Revise your diss or start a new book project?
Happy September, Manuscript Workers.
I wrote a Twitter thread a couple weeks back that went mildly viral. It was about the questions I suggest writers ask themselves if they’re on the fence about continuing with a book project:
The thread actually originated as a newsletter I sent out back in the early days of the pandemic, but I’ve found the questions to be evergreen, so I’ve also written them up as a blog post you can read here in the Manuscript Works archive.
In today’s newsletter, I want to address a related issue based on a question I received from a participant in my Book Proposal Accelerator program back in January. I’ve removed identifying details to protect the author’s privacy but here’s the gist of their question:
I'm having second thoughts about which book project to pitch. I've been planning to submit a proposal for the project that's based on my dissertation. I received interest in this project 5 years ago, but I’ve been delayed by the job market and other factors.
My diss topic was controversial so I’m not sure whether publishing a book on it will be a hindrance in future job searches. I’m also honestly so sick of the topic, and am excited about the next project I have in mind. I'm midway through an article related to the new topic, and when I presented a conference paper about it last year, two presses emailed me out of the blue to ask if I wanted to turn it into a book.
Several mentors have since recommended that I do the new project instead, since I'm clearly more passionate about it and it's more topical/relevant/of interest to hiring and tenure committees. But I've already done the research for the first project; it's just a matter of heavily reorganizing and editing it, and adding a chapter (or revising the conclusion) to address major changes since 2014, when I filed my diss. I'm up for tenure here in three years, and I have a 2/3 teaching load, so I don't know how realistic it is to start a new project from scratch right now. But technically I could get tenure with four high quality journal articles in lieu of a book, especially if I had a book contract at that point.
Anyway, I'm not sure if this is something you can advise on, but this indecision is making it impossible for me to move forward with the proposal — I need to just pick a project and run with it but I'm having such a hard time choosing!
While this is a pretty specific question, I also think aspects of this situation are highly relatable across the board for people who are trying to decide whether to sink more time into revising a dissertation-based manuscript for possible publication as a book. Hence me wanting to share my answer here in the newsletter in case you’re reading and find yourself in a similar situation.
My first answer is to trust your gut. If thinking about your diss project and the thought of spending years revising it and trying to get it published as a book gives you a pit in your stomach, that’s information you shouldn’t discount.
A book you don’t want to be working on is infinitely more difficult to write than one you’re excited about, even if you already have a lot of the research done. It could paradoxically take you longer to revise your dissertation than to start a new manuscript, because of all the emotional baggage attached to your diss. (On the other hand, if you’re really invested in publishing your dissertation as a book but still feeling emotionally drained by it, a writing coach may be able to help with that.)
You may be thinking, well I already spent 5+ years working on this dissertation, I don’t have that kind of time to put into a new project. But you know a lot more going into the second project. You know which research methods are more time-consuming, so you can design the project differently if you need to conduct your research and analysis more quickly. And you now know what a big book-length project looks like, so you can be more intentional about planning it. So I wouldn’t assume that writing the new manuscript will take an equal amount of time to what you spent writing your dissertation.
You could even start with a book proposal for the new project — including your chapter map — to set a direction from the start. Starting with this step has several benefits. First, if you are getting approached by book publishers on the basis of conference presentations, you have something you can show them to see if they’re truly interested in your potential book. They may even be able to offer an advance contract if you have a proposal and sample chapter drafted.
A second benefit of drafting your book proposal before writing the book is that it may bring you clarity that you’re not actually that excited about the new idea or that you’re not mentally prepared to start a whole new project from scratch. You can always save the proposal file for later if you decide it makes more sense to go back to the diss book first.
Another thing to keep in mind if you’re considering the sunk cost of the time you already spent drafting the dissertation is that writing the manuscript is just one piece of the labor that goes into publishing a book. There’s also the whole process of pitching it to publishers, revising after peer review, and promoting it so that others in your field are aware of it. Your first published book is a big contributor to your academic reputation and could impact the trajectory of your career. So if the topic of that book is not something you’re very excited about, you’re not going to be very motivated to get out there and promote it. A book that no one knows about or reads or cites may not ultimately be very helpful for your professional goals. So why put in the work of getting it published if you’re not going to reap many benefits from it?
As the question-asker points out, there are ways to get additional value out of a dissertation without publishing it as a book. If you’re on the tenure track, you may be able to get as much mileage from peer-reviewed journal articles as from a book. My advice here would just be to get your institution’s tenure requirements in writing (if at all possible) so that you don’t get any nasty surprises later if they try to tell you that you really did need a book.
You may also be able to return to your dissertation material for Book 2, if you find yourself wanting to dig back in when you’ve gotten some distance from the whole thing. You might need to do a little reframing depending on your topic; for instance, if you were writing on a current phenomenon at the time, you might want to historicize it a bit more. Don’t assume that your research is too “stale” to publish years later — creative reframing can go a long way to pulling the timeless contributions out from research that once felt very timely.
As usual, there’s no single clear-cut answer to the question of whether you should keep working on your dissertation revision or not! There are only factors to consider and feel out what makes sense for you. Whatever you decide, there’s no way to know in advance whether it’s the “right” choice or not. The best you can do is go into the book publishing process with an open mind and a sense of curiosity and then try to make the best of each situation as it comes. I’ll be here to answer your questions along the way!
If you’re working on a book project — whether it’s a dissertation revision or a whole new manuscript — I have a free webinar coming up on September 21st, co-hosted with Jane Joann Jones of Up In Consulting, that you might find helpful.
I’m going cover key aspects of the scholarly book proposal that will help you set a direction for your project and how to write them. Jane will cover making a plan for completion and how to assess the current status of your manuscript.
As an attendee, you will leave prepared to draft an overview of your book and its component chapters and to use your draft to see you through to completion of your manuscript.
A recording of the webinar will be made available to all who register. Live attendance is encouraged but not required.
The Zoom webinar has a capacity of 500 live attendees. We currently have more than 500 people registered, but many won’t show up live (which is fine). If you do want to attend the live presentation, be sure to show up on time at 9am Pacific / 12pm Eastern on September 21st. If you aren’t able to attend live, rest assured that you will still receive a link to the recording.
Please feel free to share this newsletter with friends and mentees who are also working on scholarly book manuscripts. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you back here next week.