10 steps: from dissertation to book contract

Part 1 in the series. So you want to publish your dissertation as a book. Here are 10 steps to getting that done. I encourage others to add more in the comments.

Step 1: Have a decent chunk of work ready to distribute

In general, the book needs to be pretty much written before you can get a contract. Not always. But for your dissertation book, certainly. So have some chapters written which are book chapters, not dissertation chapters. Preferably all of it. You have to be ready to circulate this material upon request. It’s not a great idea to put in a proposal without work ready to go. By “book chapters not dissertation chapters” I mean text that reads like a book reads. In general dissertation chapters have specific puzzles that are set up, rather heavily, by literature reviews. And usually books don’t look like this. They tend to have much of the set up happen in an introduction, and literature is less “reviewed” than it is used as specific puzzles are taken up. Or perhaps better, unlike dissertation chapters which often read like “here is the literature… now here is me,” books are often utterly more self-indulgent. “Here is me, and here is some literature that relates to me.” This is obviously a broad generalization. But a good way to discover this is to find two people who came out of your department (or any department!) whose books you like. Get the dissertation it’s based off. And compare. The differences should be pretty clear. As a second point: it’s always good to have a model to work off. So pick a book you like (preferably a dissertation book), and think through how the person made it a book. It can be a great guide.

Step 2: Write a Proposal

Here is the proposal I wrote for my dissertation book, Privilege. Those of you who have read the book will notice some differences between what the book is, what it claims it will be — this is normal, I think. Projects evolve. Here is a copy of the the proposal for my next book which is a more traditional proposal. That book will also be with Princeton — so keep in mind both are with that publisher in mind. Also note that I already had a relationship with the publisher by the time I wrote this second proposal. So it’s not a polished or developed as it might have been if I had done all the research and/or was approaching the press “cold.” If you’re going to use one of these as a guide, I would recommend the proposal for the new book. Primarily because it has a more traditional form (brief description, full description, chapter outlines, comparables, potential market, additional info).  Some people write very technical books, or books for very specific audiences. Others write for general audiences. You can sell a lot of books for a particular audience, or, for a general audience. For the proposal, make sure you note how your work fits within the audience it is trying to reach. Be honest here. If you will write for a specific academic audience, don’t pretend like you’re writing “Gang Leader for a Day.” Keep in mind that the language of the proposal should reflect the way in which you intend to write your book. It is like the book, in miniature. And so quickly conveying the puzzle, the answer, and the narrative style is really important. I’ve written three proposals in my life. And in general, they take me about a month to do. I find this work enormously rewarding, and maddeningly difficult. Why? Because basically you have to convey an entire book in two pages (single spaced). But doing so helps you understand what your project is really about. Keep in mind that this is exactly what you have to do when going on the market (when writing about your dissertation to search committees). So some of the work of the proposal can be double-dipping. Don’t rush the proposal. Remember, it’s what the editor is going to look at first, and on the basis of seeing it, the editor will decide if it’s worth reading anything more and sending your work out for review. Also keep in mind that it’s the first look that many future reviewers of your work will get of your work. You want to impress. Spend lots of time on the proposal.

Step 3: Have someone read your proposal

A sociologist who knows your work, and someone who does not. I would recommend that this person who does not know your work be a “general” reader. Someone who knows sociology but isn’t in the field you’re writing on. If you’re writing for a general audience, have a non-sociologist non-academic read the proposal as well.

Step 4: Identify Presses

Presses have “lists.” This means they have kinds of books they publish. And when you think through where to send your book to be published, you should think through where other books in your related field are published. Some places publish lots of historical sociology. Some places publish none. Some have a lot in education, or economics, or psychology; some seem to publish a lot from particular methods. Pay attention to this. Because editors don’t just think about how good your book is. They also think about how well it fits in with what the Press does. Don’t know what’s on the “list” of a Press? Well, look at your bookshelf and see where books like yours are published. Or look at publishers websites and see what kinds of book they publish. Finally, when you write your proposal and talk about comparable books, you might want to mention books that the press has published — ones that place the book within the context of the “list.” These need not be strictly sociology books. So, for example, if the Press does lots of books in education and your book is in the sociology of education, that’s a good fit.

