A New Romance: Turning Your Dissertation into a Book

Very few scholars are able to just take their dissertation manuscripts and submit them as books. (I definitely couldn’t). Most theses and dissertations are not fully set up as books. Adding to that, your graduate work may not quite be up to par for what a press wants and needs. Don’t be discouraged, though. I’ll walk you through the process so that when you are ready, you’ll know what to do.

Career-wise, when should I transform my diss. into a book?
Are you in a discipline that requires books, not articles, for tenure?
Yes. Start right away. Identify a mentor or two to guide you in this process.
No. The general advice given is to publish several articles from your dissertation and then seek a book contract when you are closer to tenure.

Has an acquisitions editor approached you about publishing your diss.?
This is not common. It does happen, however. If you are in a discipline that typically expects articles first, seek advice from your chair and a mentor on whether it would be best to wait or to embrace the opportunity.

How do academic books and dissertations differ?

Obviously there are similarities. Both use primary research, include plenty of endnotes, and aim for an audience of scholars. However, they are not interchangeable.

  • You wrote your dissertation to prove to your committee that you were worthy of the Ph.D. Your book is not this same demonstration, but needs to have its own purpose, independent of you as the writer.
  • Dissertations contain lengthy theory and method chapters. Books typically incorporate these components into the introduction.
  • Dissertations thoroughly explicate every concept. With books, you define terms, but don’t allow the definition to distract from the purpose.
  • Dissertations may be much longer than their book versions. Books need to be succinct, with a clear purpose for each paragraph and chapter (other than to satisfy a committee member).

I’m ready to turn my diss. into a book. How do I get started?
Unless you’ve been told otherwise, assume that your dissertation is not book-ready. So what should you do? You’ve spent years pouring yourself into this masterpiece, your pride and joy, a sliver of your soul that earned you the title of “Dr.”

It is time to break up with your dissertation.

What I mean is that you need to rethink what this manuscript is as you shift from a student looking for faculty approval to an author working on a book. This isn’t your dissertation anymore. It is a first draft, one that will be edited, revised, cut, expanded, reorganized etc. before the manuscript will be ready for submission.

  1. Begin by reading through the dissertation on the computer (or a printed copy). Don’t look at the fancy bound book. Again, think manuscript. As you go through your work with fresh eyes, jot down notes to yourself. What works well? What could be cut? Added?
    I remember feeling so nervous with the first edit, like I was undoing the recommendations of my wonderful advisers (who were very helpful in the book-writing process). Fortunately, revising became easier the more that I changed.
  2. Identify what needs to be changed in your dissertation. Are there statements that have become outdated? For me, the Affordable Care Act was passed in the time between my 2008 dissertation and its book version in 2013, greatly changing what I wrote about universal healthcare. If you have a similar time lapse, you’ll also likely find that you’re a better writer 5 years later.
  3. Create a new Table of Contents for your proposed book. It will likely look different from your dissertation’s ToC. Unless your book focuses on developing a new theory or method, weave these elements into the introduction. Don’t include separate chapters on them.

Special Considerations for Getting the Book Contract

I wrote here about how to get a book contract. With your dissertation-turned-book, the process is just a little different. You have the manuscript almost ready to go, therefore, your estimated completion date can be much sooner. You’re still going to revise, of course, but it probably won’t take as long as writing a full manuscript from scratch.

One word of caution: write a new pitch for your book manuscript. Don’t use an excerpt of your dissertation abstract or a snippet from your dissertation elevator pitch that used to get your tenure-track job. Acquisition editors aren’t looking to see if you, Dr. _________, are capable of future scholarship. They care about your book. Period. Does it fit with their existing series? Is the topic intriguing? Aptly justified? Appealing to readers? Be professional in your correspondence, in which you will provide a clear and concise statement of purpose, identifying the scope and audience for your proposed book.

Embracing your new “love.”

As you edit and revise your dissertation into a book manuscript, it will start to feel differently than writing in your grad school days. You are not giving up on what you held dear, but moving forward in the development of yourself as an independent author. I strongly recommend having mentors. Yet keep in mind that this relationship is different than the advisor-advisee one. Ultimately, this is your work and the first step toward your next book.

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