advice · from dissertation to book · writing

From Dissertation to Book: Choosing a Publisher

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Before I went through the process of working to get my dissertation published–or rather, before my dissertation was finished and I wasn’t sure yet what or how good it was going to be–I was worried about any publisher wanting it. Never mind thinking about having a choice of where I’d like it to be published, about finding the best fit for me and the project.

Don’t be like me!

When it comes to publishing your dissertation, you have many choices and considerations:

  • Where to submit your proposal
  • How to frame your proposal for different presses and tailor how you present the project to suit a publisher’s style and mandate
  • Which editors you’re most interested in working with
  • Which publisher is going to give you the most say in how the book turns out in the end
  • Which publisher has a vision for the project that aligns with yours.
  • Which press pays the best royalties, or has the best marketing department, or does the best book design.

In my case, I shopped my dissertation manuscript to two presses in which I was particularly interested, having done my research about all of the possible options and their various strengths. One was a very traditional university press with a strong track-record in Canadian literary studies (my primary field) and the other a younger and more innovative university press with a strong and growing list in Canadian life writing (my genre). My relationships with the acquisitions editors to whom I sent my proposal came about in the twisty, unexpected way that is as often the norm as a straightforward pop into the publisher’s booth at a conference: one editor I had worked with during my brief stint at a university press between my Master’s and PhD; the other editor reached out to me about the possibility of writing an entirely different book after reading my work on H&E and seeing some of it at Congress, and then became interested in my dissertation manuscript during our conversations.

What came next was the same for both editors–a series of coffee meetings and the exchange of ideas about what I had in mind for my biography of Jay Macpherson and what they thought their press would and could do with the project. I wrote a formal proposal, although I didn’t necessarily need to, that we used as our basis of discussion. Because I have a very strong vision for the project–that it be accessible in style and cost, that it be a ‘partial life’ and not a cradle-to-grave biography, that I have significant control over format and design–I shared the same proposal with both editors, despite the very different profiles and approaches of their presses.

In many ways, finding a publisher for my manuscript felt a lot like my most recent job search. I was ready to move on, but I could afford to be very selective–I had a good job, one I could stay in until the just right thing came along. And so when I was interviewing for new positions, I was interviewing potential new employers as much as they were interviewing me–did our interests and approaches align? did we have the same vision for my role? did the idea of working together excite us both? I ended up choosing to work for a place where the answer to all of those was (and continues to be, nearly three years later) yes.

Meeting with publishers was much the same. As we met and discussed, we were both assessing if our interests and approaches with this book aligned, if we had the same vision for the manuscript, if the idea of working together excited us both. It became clear pretty quickly that one press, in particular, had a vision that aligned very closely with mine, and, moreover, that the editor had ideas for the book that I hadn’t even thought of but were both inspiring and exciting. Because I was clear about what I wanted from and for my book, it also quickly became clear to me that working with the other, more traditional press, probably wasn’t something that was going to work well for either of us–they ultimately wanted something in line with what they’ve always done, which would have meant a book that was less accessible, affordable, and innovative than I wanted.

Choosing a publisher also, to a certain extent, felt a little like dating: how much did I connect with this editor? Could I see myself working with them for a couple of years to shepherd this project into the world? Would they make me as a writer and thinker, and the book, better? The clincher came when I took a headlong sprawl across the sidewalk on my way to meeting the editor from the younger press. She handled my showing up bloody, bandaid-strewn, and late with aplomb, and I realized that I could be myself with her–a whole person who writes books, not just a writer or a brain in an unwieldy, bruised body. A project of this magnitude takes your whole self to complete, especially when you work in life writing and are committed to a personally-engaged kind of scholarship the way I am, and I wanted to work with someone who didn’t expect otherwise.

I decided what was important to me in publishing this book, and I found a press that supported those decisions. What’s important to you might be different–it might be prestige, or money, or a different kind of editorial relationship–but you can, and should, decide and then find what you want. Academic publishing might be a buyer’s market, but it’s not so much one that you don’t have choices.

So I wrote to that other editor to let him know that I was going to go with the publisher whose vision aligned more closely with my own, rather than revising the book to meet his publisher’s expectations, and I signed my first book contract. My biography of Jay Macpherson should be coming out with Wilfrid Laurier University Press sometime in 2019, and I’m having a ball with the revisions. I’m also super excited to see how this book turns out, as my editor (the delightful and brilliant Siobhan McMenemy) and I have a bunch of ideas about how to do something innovative and accessible.

And next up in the series: contract negotiations!

advice · book · from dissertation to book · research · writing

From Dissertation to Book: Academic Book Publishing Resources

If you’re anything like me (and many of the PhDs I know), your first instinct when facing a problem–in this case it’s “how the hell do I get my dissertation published?”–is to research it. Me too. And I’ll save you a step! If you’re looking for helpful books, articles, and webinars on writing your book proposal and getting your manuscript published, you’ve come to the right place.


