Q&A: What If A Press Approaches You About Publishing Your Dissertation and Wants to Move Quickly

N. asks: I’m in a situation where my dream university press wants to see a revised book manuscript in short order on the basis of a diss abstract and a zoom conversation about the project, essentially skipping the proposal stage. I have many questions about the craft of the book introduction, which will need to be rewritten, and other points of revising the chapters. They want something end of fall term, cue my panic!

My Answer: First, congrats on this interest, which I’ll bet feels very validating after years of toiling away on a dissertation. This press showing strong interest in receiving your manuscript indicates that they think you have a marketable topic and approach, which is a great sign. (It also might indicate that other presses could be interested too—more on that in a minute.)

It’s good that you understand you’ll probably need to revise the dissertation in order to make it a viable book manuscript. I don’t have anything formal written up that will tell you how to do that, but I do have this template for book introductions and this Twitter thread on differences between dissertations and books (which includes some recommendations of some guides intended to help scholars who are revising dissertations). I hope they help. But I also want to address your question in another way that I hope will help specifically with the panic factor.

Which is to say, slow down. It’s great that this press has shown interest, but I would advise you not to let that speed up your timeline to something faster than you’re comfortable with. A good, supportive scholarly publisher will want you to take the time you need to make your scholarship as good as it needs to be, both to satisfy yourself and to make the intellectual contribution you want it to make. Your manuscript will have to win the support of peer reviewers and the publisher’s editorial board. An acquisitions editor’s enthusiasm counts for a lot, but you’ll have to produce something that satisfies those other gatekeepers as well. I don’t know your career situation, but you may also need to produce a book strong enough to anchor a tenure case. You may be able to do that within six months, but your publisher won’t be doing you any favors if they rush you to do it in less time than you truly need only to have everything fall apart during the peer review or board approval phases or to have the book end up feeling half baked when it’s published.

The other thing I hope you’ll slow down and take some time for is determining whether this press really is the right partner for your project. You mentioned that they’re a dream press for you, which is great. Have you done the research to determine why they’re a dream press for you? Have you gotten satisfactory answers to all your questions about their process? Are there questions you maybe haven’t known to ask but should? This press may still come out on top once you’ve done your due diligence, but I think you’ll be able to look back and feel more confident that you made the right choice if you take some time to think about these things before committing to this press.

My last piece of advice would be to strongly consider writing (at least drafting) a proposal for your book, even if that doesn’t seem to be a requirement from this press in your case. I have a few reasons for this. First, the process of writing the proposal can give you clarity on the book you want to write, the readers you want to write it for, and how you want to structure it. Forcing yourself to get clear on all of that in advance will make your revisions easier because you’ll have a much stronger sense of direction and benchmarks to use when deciding what should end up in the book and what doesn’t need to be there. You could save yourself months of writing in circles.

The second reason I encourage you to write and submit a book proposal is that it’s a very useful document for people inside the press to use when assessing whether they think your book will be a good investment. Again, your editor isn’t the only one who needs to believe in your book, and some of the other people who need to be convinced may not take the time or effort to read your whole manuscript. They could take your editor’s word for it that your book is great, but a short document that explains the core thesis and contributions of your book, along with its points of market appeal, could make a difference if the reader reports end up mixed and the editorial board needs a little extra convincing that the press should publish your book.

Finally, having a proposal written gives you more power to take your project to another press if it ever comes to that. You could also use the proposal to have some additional conversations with other publishers between now and when you submit your manuscript to the first one who asked you. You might find that several publishers are interested and you have a little bit more control over the fate of your book (and your timeline for revision) than you initially expected.

Maybe you’ll have those conversations and do your research and still feel the first press is your dream press. That’s great and you can still let them have an exclusive look at the full manuscript if you feel ready to show it to them at the end of fall term. But overall, I want you to feel more like you’re driving this process and less like you’re just lucky to have anyone show interest. I’m not saying you have to play hardball with the publisher, but I do want you to feel good about how it all goes down rather than feeling pressured or bullied by anxieties that say you have to jump when a publisher says jump.

I know this is probably not the answer you were looking for when you sent me your question about revising your dissertation. I don’t mean to rain on the parade at all, because you should definitely feel great about the interest your project has received. But I also hope this advice helps you see the bigger picture and the longer game and ultimately feel satisfied in a sustainable way about your publishing future!

The timing for this question was kind of perfect, because I happen to have a way to help you and anyone else do research on potential scholarly publishers to identify the best fits—or reinforce with evidence that your dream press really is the best partner for your book. It’s a free 5-day challenge I’m calling Find the Perfect-Fit Publisher for Your Scholarly Book and it starts on August 11th. You can sign up now if it sounds like it would be useful for you.

Register for the challenge