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To Mention Your Dissertation or Not
Here’s a question that comes up frequently among scholarly authors who are preparing to pitch first books: should I mention the dissertation in my book proposal or not? I think the confusion around this arises from the fact that as an early career scholar you are constantly being told that publishers don’t want dissertations, yet at the same time it seems as if all the people you went to grad school with are publishing books based on their dissertations. With good presses too. So what’s the deal? Will you tank your chances with a press if you reveal that your project was once a dissertation? Are all your grad school buddies somehow concealing this fact from their editors in order to land their book contracts?
The deal is that publishers aren’t interested in unrevised dissertations. Is this because editors are unfairly prejudiced against dissertations? Maybe, but it also has to do with a project’s audience, scope, and tone. In order to make economic sense for publishers, scholarly books have to reach audiences far larger than 3–5 people, whereas your dissertation really only had to make sense to your committee. In order to reach larger audiences, a book needs to have a bigger takeaway than dissertations often do. And it needs to be written with the reading and learning experience of the audience in mind. Dissertations are rarely written stylishly, and that’s fine, because their purpose is thoroughly utilitarian. Some people write beautiful, engaging dissertations, and good for them, but most of us were probably just happy to get the thing fully typed and submitted.
So, ok, let’s say you’ve taken a hard look at your dissertation and determined that you can revise it into a book manuscript that will appeal to an audience of hundreds or thousands of readers. You’ve zeroed in on a pretty good idea of just who those readers are and you’ve figured out how to reach them. You’ve expanded or refined the central argument, you’ve come up with a through-line that connects all the chapters, and you’ve arranged the material into a compelling narrative arc. You’ve done away with all the jargon and literature review and minutia of methodology. You have a book manuscript on your hands now, not a dissertation anymore.
But the question is still there: should you mention your dissertation in your book proposal? There are a few different ways to approach this! One way is to not bring up the dissertation at all. Let the proposal for the book stand on its own terms and see if an acquisitions editor wants it in its current form. Now, a savvy acquisitions editor is going to look at your CV and probably do some internet research about you, and they will likely discover that you wrote a dissertation on a similar topic to your proposed book. Will you be in trouble if they find this out without your telling them? If they liked the book you described in your proposal, I don’t see why they should have a problem with finding out it’s based on your dissertation. But, in the interest of transparency, you might go the other way and reveal the project’s origins in your dissertation up front. I have heard some acquisitions editors even suggest that the prospective author include a few paragraphs in their proposal explicitly describing how they have revised (or plan to revise) the manuscript so that it no longer looks like a dissertation. Including this material gives you a chance to really assure an editor that you won’t be turning in a dissertation when it comes time to have the manuscript reviewed.
I usually recommend a middle way between these two approaches. In my opinion, if you do a good job in the proposal of showing that your project has a clear central argument, that it makes a substantial contribution to scholarship in a given field, and that it has a well-defined audience, you’ve already provided implicit proof that you are not submitting an unrevised dissertation (or that your dissertation was much more book-like than most). In other words, if your book proposal does what it needs to do, your editor won’t even be worried about your dissertation looming in the background. You can then mention passingly (perhaps in the section of your prospectus where you talk about previous publication of any material to be included in the book) that the project began as your doctoral dissertation but has been revised substantially for publication as a book. The rest of your proposal will inspire confidence that this is true, and if the editor has more questions they can discuss them with you as needed.
Ultimately my answer to the question of whether you should mention your dissertation in your book proposal is that I don’t think it’s going to make or break your chances of getting an editor interested either way. If you think that writing a paragraph or two about how you have transformed your dissertation into a book would help to establish your authority and the viability of your project, go for it. If you don’t have a lot to say about the revisions (or you haven’t undertaken them yet), maybe don’t mention the dissertation for now, or just do so briefly.
This is also a good question to run by acquisitions editors in advance, if you have the opportunity to chat with them before you submit your proposal. Tastes vary (sometimes in seemingly arbitrary ways), so it’s always a good idea to find out your target editor’s preferences ahead of time, if you can. But again, I say, don’t stress too much about this detail. Get your project description, working title, and readership right, and you’ll get editors interested regardless of whether you’re working from a dissertation or not.
A brief reminder that I will be in Honolulu at the same time as the American Studies Association conference next month, and I’m setting up in-person Quick Proposal Evals while I’m there. This service includes me reading your proposal draft in advance and then having an hour-long meeting where we go over what you’re doing well and what you might want to tweak before you shop the proposal to presses. We can also talk submission strategy or anything else you have questions about regarding the scholarly book publishing process. If you’re planning to meet with acquiring editors while at the conference, a Quick Proposal Eval can be a good way to get a boost of confidence before you go into those meetings. I have just a couple spots left for the afternoon of November 8th, so please reach out if you’d like to get on my schedule!