Conference Report: From Dissertation to First Book

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Fall 2017. Vol. 29 Issue 3, pp 4-5.

Hannah Wohl & Gemma Mangione,
Northwestern University

The Culture Section Professionalization Workshop is an annual ASA session that provides graduate students and junior faculty with professional development resources relating to academic writing, publishing, and career opportunities. For ASA 2017, we organized “From Dissertation to First Book,” featuring two recent first book authors (Michaela DeSoucey and Terry McDonnell), a university press series editor (Jenn Lena), and a university press editor (Eric Schwartz). Panelists were asked to share their advice on writing and publishing first academic books. For those who could not attend the workshop, we have included summary comments from our panelists, edited for length and clarity.

Michaela DeSoucey, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, North Carolina State: My presentation discussed my research timeline, book contract process, and manuscript writing advice. First, accept that the whole thing will take much longer than anticipated. The job market (4 years before landing a tenure-track job); multiple moves (for myself and an academic spouse); and a new baby all interfered with the time and mental bandwidth necessary for my book writing. Most academics I know have faced something(s) in their lives that has slowed down their work. Second, I wanted an advance book contract for the job market (and it helped me). So I really spent a lot of time working on my prospectus, including developing very detailed chapter descriptions. The ‘backstage’ work included an ever-evolving file called “What The Heck Is This Book About?” Third, some general advice: cultural sociologists often work on “quirky” topics. Be thoughtful about articulating why other sociologists should care. Also, an ethnographic monograph needs an interesting story. As my first editor advised me: “Don’t be boring.” Finally, be open to the manuscript changing. Almost none of the sentences in the book are from my dissertation. After receiving reviewer comments, I dropped a chapter. A friend told me her chapter order changed three times. A book is like an iceberg: 10 percent shows above the water’s surface, with 90 percent supporting the invisible data and analysis beneath.

Terence E. McDonnell, Kellogg Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Notre Dame: First, speak with book editors early in the process. I drafted a book proposal before talking with an editor, and editors weren’t interested. After speaking with editors, I learned where their enthusiasm lay, which would have improved my proposal and the chance of an early contract. Second, pursue the book you want to write. I initially pitched a book that I thought would reach the widest possible audience, focused on public health, but buried the idea of “cultural entropy”: the idea I was most passionate about. Conversations with editors made clear that cultural entropy was the book’s central idea. Third, take time to get the argument right. Not securing an early contract was a blessing in disguise. I had time to develop my ideas without a looming deadline. Fourth, if a press says no at first, you can always go back. My press initially passed on the project. I asked them to reconsider when the book was reframed around cultural entropy. Fifth, send the manuscript to multiple presses. Ethically, tell editors when you do this. That said, when on the tenure clock, with a full manuscript in hand and without a contract, protect your interests by asking presses to compete. That way disruptions in the review process at one press won’t delay the timely publication of your work.

Jennifer C. Lena, Associate Professor and Program Director of Arts Administration, Teachers College at Columbia University; Co-Editor, Culture and Economic Life Series, Stanford University Press: First, look for “fit” within a publisher’s list. You can start with the imprint of the books you rely on in your own work. Also take a look at the editorial board. Ensure there are two or three board members that could be advocates for your work; at least one series board member typically serves as a blind reviewer for any proposal. Your proposal should explain synergies between your proposed text and those the publisher has printed. Second, know there will be a range of editorial styles and publication rates across series. In some cases, like in my series, you will find “developmental” editors who will help revise proposals, comment on drafts, and write to the board to endorse publication. In other cases, series editors recommend reviewers and write the letter to the board. Further, in any year, a series may publish just one, or as many as six books. In some cases, submitting to a series thus lowers your odds of success. This is worth bearing in mind when deciding whether you want to sculpt your proposal around a series or compete in the open market of a publisher’s main list. Finally, while publishers and reviewers generally strive to be fair in their decision-making, the process depends upon some informally transmitted knowledge. If you know few people who have published books, reach beyond your network. Most of us are committed to mentoring authors and welcome you reaching out for help.

Eric I. Schwartz, Editorial Director, Columbia University Press: I spoke about how to publish in theory and practice, based on my experiences working in a university press: the non-profit scholarly publishing arm of a university or college. First, I discussed what such presses look for: an innovative take on a topic important to the field; good writing (write for the upper-level undergraduate); and a balance of commercial and scholarly considerations. Second, I also talked about what you need to know about your work when pitching your manuscript. You should be specific about your subject (who is the book for, and what is it about?), as well as your intent (why this book? what do you wish to accomplish?). You should be able to describe the essence of your book in one or two sentences. In general, well-written manuscripts have an established setting, characters, narrator, example of theory or new theory, connection to the canon, and a sense of how the book can be taught or incorporated into university curricula. Well-written proposals will have a brief description (one to two paragraphs); full description (one to two pages); proposed chapter outline; a discussion of the market (readership level and fields); competition (books for similar audiences); and specifications (length, illustrations, schedule, and the likelihood of multiple submissions). Finally, if you submit to multiple publishers, it’s a good idea to let editors know.