From Dissertation to Book, Second Edition

From Dissertation to Book, Second Edition

by William Germano

Paperback(Second Edition)

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When a dissertation crosses my desk, I usually want to grab it by its metaphorical lapels and give it a good shake. “You know something!” I would say if it could hear me. “Now tell it to us in language we can understand!”

Since its publication in 2005, From Dissertation to Book has helped thousands of young academic authors get their books beyond the thesis committee and into the hands of interested publishers and general readers. Now revised and updated to reflect the evolution of scholarly publishing, this edition includes a new chapter arguing that the future of academic writing is in the hands of young scholars who must create work that meets the broader expectations of readers rather than the narrow requirements of academic committees.

At the heart of From Dissertation to Book is the idea that revising the dissertation is fundamentally a process of shifting its focus from the concerns of a narrow audience—a committee or advisors—to those of a broader scholarly audience that wants writing to be both informative and engaging. William Germano offers clear guidance on how to do this, with advice on such topics as rethinking the table of contents, taming runaway footnotes, shaping chapter length, and confronting the limitations of jargon, alongside helpful timetables for light or heavy revision.

Germano draws on his years of experience in both academia and publishing to show writers how to turn a dissertation into a book that an audience will actually enjoy, whether reading on a page or a screen. Germano also acknowledges that not all dissertations can or even should become books and explores other, often overlooked, options, such as turning them into journal articles or chapters in an edited work.

With clear directions, engaging examples, and an eye for the idiosyncrasies of academic writing, From Dissertation to Book reveals to recent PhDs the secrets of careful and thoughtful revision—a skill that will be truly invaluable as they add “author” to their curriculum vitae.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226062044
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/18/2013
Series: Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing Series
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 184
Sales rank: 589,304
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

William Germano is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences and professor of English literature at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Previously, he served as editor in chief at Columbia University Press and vice president and publishing director at Routledge. He lives in New York. 

Read an Excerpt

From Dissertation to Book

By William Germano


Copyright © 2013 William Germano
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-06204-4


Why This Book

The morning after defending the doctoral thesis is the first day of a scholar's brave new world. But aside from recommending that you publish, graduate schools rarely take the time to explain just what you should do with your dissertation. There's an expectation that the student is on the brink, or that this excellent piece of new scholarship will naturally find its place in the academic firmament. But how to get it there? And in what form?

Senior professors are often too far from the process to give useful advice. Junior faculty are usually just as puzzled as graduate students by the mechanics of scholarly publication. But each year, many dissertations are written, and some are published. Among those, a few become widely read works that transform not only what but how we think.

To the new PhD's eager question—"What do I do now that I'm done?"—this book offers answers rather than an answer. There can't be just one. The key to any of them, though, is revision.

Revision can mean a lot of different things, maybe especially for scholars. Young academics talk about revising their dissertations when they mean they will do hardly anything at all, or rewrite every sentence, or settle for something in between. This book is in part about what can be done with a doctoral dissertation, choosing among your options, and moving forward. Wherever you begin, and whatever investment of time and energy you plan to make, your goal is to take something already written and make it more.

Taking that dissertation and making it "more" isn't a straight path. It's a curving route with loops and off-ramps. Yet once you know where you want to go, there are more and less efficient ways of getting there. From Dissertation to Book is itself meant to be a map, charting out your possibilities and giving you driving instructions.

In more than twenty-five years as an editor of scholarly books, I saw hundreds of books through to publication. As any editor knows, you whittle down thousands of proposals to get to those chosen hundreds. My job also gave me the chance to work with other editors on the books that they were considering for publication. Sometimes I learned most from reviewing a thick stack of proposals other editors were keen to put forward. This part of the job is what I've described as editing from ten thousand feet up. An editor-in-chief has a few minutes to study how an editor presents a rationale, a marketing strategy, and a financial analysis, as well as what outside reviewers have to say, and what the author's own words tell about clarity and purpose. In ways I could hardly articulate, this book is a product of my engagements with all those manuscripts and proposals. When I formally left publishing for academia, I found that publishing hadn't quite left me. I've continued to give workshops and lead seminars on scholarly publishing and have been fortunate to be invited to speak at institutions of different scale and with different missions. But however diverse those colleges and universities may be, they have one thing in common: all are inhabited by scholars with ideas and the desire to see those ideas brought to light for the use of others.

The difficult academic market has dispersed ambitious and talented young scholars more thoroughly than ever before. To land a tenure-track job at an institution one has never visited—or perhaps even heard of—before the on-campus interview is no longer strange. The consequence of the shortage in fulltime jobs is that highly desirable candidates are being taken up by institutions that might never have had a crack at them a long generation ago. In recent years I have had more than one conversation with a university administrator expressing delight (bordering on disbelief) that the upside of the terrible job market has been that that institution landed its first hiring choices—a privilege very few colleges and universities can enjoy and none can take for granted.