Step 5: Make a connection if you can

People often pretend that sociology isn’t ruled by the processes it studies (or moralistically, that it shouldn’t be). But it is. So social connections matter. They aren’t everything. But they can help. So if you know someone who has worked with an editor before, and they are willing to make a connection, see if they will put you in touch. Committee members are ideal for this. Be delicate here. It’s hard to ask directly “hey, can you put me in touch with your editor?” But you might do something like ask for advice on approaching the editor. And most folks will take the hint and make a connection for you. I realize this piece of advice advances inequality within the discipline. Because folks at “elite” schools have a greater likelihood of having connections with editors than those who don’t. But if you don’t have a connection remember: connections aren’t everything. They can help. But the absence doesn’t hurt.

Step 6: Send your proposal!

Congrats! If you made a connection with an editor, immediately follow up with the proposal. In short, make sure to time this well. Editors get lots of proposals. They will forget who you are if you wait 6 months. So time your introduction with when your proposal is complete. I would recommend just sending the proposal, and noting in the email that you can send chapters if there is interest. But you can also certainly attach a sample chapter as well. Okay, now for the tricky part: sending to multiple places. In general, Presses would prefer to be like journals. So they’d like to be the only place you send a proposal off to. Get a chance to review, and make a decision. This is in their interest. But it’s not clear that it’s in yours. So I would send a proposal to more than one publisher. That is, treat this not like a journal submission, but a job application. That said, I wouldn’t send the proposal out to LOTS of publishers. Two to four maybe. After that it’s a lot. Plus, you might get useful feedback in the process, which can make subsequent drafts better. And you don’t want to exhaust all your options immediately. However, if you do send your proposal to more than one place, I think you should tell the editor this. Something like, “I have sent this proposal to two other publishers, but am particularly interested in you because the books first with your list for X reasons…” Be honest here.

Step 7: Wait

This is the worst part. As always. Take the time to keep writing. Write write write. They may ask for more material, depending on the extensiveness of the review process. Be ready to send more work in if need be. In general, the Press will send your proposal out for review to two people. The reviews come back, the editor makes a call about them, and then gives the review, with a statement about the book, to a board. Which will then vote on the book. This varies from place to place. But it’s basically what it looks like. At university presses the board is often made up of some faculty from that University, almost all of whom will not be sociologists.

Step 8: Talk to the editor

You can/will have opportunities along the way to chat with potential editors. Now is a good time to get a sense of this person you will be working with (particularly before they’re trying to buy your book). Ask them about the process, etc. See what it will be like to work with them. This is really important. Did they actually read what you sent and think about it? Did they have things to say about it? (Maybe suggesting for tweaks of the proposal before sending it out for review). Your editor is very important. Get a sense of the person.

Step 9: Get a contract — or, go back to step 6 and repeat.

If you didn’t get a contract, chat briefly with the editor about why. Be nice! You may go back to this person again in several years when you’re working on book 2. But it’s a good idea to get feedback — what can be improved, etc. — from an editor. Then you can go to other Presses with a more polished proposal. If there is feedback from reviewers, take it seriously too. It will make your project better. Once you’ve gotten a contract: CONGRATS! If you have the proposal out to multiple places, tell the editors who haven’t gotten back to you yet. Again, I recommend sending out the proposal to more than one place. But not LOTS of places. Two or three makes sense to me.

Step 10: NEGOTIATE

This is really important. And I’ll talk about it in the next post.

14 thoughts on “10 steps: from dissertation to book contract”

  1. Another note: Book publishing feels qualitatively different to me than journal publishing. In article publishing, a lot is routine and bureaucratic. In soc, there’s a norm that most papers will be given a hearing. Not so for books. Editors may chose to read proposal for any reason and not explain themselves. My experience with editors ranges from excellent to frustrating. I’ve had bad journal editors, but at least they are obliged to explain their actions. So be prepared – book publishing can be a very jarring experience.

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  2. Very helpful post! Any further suggestions for point 7, when the reviews of the manuscript have come in and the editor asks for a letter addressing the changes suggested? How long/specific should such a letter be?

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    1. I think the trick here is actually much the same as dealing with journal responses. So (1) you give a characterization of the critiques, (2) you talk about those you will deal with and how, and (3) you talk about those you won’t deal with and why.

