I'm really unhappy with your adviser telling you to contact low-level publishers. Many an R1-level academic career has floundered as a direct result of publishing with such mediocre presses. The status of the press matters. It matters so much that I've actually blogged about it twice on The Professor Is In blog, here and here. In the first post I wrote this: “The status of the press matters. It matters a LOT. It matters like — choose right and you get a great tenure-track job, a career, and a retirement plan. Choose wrong and you live forever in adjunct hell."

Dramatic? Well, in the R1 departments where I worked you could not get hired, and certainly not tenured, with a book from a weak press. What is a weak press? The answer to that question is field specific, so you must seek counsel from successful scholars in your field and subfield. In general, nonacademic (trade) publishers are viewed as weaker than academic ones — but please do note that different fields have different hierarchies of presses. In my field of anthropology, for purposes of hiring and tenuring, top publishers include the Duke University Press and University of California Press. But the hierarchy differs in other fields.

Study the catalogs of scholarly presses to see who the special series editors are and who is publishing there. Most important, look at the CVs of assistant professors in departments similar to the ones you are targeting. Where did they publish? You want to approach the same presses. Certain book series published by trade presses may be highly rated in certain fields and subfields — that’s why you look at people's CVs. In European academia, there is greater parity between trade presses and university presses. But as a rule of thumb, a book from a university press is better for your career than a book from a nonuniversity press. And to anticipate your objections — yes, this is further evidence of the academy’s insularity, elitism, and resistance to change.

If you are in your fifth year on the tenure track in a department where a book from a trade press will get you tenure (and it will at many R2 universities, and even in some departments at R1s) — and the editor is interested — then absolutely go that route, rather than continuing to shoot for the stars and jeopardize your tenure review. But as you are coming out of graduate school, start with aiming for the top university presses to make yourself as marketable as possible. That is how you minimize wasting time and resources.


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