Books


Articles


Webinars

 

 
Know of any great resources that I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!
#alt-ac · dissertation · from dissertation to book · writing

Why I Want to Publish My Dissertation (Even Though I’ll Never Be a Professor)

When I decided in 2012 that I’d never go on the faculty job market, progress on my dissertation stalled for, oh, three years. Sure, I took a demanding job in research administration not long after, which made dissertation writing harder in practical terms. But my real issue with dissertation writing was psychological. Without a good reason to finish this proto-book I was pretty sure no one was ever going to read, I couldn’t find the motivation to make progress on it. Sitting down to write was mental torture.

After I’d been in research administration for a couple of years, I came to the conclusion that while I didn’t care all that much about finishing my dissertation for its own sake, having the PhD as a credential was going to be necessary for the career path I was envisioning for myself. I moved into a similar but less overwhelming job with a walking commute (which helped a ton), and over the course of the next year I finished writing the last two thirds of my dissertation. All told, it took me almost exactly eight years to get my PhD: I started the program the day after Labour Day in 2008 and I defended four days after Labour Day in 2016.

It’s been six months since I defended, and after a long period of waffling, I’m actively pursuing the publication of my dissertation. One press is awaiting my proposal with interest, and I’ve got conversations in progress with another. The proposal will go out by the end of the month (I’m writing both it and this post on a little DIY writing retreat I put together in mid-March), and we’ll see what happens from there. I’m a little surprised that this is a path I’m going down, because like finishing my dissertation, I was resistant to the idea of publishing it for a long time.

It’s not the idea of holding a book I’ve written in my hands that I don’t like. In fact, I like the idea quite a lot–I got to do it recently with this beauty, and it feels awfully nice. It’s the idea of reentering the dysfunctional and exploitative academic systems that I purposefully removed myself from when I decided not to become a professor. I will perform a frankly offensive amount of unpaid labour to get this book out, labour that won’t even be compensated by academic capital that I can use on the job market. (I’ll have it, but I have no need or place to use it.) The press and editors I work with will be underpaid for all of their work. The book, if it does really well, might sell 500 copies. It will be too expensive for most people to buy, and the university librarians I so respect and love will have to balance purchasing it against their shrinking budgets and the demand to buy ever more expensive science journals. It might come out in paperback eventually, which will help make it more accessible, but people will likely have forgotten all about it by the time it does.

So why am I doing it, given all of these good reasons not to?

It turns out that I care enough about this research–this person, really, as I write about one woman, poet, publisher, and professor Jay Macpherson–to make all of that not matter. Macpherson came to Canada as a refugee in 1940. She was part of what we now know as the ‘war guest’ program, the one that placed British children who were in danger of being killed or injured by German bombs in Canadian foster homes. Separated from her family, not well treated by her foster family, terribly lonely, and terrified about the fate of a world that seemed on the verge of apocalypse (is this sounding familiar?), she started to write. And her poems helped her–and can help us–think through how we deal with living under the threat of annihilation, our culpability as members of a society that ignores and abuses children, what happens when we don’t see ourselves in the books we read, what its like to navigate one’s own queer desire in a heteronormative and patriarchal society. Perhaps most importantly, Macpherson wrote her way to a place where her poems became a gateway to a better imagined world, one where finding the common roots of our stories, myths, languages, and loves could break down the barriers that lead to violence, war, alienation, death.

Macpherson’s poems weren’t always so hopeful. After the loss of a great love (which I think was a combination of a total loss of poetic inspiration and the end of her relationship with Northrop Frye), she went silent for nearly twenty years. Her second (and last) major collection, Welcoming Disaster, calls upon her old myths and some new ones to think through how to rebuild one’s world after a personal sort of apocalypse. And yet, despite everything she suffered–being abandoned, abused, marginalized as a woman scholar and poet, cut off from her gifts–she never became wholly disillusioned. If anything, Macpherson turned her energies even more strongly toward using her verse to make the world better, to helping those with less love or power or hope than she had. She spent the latter part of her career mostly writing political poetry and protest songs aim at righting the wrongs she saw in the world.

It was the fifth anniversary of Macpherson’s death yesterday, and it’s time for more people to know these stories than me, to absorb them into their own personal mythologies and use them, as Macpherson did, to remake the world in new and better forms. That might not be very many people, given the reach of an academic monograph, but I want it to be more people than just my committee and me.

And that’s why, despite the fact that I’ll never be a tenure-track professor and there are all sorts of reasons not to, I want to publish my dissertation.

(Thanks to Lisa Munro, who is also doing the same kinds of thinking, for inspiring this post.)

academic publishing · book · from dissertation to book · networking

From Dissertation to Book: Doing Your Research

 

I defended in early September, and after awhile spent ignoring my dissertation completely, I’m about ready to turn my attention to it again. Six months isn’t a terribly long time to put it aside–I know lots of people who have taken a couple of years before moving to the monograph stage–but I’m always looking for a new project. And happily, the next stage in this one is one that PhDs are already really good at: research.

