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Mythbusting, scholarly publishing edition
On publishing from your dissertation and publishing from outside the academy
Hello, Manuscript Workers!
I was hoping May would be a month of rest and renewal for everyone after a rough few months, but it doesn’t seem like it’s going to shake out that way. If your mind isn’t on your scholarly book project right now, that’s completely understandable. If you’re still plugging away, I’ll keep putting out the newsletters to help.
A couple quick announcements before we get to the myths…
There are still a few spots remaining in this year’s Book Proposal Accelerator which starts in June. It’s always hard to predict exactly how enrollment day will go, so thank you to everyone who signed up right away to ensure your spots. If you weren’t able to sign up on Monday or you meant to do so and just spaced, now’s your chance to grab one of the remaining seats!
If the Accelerator isn’t quite the right fit for your needs but you’re still looking for a structured program to help you complete a book proposal this year, my Book Proposal Shortcut for Busy Scholars is also open right now.
This program is mostly non-interactive (without the Accelerator’s feedback component), but it will guide you step by step through drafting a proposal, making it stand out from the crowd, and pitching your project to publishers as efficiently as possible. It also includes a library of sample documents, plus lessons delivered in audio and video formats in addition to written. And I do hold periodic office hours (about once per quarter) for participants if there’s ever a question you can’t figure out on your own.
On to today’s discussion…
Myths of scholarly publishing
As you well know if you’ve had any exposure to the world of academia or academic publishing, these systems seem to run on a set of mysterious and largely uncodified norms that are opaque to outsiders.
The institutions within these systems are also heterogeneous — something that seems to be true at one place and for one set of people actually doesn’t hold up everywhere. So an insider in one location could be an epistemological outsider elsewhere.
This context is ripe for misconceptions and recirculated myths about how things work. In academic publishing, a senior scholar might have a particular experience with a publisher or hear an editor express a particular preference and then pass that on to their mentees as if it’s universal. They may not realize that the advice offered can be counterproductive for someone in a different position or working with a different press.
It’s not necessarily their fault — they hopefully mean to be helpful — but it’s the reason why advice about publishing that is based on a single person’s experience has to be taken with a massive grain of salt. It’s also why even my advice about publishing can never be completely generalizable — there will always be idiosyncrasies and exceptions because editors and publishers don’t all follow a single set of rules and procedures.
That’s why it can be helpful to crowdsource answers to certain questions. By talking to a lot of different authors and publishers, we can get a sense of which rules seem to hold up in many different contexts and which can be debunked or at least cautiously messed with. I have the benefit of having worked with hundreds of scholarly authors and seeing a whole range of publishing experiences up close (and even then I can still be surprised).
It’s great to be open to advice from others and to talk to as many people as you can about the process before you embark on it. But the last thing I want is for someone to self-reject out of the publishing process based on inaccurate or only partially accurate information.
That’s why today I want to address two myths I’ve recently heard from authors who haven’t yet been through the publishing process. They’ve heard these from individual mentors or even from specific publishers. While I don’t want to say these myths can never be true in any situation, I do want to offer some alternative views here, backed up by lots and lots of data points.
Myth #1: Publishers no longer publish revised doctoral dissertations.
I think most everyone understands that publishers won’t accept an unrevised dissertation for publication as a book. But I’ve talked to authors who are also under the impression that publishers don’t even want revised dissertations. Maybe some editors in some fields are actually saying this, I don’t know. But empirically, it’s just not true that scholarly publishers aren’t accepting book manuscripts that began life as dissertation projects.
I’ve worked with authors who have published dissertation revisions with dozens of scholarly presses, including Oxford UP, Cambridge UP, Harvard UP, Princeton UP, Yale UP, Columbia UP, Duke UP, University of Chicago Press, University of California Press, University of Minnesota Press, University of Michigan Press, University of Illinois Press, University of North Carolina Press, MIT Press, Stanford UP, SUNY Press, Fordham UP, Rutgers UP, NYU Press, and more I’m probably forgetting. This has all been within the last few years.
For more evidence that it is still possible to publish a book from a dissertation, see this Twitter thread with hundreds of replies from authors and publishers who did just that.
Yes, you will need to be thoughtful about audience and how to present your dissertation material in an engaging and marketable way in order to get book publishers interested. You may need to rethink the manuscript structure, clarify your ultimate argument, and reframe your contribution so it’s more broadly legible. But it can absolutely be done.
If you speak to an acquiring editor about your project and they wave you off saying they don’t publish from dissertations, you may need to do more of the transformative work necessary to convince them you can position your project as a book. Or it’s possible the editor simply won’t see your project as a good fit for their publisher and finds it more convenient to use the dissertation excuse rather than explaining the nuances of why they don’t see a fit. Either way, if this happens to you, it’s not the end of your publishing journey, just the beginning of some homework you may still need to do—to reframe your project and to identify better-fit publishers.
(By the way, I’m hoping to offer a public workshop later this year on how to do that dissertation reframing homework. If you’re subscribed to this newsletter, you’ll get the info about it when it’s available!)
Myth #2: Scholarly publishers have policies against acquiring books from people who aren’t employed in the academy.
I heard this one recently from an unemployed scholar whose mentor had warned them off specific presses citing such a policy. But these policies simply don’t exist (at least I’ve never heard of them if they do).
Do some presses and editors value the prestige of a scholar’s employing institution? Sure. Does an author’s position sometimes factor into calculations about how the book can be marketed and whether the author has the visibility to move copies of the book? Yes. Do snobbery and elitism exist in some parts of academic publishing? Yep, unfortunately.
But many, many presses and editors are open to proposals from writers from outside the academy and from writers who are precariously employed with in it. Again, you can see lots of evidence of this in the replies to this Twitter post.
Debunking this myth shouldn’t be conflated with saying it’s easy to write and publish a scholarly book without the resources of an academic institution behind you. It’s especially frustrating when you feel the expectation to produce a scholarly book to even get access to the resources of an academic institution (I’ve been there — I published my dissertation book while in a visiting position teaching three classes per semester and the book didn’t ultimately help land me a permanent job).
On the other hand, if you are writing your book without the pressure of an academic job search or tenure case, you may feel more freedom to write the book you truly want to write and to find a publisher who can support you in that (which may not be a scholarly publisher).
Which publishing myths have you been hearing lately? Gotten some advice and wondering if it could really be true?
Send it my way and I’ll try to tackle more myths in future newsletters!