      For example, in the review of the next book one reviewer asked that I write more seriously about the history of capitalism. It was a totally reasonable request. But it would have meant writing a different book. So I firmly stated I would not do so. Overall, my response to the reviews was about 2000 words. For the kind of proposal I wrote, which was fairly “conceptual” at the time (by which I mean much of the research was yet to be complete), I needed to show my chops a bit. This meant taking up criticisms, acknowledging that I knew the terms of the debates, and positioning myself within them.

      Finally, it’s important to be respectful of criticisms. Sometimes we authors haven’t thought of things we should have. Two reviewers of mine pointed me to things I should have thought about more carefully. I acknowledged this, and committed to do so through the rest of the manuscript. Signaling that you will be responsive to critiques is wiser, I believe, than signaling that you know everything and the reviewers should stop being so annoying.

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  3. Awesome of you to share this. I went to a writing panel at ESS this weekend that really focused on the need to write clearly, be a storyteller, and avoid (or at least explain) jargon. First place to do it, the proposal. Second place, the book.

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  4. Regarding point 7 — “The reviews come back, the editor makes a call about them, and then gives the review, with a statement about the book, to a board. Which will then vote on the book” — and bedhaya addresses this as well, in my experience every editor has wanted a statement from the author in response to the reviewers which will also be provided to the board. Shaka’s response to bedhaya on this point is very fine.

    My question is what do you do when more than one editor wants to take your proposal to their board? Anyone have ethical problems letting that happen? I don’t, but maybe there are some norms in play I am unaware of.

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    1. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but I would be careful here. This is a time where I would really talk to the editors, and get a sense of them. I know of plenty of cases where people have gotten multiple contracts and used them to get a better contract. So it’s certainly something that’s done. And in my next post I’m going to recommend that you really bargain your contract, particularly on language. But, I would also keep in mind that you will never be rich from your book. What your book gets you is a job (maybe tenure?!?). And that job is where you will make money to live. In general the contract margins we’re talking about here are tiny: 7.5% vs. 5% of the net price of a book which on average will sell less than 1000 copies (so if it sells 1000 copies, we might be talking a difference of $400). Now, $400 isn’t nothing. But it’s not worth burning bridges with editors over. My advice would be to talk to editors before you go to the board and see which Press you feel the most comfortable at. Tell them that you have the potential to go to a board elsewhere (convey that they should give you as competitive a contract as possible, given your book). But I would decide on fit (indeed, that’s how I did decide). It’s going to be a long process from further reviews to editing to picking blurbs and covers and everything else. You want a team you like. So I’d think about that before thinking about trying to get in as many bids as possible. But my last bit of advice: don’t close any doors until you’ve signed a contract. You might not like the one you get from the Press you go with. Or things might fall through. You never know.

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  5. Very helpful, Shamus – thanks. I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem to have two (or more) editors take it to their boards, but it’s important to be upfront about the fact that that’s happening. Also unless the book has a very significant nonacademic audience, I don’t think there’s much likelihood of changing the press’s standard contract, at least by much.

    I know of a couple of current and former academic press editors who read scatterplot – anybody care to comment?

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  6. I am so grateful to Shamus and Fabio and everyone else that takes time to help illuminate the field. There are too many books that don’t get published because the authors are poorly informed about this process.

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  7. and something so obvious — your book should be interesting. or at least make it seem interesting. who wants to read a book that’s not interesting? increasingly, who wants to publish a book that’s not interesting? you might be better off squeezing that diss for as many journal articles as you can, where interesting is not much of an issue, and then moving on. i couldn’t figure out how to make my dissertation an interesting book (really, just a book, interesting or not), so didn’t. (that’s poor graduate student-ing on my part, not figuring that out in the diss proposal stage.) giving up on it was the best thing i could have done. it gave me the time to work on the next project, which became the first book. and that was a good move and a far better, interesting book than the diss ever could have been.

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      1. of course not, olderwoman, and you are absolutely correct! we’re academics and journal article writing is our bread and butter. but i think more broadly, some stuff is better suited to articles and other stuff to books. some things i’ve written and am working on are just not suitable for (interesting) books, while other stuff is more bookish but would likely never be accepted for publication as a journal article. they’re different animals…

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