For readers of From Dissertation to Book this state of affairs has two consequences.

First, we—scholars, their advisors, hiring committees, and publishers—need to be reminded that there are talented, productive teacher-scholars across a broad compass of institutions. There have always been fine teachers at every level of academia, but this market is now sending them into every corner of the scholarly world. New PhDs will go into think tanks and research libraries and other organizations affiliated with colleges and universities. Some will take positions at colleges and universities that are not teaching slots—as student advisors, foreign program directors, registrars, fundraisers, communications specialists. Into those nonteaching positions will go scholars eager to see their research interests turn into scholarly publications.

Second, the rising tide of adjunct faculty is a direct consequence of the paucity of full-time slots. As the percentage of part-time faculty increases, so there will necessarily be an increase in the sheer number of part-time faculty with scholarly projects in search of publishers. One of the unresolved political issues within the modern academy is the conflict between institutional mission and a reliance on part-time appointments. From Dissertation to Book aims to function as a sort of writing coach. This book can't resolve the larger structural conflicts within the academy. But it's important to recognize that as doctoral students earn their degrees and face a market that offers even fewer full-time positions than it did an academic generation ago, there will be more scholarly labor in danger of disappearing off the academic face of the earth.

At exactly the same time that the academic labor force is struggling to determine what opportunities lie ahead, scholarly publishing struggles with its own survival issues as it faces questions of technology and dissemination, declining institutional support and shifting outlets, changes in reading habits and access, and the clamor for free open access.

It's hard to write a dissertation, a challenge to transform it into a publishable manuscript, and a matter of skill and luck to get it published. In the second decade of the twenty-first century it's also a challenge for scholarly publishers to make space within their publishing programs for first books.

Both the professoriate and the scholarly publishing world seem always to be operating in crisis mode. It would be funny if it weren't true. The process of transforming dissertations into books involves more than accommodating the needs of young professionals and assessing the realities of the marketplace. It's also part of a larger effort to identify and preserve advances in knowledge. Not every dissertation moves forward our knowledge of a subject, but it's impossible to know twenty years in advance which early works in a scholar's career will open doors for the big breakthroughs.

The mechanisms by which publishers select first books for publication are closely bound up with the ways in which dissertations are rethought and reshaped. In making their selections, publishers are not only choosing what projects best fit the market. They're also quietly making bets on what new constructions of ideas will become foundational for the work in fields we know well and fields we can't even name yet.

* * *

Publishers and academic authors view books in ways that overlap, but that are hardly identical. Academics, like all writers, tend to think that a great book idea is its own justification. Publishers want something that can stand as a book, not just a good idea indifferently presented. That means getting some key things right—shape, length, voice—so that the audience the author believes is out there will want the result enough to buy it.

It can be a shock to hear that your wonderful thesis now needs to be entirely rethought. A young scholar's writing life begins with an apparent contradiction: a dissertation needs to be written, yet no publisher has to want it when it's done. I meet a lot of scholars frustrated that academic publishers seem to brush off what graduate schools oblige their students to produce. But scholarly publishers look for at least two things in a proposal beyond a great idea and dandy prose. One is the author's credentials—how an academic's training and appointment enabled him or her to write the book in the first place. The second is what we call the author's platform. By that we mean the reputation and visibility the author has already established, and how, acting together, they will help get the intended book to its audience. You don't have much of a platform coming straight out of graduate school, but during a career of writing and publishing and lecturing, you can build a wider base and on it build broader ideas for broader audiences. Revising your dissertation, as unglamorous an activity as it may be, is the first step in creating a structure to climb.

Scholars know that our appetite for knowledge, right alongside our ignorance, grows daily. But what we call "the market" continues to undergo radical changes, making access to ideas increasingly challenging. The appeal of digital formats and the highly complex issue of open access put greater and greater pressure on traditional scholarly publishers. Libraries buy books (the things with paper pages) ever more cautiously. Readers read differently. We look for answers or information, preferring a short ride on a search engine to the slower and more complex demands of a book. Independent bookstores, once a haven for scholarly works, are an endangered species of commercial life. Neither campus stores nor the chain giants (often the same thing) can provide all that the academic community would like to see on the shelf. It's much harder for a scholarly book to be published today than it was thirty—or even five—years ago, and increasingly unlikely that, once published, it will appear on a bookstore shelf.

Faculty members now approaching retirement came of age when it was possible to have highly specialized work published by a leading university press. These days, young scholars are often thinking about the second book before tenure—even though there are senior faculty in their departments who were tenured on a handful of articles and never went on to write a book at all. Buddhist calm might be the best response to this inequity; bitterness and resentment certainly won't help. The best advice I can offer is to be pragmatic: take your own strengths and make them stronger.