Let’s assume that you’re at the same stage as me in the process of transforming your dissertation into a book. Your pre-proposal online sleuthing needs to get you the information you need about two key things: the presses that you’re interested in submitting your proposal to and the acquisitions editors at those presses to whom you’re going to direct your pitch (we’ll get to that in a minute) and then your proposal.

The first question you need to answer is the question of which academic (or non-academic but scholarly–think Routledge) presses have a mandate and a catalogue that most closely match to your manuscript. This might seem counter intuitive–don’t you want to pitch to a press that isn’t already publishing competing titles? Ideally, no. You want to find a press that has proven strengths in your field, and that’s going to see your book as fitting neatly with their strengths and priorities. Plus, you’re going to do such a good job in your proposal of explaining the distinctive value proposition and contribution of your book that it will be clear to the presses you’re sending your proposal to that your book will occupy a unique but complementary place on their list.

So your research is going to be aimed at helping you do some monograph matchmaking. The best ways to figure out which presses you want to date are to:

  • Scan your dissertation bibliography and remind yourself about the books that were the most important, and closely related, to your research. Which publishers did they come out with? Were there a number clustered with one press? Put that press on your list to explore further.
  • Talk to mentors and colleagues in your field. Who have they published with recently? Which presses are doing (and publishing) interesting and innovative work in your field or subfield? Which ones come highly recommended? Which acquisitions editors do they know and trust?
  • Review the online catalogues of the presses you identified in steps one and two, including recent and forthcoming titles. In which catalogues do you find your book’s textual kin (a term I love coined by academic consultant Cathy Hannabach)? (Make sure you take notes on comparable titles that you find during this stage of research, as they’re going to form a key part of your proposal).
Once you’ve done your research and narrowed down the presses to which you’d be interested in submitting a proposal, it’s time to begin researching those elusive and deadly creatures–the acquisitions editors (AEs). These are the people to whom you’ll submit your proposal, and their job is to acquire, as the title suggests, new titles (books) for the lists (subject areas) they represent and specialize in. (You find lots of PhDs in AE roles, because they come with built in expertise and academic networks that help them source and evaluate new book proposals and titles to publish). AEs are the gatekeepers, and in pitching or proposing to an AE, you’ll need to convince him/her that:
  • your book fits the press’s mandate and 
  • your research and approach is excellent and
  • your book has a strong market and 
  • you’re more worth talking to and considering than the next guy
Here’s where your online research and academic network comes in. Who do you know who knows the AE responsible for your subject at the presses in which you’re interested? What is his/her approach? What feedback have others gotten on their proposals? What kinds of things is the AE just not interested in at all? What books are in the press’s pipeline that haven’t show up in the catalogue yet but are relevant to your looking into comparable titles and fit? Use that information to customize how you frame your book in the next stage.
What that next stage is varies. You may choose to do the convincing above via your proposal and cover letter, which I’ll talk about in the next post in this series. Or, you might start with a less formal email or conference pitch, which is the route I’ve gone. The logic is this: you’re a busy person, as are the AEs to whom you’re sending your non-insubstantial (somewhere in the realm of 10 pages, and always customized to each press’s requirements) proposal. (You might be wondering why I’m talking in plural here. Unlike journal articles, it’s totally okay at this preliminary stage–right up to when a press asks for a full monograph–to be in discussion with, and to send your proposal to, more than one press.) Why do that work without knowing that the press is even interested? And why not send your proposal to an AE who is already interested in and awaiting (eagerly, one hopes) its arrival?
Many people pitch their books to editors during meetings that they’ve set up at the big academic conference in their field, and lots of people have great success doing it that way. Karen Kelsky (aka The Professor Is In) has a handy post on how to approach the conference pitch, and a fantastic script for exactly how to talk about your book to an AE. For those of you like me who aren’t always at our annual meetings because of non-academic work commitments, for whom the timeline of the conference doesn’t match up with our plans, or who would just rather write to someone than pitch in person, email is the way to go. Many editors also prefer email pitches to in-person ones, either because of personal preference or because their conference schedules are packed–your research into the AEs for your subject should help you figure out which is the case and allow you to plan accordingly.
The script for an email pitch is very similar to the in-person one Karen gives above, with the addition of the fact that you should always try to leverage useful connections when reaching out to editors. Has your supervisor published with this press, worked this AE, and recommended that you pitch to him/her? Mention that in your email. Did you work with the AE for your field during the gap year you both took between your Master’s and PhDs? (True story!) Then make reference to that prior connection when you reach out. As with hiring managers, AEs are likely to pay closer attention to people who are already in, or come recommended by someone in, their network.
The best-case (although unlikely outcome) of your research and pitch is an invitation to submit a full manuscript. More likely, you’ll be asked to submit a proposal, but with the advantage of it being a solicited proposal to which the AE is already kindly disposed. And because the research you’ve done at this stage is laying a solid foundation, your proposal–which I’ll talk about next time–is going to be stellar. So get pitching!