I am curious: How early is too early to approach a book editor? I’m just beginning work on my dissertation but I already have a pretty good idea of what the book I want to get out of my thesis would look like. Do I need to wait until I have a proposal available to approach a book editor? Or is it good to start the conversation early with potential publishers?
That depends on what you mean by “the conversation.”
On the one hand, a very common mistake is believing that your dissertation is going to be basically ready to be published as a book the moment your defense is finished. Writing a dissertation is not like writing a book — but that distinction may seem abstract and insubstantial to you until you have written both a dissertation and a book.
As I have mentioned previously in this column, the differences in the final version of a diss versus a book will reflect their different functions. The dissertation is about providing evidence of sufficiently accrued expertise to your mentors, and showing the ability to situate your own in-depth project in a broad context of disciplinary conversations and debates that have stretched from canonical classics to the latest fashionable “turn.” It will likely have an entire chapter that is a literature review, and a substantial methodology section — because you will be showing that you know what you are doing.
By contrast, a book is about deploying your earned expertise to advance the knowledge in your field. The literature review and the extensive methodology section will no longer be necessary in a book — because once you have your doctorate, it is assumed that you know what you are doing in terms of the basics of method and theory. Publishers know that dissertations do not automatically equal books, and many academic presses say straight up on their guidelines that they do not consider unrevised dissertations for publication.
So what I am saying is: If you approach a book editor and say, “I am writing my dissertation and it will make a great book, are you interested?,” chances are, they will say, “nope.”
On the other hand, you can approach book editors as a resource — not yet pitching anything, but getting a clear sense of what they will be looking for. That way, you can indeed write your dissertation with an eye to the book it will one day become. The best place for those conversations is at the book exhibit of your national conference, if that is a thing in your discipline. So go to the book exhibit and scope the joint out.
Note that editors will be busy with book receptions and board meetings as well as lunches with under-contract authors whose manuscripts are overdue. But for much of the conference, they will be attending to their stalls at the book exhibit, and many will welcome an opportunity to talk with an emerging scholar, and give you guidelines and feedback as to what they like to see, in terms of structure, length, and even topic and angle. They might say “we already have a couple of books coming out on Your Subject but X and Y about your research is a fresh perspective so if that was the central focus of your manuscript, we would likely be interested in seeing it.”
As for approaching an editor with an actual pitch, I recommend doing that when you are ABD — but only after your defense date is on the horizon and you have written the bulk of the dissertation. For those conversations, first off, read this post and click through the links for further advice. You should have a book proposal — if not in hand, then close to ready. For my advice on book proposals, please read this. You have to have considered all of the ways in which your book will not be like your dissertation, and all of the ways in which the book will sell — ideally to large intro classes of several hundred students each, taught at all colleges and universities across the land. Effective book proposals include a marketing section, and for most editors, that may well be the most important part of the document. If editors ask you for a book proposal, you want to be able to get the ball rolling quickly. They won’t expect the proposal the next day or the next week, but if you can follow up within three months or so, that is a good window to aim for.
This is also a strategic move for your job search: You can honestly say in your cover letters (if indeed this is the case) that you have been in conversations with editors at X University Press and Y University Press, and they have requested a book proposal or expressed interest in seeing a sample chapter.
In sum, have a clear understanding of the different ways in which you can approach editors, and the appropriate timelines for that. Use editors as a resource to help you shape your book, and be proactive and ready to show that you are serious by approaching them at the right time — just as you are getting ready to defend your dissertation and preparing to go on the job market for the first time.