These are hard times for scholars and for their publishers. Yet even in hard times, it's important to remember that many dissertations can become manuscripts strong enough to be considered for publication, and a good number of them can become books. It's possible to revise a dissertation and to turn it into something more, but to do this well means first taking stock of what one has and what it might become. Turning a dissertation into a book manuscript is one option facing the recent PhD. But it isn't the only one. A dissertation can become many things—a single scholarly article, a handful of them, a specialized monograph, a broader scholarly work, a trade book, even the seeds of two or more distinct projects that could occupy the author for decades.

Some dissertations do get turned into books that attract a sizeable readership. Those dissertations keep on speaking years after publication. Martin Jay's Dialectical Imagination and Kate Millett's Sexual Politics began as doctoral theses. So did Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, Mitchell Duneier's Slim's Table, and Jill Lepore's The Name of War.

Each year scholarly publishers present the reading public with first books that may become essential reading in their fields. A few recent titles by authors who began with dissertations and finished with successful books: Leor Halevi's Muhammad's Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), Isaac William Martin's The Permanent Tax Revolt: How the Property Tax Transformed American Politics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), Karen Ho's Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), and Alondra Nelson's Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

However much publishers may complain about the surfeit of PhD theses, however much editors may say they rarely consider them, there are always hunter-gatherers at scholarly houses who want the exceptional dissertation. Of course, editors pay particular attention to award-winning dissertations in their commissioning fields. But word of mouth is still the editor's secret weapon. Every successful scholarly editor relies on a network. Trusted faculty advisors can identify the most promising dissertations being written in the discipline, and if you're writing one of them an energetic editor may be in touch with you before you've hammered out chapter 3. What to do if an editor approaches you while you're still writing your thesis? Listen, discuss, and be appreciative, but don't be distracted by even the most persistent editor's enthusiasms. Getting your dissertation written, approved, and filed is your first and most important responsibility. After that comes the set of questions this book will address. Yes, the academic market is a harsh place, but if you're working on a dissertation about which you're genuinely excited, don't panic. If you have written an outstanding doctoral thesis, chances are still very good that at least one publisher would like to talk to you about it.

But what makes a dissertation outstanding to a publisher isn't exactly the same thing that makes it outstanding to the scholarly community. The winner of the prize for the year's outstanding thesis in the field of Kwakiutl grammar may have made a signal contribution to the study of linguistics. A publisher, however, will see the prize only as a validation of the dissertation's academic quality. That might be enough to get a foot in the door. An outstanding book would be something more, as well as something different.

Perhaps the author has explained a feature of this language in such a way that those of us who haven't studied Kwakiutl can understand something new about the way speech expresses notions of space and time. Maybe the author has gone further and posited something that shifts, if only by a few degrees, how we understand language acquisition. In that readjustment could lie a revolution in a discipline's thought. In order to accomplish this, though, an author would have to think in terms of more than the usual two dimensions of academic writing—page length and density of footnotes.

The dissertation is usually the longest work the young scholar has ever written, an exhausting trek across the scholarly tundra. At some level, it's natural for that young scholar to see the dissertation's length itself as in some way symbolic of her achievement. After all, every book any of us picks up has a heft in our hands: whether it's a physical book in physical hands or a digital book in our metaphorical hands, a book is a substantial thing. All writers want their books to be substantial, to have the weight capable of conveying the richness of the author's thoughts. But—and it's the biggest but a first-time academic author must grapple with—the length of a book manuscript must be the result of the thought working inside it, not the thought's precondition. Nobody should set out to write a 350-page dissertation, even if that turns out to be exactly what the writer produces. In the early nineteenth century a German scholar published a dissertation in biblical studies that changed thinking about the composition of Deuteronomy. It was some eighteen pages long. In our day a dissertation on Michelangelo by the art historian James Elkins ran to six volumes (three for text, two for illustrations, and one for notes). The length of a dissertation, however, has nothing to do with reaching a broader academic readership; real books are different.

* * *

Getting length right is only part of revising the dissertation. Moving from dissertation manuscript to book manuscript involves finding within the thesis what can be of value to a broader readership. It also means finding what will interest you, the author. This process is neither magical nor mysterious. It involves taking that interesting material you wrote and shaping it, lopping off the boring bits required to demonstrate how well you know your subject, and assessing the utility of all those different scenarios in which you apply your particular insight. It also involves stretching your interesting material in ways you may not have originally foreseen. Remember how Silly Putty, that venerable semisolid entertainment, lifted a cartoon image from the newspaper so you could stretch the figure into new and unintended shapes? The stretching was the fun part. In rethinking your dissertation, imagine your subject in terms of its plasticity. Revision offers a kind of freedom. Try to have some fun with it.

Excerpted from From Dissertation to Book by William Germano. Copyright © 2013 William Germano. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 Why This Book
2 Getting Started, Again
3 Nagging Doubts
4 The Basic Options
5 Reading with an Editor’s Eyes
6 Planning and Doing
7 Getting into Shape
8 Making Prose Speak
9 The Snow Globe and the Machine
10 What Happens Next

Three Checklists
For Further Reading

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