From Dissertation to Book

Brian Taylor

May 30, 2011

How do you publish your dissertation as a book? The question has been asked countless times yet still animates scores of ambitious graduate students—and their advisers—in the humanities and social sciences.

Conventional wisdom holds that graduate students should start publishing in journals before they try to turn their dissertation into a book. Get a couple of chapters out there as articles, and you'll be able to test your ideas for the revision. Or so runs the standard advice. The beginning author's route from journals to scholarly presses has been marked out for a long time.

But what if publishing dissertation excerpts in a journal actually reduces the viability of a young scholar's book manuscript? Digital technology is changing the world of information from day to day, and it's altering the relationship between journals and books—and perhaps more important, the stability of that relationship. Journals are now essentially free to most of their readers, who can access university library databases and read them at home. Books, on the other hand, circulate much less easily, at least until university libraries start loaning out e-books.

Do the new digital dynamics change the rules for graduate students (and junior faculty members) seeking to publish their first book? Some scholarly-press editors think so.

I caught up with Leslie Mitchner, the editor in chief of Rutgers University Press, soon after she participated in a publishers' round table on this subject at the University of Connecticut this spring. Mitchner cautioned aspiring authors that publishing substantial excerpts from a book manuscript is "not a great idea anymore, because library funds are so limited that they believe if they already paid for something they don't want to pay for it again." That is: The library already subscribes to scholarly journals, and will already have the writer's work available that way, so buying a book with some of the same information would duplicate the library's holdings.

In the past, said Mitchner, the idea was that advance journal publication "would create a buzz" for a forthcoming book. And Mitchner recognizes that first-book authors will probably publish one article from a book manuscript. But as to publishing a second article, she said simply: "Don't do it."

Chris Chappell, an associate editor at Palgrave Macmillan, echoed that sentiment at the Connecticut meeting. "The more of your book that has been previously published," Chappell said, "the less exciting it becomes for us."

Should young scholars then avoid publishing articles drawn from their book manuscripts? First-time authors need credibility in the marketplace. How can they gain it without such early forays? Well, not so fast.

It turns out that this is a matter about which reasonable editors disagree. "The validation of work in a good peer-reviewed journal is a useful way of seeing that the scholarly community values an author's research," said Ray Ryan, senior commissioning editor in English and American literature at Cambridge University Press. "Any manuscript that comes before me with two essays published in prestigious journals is looked upon as having already had some semblance of peer recognition—the work, not the book—and I think it is still a good thing. I don't see it as undermining book publication."

Jennifer Crewe, associate director and editorial director of Columbia University Press, likewise states that "it is advantageous to publish a couple of articles, especially if you are an unknown scholar."

So how should an aspiring author reconcile the disagreement among editors? That's a problem I'll return to in a moment, but first let me lay out a couple of areas about which editors mostly agree:

  • Don't overexpose yourself. Editors may disagree about precisely how much to publish from your manuscript, but they all agree there is a ceiling on the number of articles you should excerpt from a book in progress—and it's ordinarily no more than two.
  • Be very, very careful about publishing an article that encapsulates the argument of your book. If Louis Menand is right that many scholarly books are "just journal articles on steroids," then writers would also do well to avoid the inverse formulation: Don't put your book on a crash diet to turn it into an article. As Mitchner puts it, "if the core argument is in your article, then no one will want to read your book." That doesn't mean that you should keep your argument a secret, but it does mean that you should not offer up a blueprint of the book to come.
  • Don't make your dissertation available online. Book editors seem unanimous on that point for obvious reasons. Many university libraries routinely add dissertations to their electronic holdings. If yours does, then opt out. If your thesis is already online, then have it taken down. Information may want to be free, as the earliest hacker generation first avowed, but if it's free, then you can't expect a publisher to pay for it, even in a later version.
  • Make sure that your book and dissertation do not share the same title. If you have a great title picked out for your dissertation, save it for your book.

Now let's return to the question at hand: Should you publish in journals in order to herald your book? All the press editors I spoke to based their opinions on the behavior of that elusive and finicky beast, the acquisitions librarian. One false move, the editors were suggesting, and the acquisitions librarian will refuse to buy your book.

To better settle the question, I decided to go on a cyberspace safari in search of those mysterious acquisitions librarians in their natural habitat. So I surveyed about two dozen of them. I went for a deliberately mixed bag of institutions, including small colleges, large public research universities, branch campuses, and private research universities.

The librarians proved remarkably willing to discuss their policies. And when they did, I found myself facing a riddle. Because they're not doing what the editors say they're doing.

David Magier, associate university librarian for collection development at Princeton University, was puzzled by my suggestion that some libraries are tagging book chapters that have been published elsewhere and using that information in purchase decisions.

"This is the first I've heard about it," he said. "I can't imagine a mechanism that could ... do that effectively. And actually, in terms of acquisitions policies, it's hard for me to imagine why we would want to do that anyway." A book, Magier said, can be useful in a way that articles are not.

Kerry A. Keck, assistant university librarian for collections at Rice University, acknowledges that librarians stay alert to catch "recycling." But, she said, "We certainly expect—given the time requirements for publishing a monograph—for authors to use the journal literature as a testing ground for concepts that will later appear in the author's books."

Librarians at small colleges with more limited budgets seem to behave no differently. "This issue does not figure into our acquisitions policy or practices in any way," said Nancy Magnuson, the librarian at Goucher College. "Books and journals are used differently enough that I can't see the article excerpts substituting for the fuller coverage of a topic that is provided in a book." Like other librarians I surveyed, Magnuson wondered how libraries could operate a tagging system anyway. "I'm just not sure how such a practice would work," she said.

The situation is the same at public universities. When asked about tagging, Celestina Savonius-Wroth, a librarian at Indiana University at Bloomington, said, "We don't do that." But she pointed out that the situation is as unstable for libraries as it is for publishers these days. Some libraries, she said, are engaging in "cooperative collection development" (translation: sharing books). And then there's the complicated future of e-books, which, she said, "can't be shared among libraries." As a result, "it's less clear what the best way forward is for anyone in the mix."

That kind of uncertainty could drive a book seller (or buyer) to drink, or worse. "Publishers need to find a place in the new information economy," says Palgrave's Chappell. Otherwise, "you wake up and you're the music industry."

Miriam Rigby, an assistant professor and social-sciences librarian at the University of Oregon, suggested that "publishers are in a panic because libraries are just buying fewer books, plain and simple." Rigby asks, moreover, whether publishers' panic will create policy—unless it already has.

"I am starting to wonder," she said, "if they are, in fact, going to create this problem for authors themselves, by not publishing books that they think are already too well represented via articles. But I hope they're smarter than that."

Me too. If I may presume to advise publishers and librarians, let me ask you to talk to each other. Keep each other informed so that your policies are based on fact, not fear.

And here's a suggestion for aspiring first-book writers: Assume nothing. The current state of book publishing is too precarious for any author not named Stephen King to take anything for granted. Elizabeth Knoll, a senior editor at Harvard University Press who also participated in the Connecticut round table, offered this advice to graduate students: "If your adviser is over 60 or is famous, you should not listen to your adviser about publishing matters. The only people you should listen to for advice are people who are within 10 years of your own age—or me."

Knoll's advice is a good start, but if you've read this far, you know that editors do not speak with one voice. "I think the situation is very fluid at this point," says Columbia's Jennifer Crewe. That's certainly true. So consider your decisions carefully, test the ground before you step, and keep your eye on the horizon as well as the road beneath your feet.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments and suggestions from readers to