How to Turn Your Dissertation into a Book

Why write a book? There are many reasons. Writing a book helps you clarify your thinking, establishes your authority, boosts your confidence, promotes your research, expands your audience, helps other people, brings you income, and outlives you. As students at the GC, many of us write book-length dissertations at the cutting edge of our research fields.

On the other hand, your dissertation and your book proposal exist in two different genres. Whereas your dissertation is a document designed to show your work and support your candidature as a newly-minted (or soon-to-be) PhD, your book is an exercise in storytelling. You are now the expert, and you’re crafting a story for a broader audience that should take them on an intellectual as well as emotional journey.

Whether you’re considering an academic or a popular press, this blog post discusses some tips and guidelines in turning your dissertation into a book. It is adapted from advice given by the GC’s own Ken Wissoker, director of the Intellectual Publics initiative and editorial director of Duke University Press, at his recent GC event From Dissertation to First Book: A Practical Guide.

Building the Foundation

It’s important for people to know who you are as an author for your book to have success. Try to publish a few articles based on chapters of your dissertation in journals that are relevant to the topic and area you’ve been researching. Alternatively, publish an article or two based on research you’ve done that is more peripheral to your main book argument. Try to avoid distilling all the points that will form the core of your book in a single article.

You can also establish a print presence by writing for blogs (read more about how to write and publish op-eds in our recent blog post), as well as local print and magazines. While this can help you to get a potential following, it also helps prospective publishers feel more confident in your brand image, as well as your expertise and ability to deliver and promote your message to a broad, academic or non-academic audience.

Today’s world is digital, so it’s a good idea to have a website and a blog. It’s also good to be active on social media like Facebook and Twitter. Consider making a professional Facebook page. You could even consider making short YouTube videos about your research findings or teaching modules. These are all ways you can think about branding yourself, and creating a broader impact that will make publishers see your presence and be more likely to want to invest in you! (Read more about how to re-brand yourself for non-academic careers in our blog post.)

Re-working Your Dissertation

After you’ve completed your dissertation, take a step back. Ask yourself, what is my dissertation trying to do? Think about it as a film: you’re the director, so what scenes does the audience need to get to understand the film? To help yourself in this process, try to define your audience who will read the book. Focus on what your audience needs: go to their conferences, talk to people, and look at recent and widely-read publications in the field.

The books that become the most valuable and influential are those that generate their own theory. Take the time to ask yourself, “What am I going to be most quoted for by other people?” Let the theoretical concepts you’re articulating come out of the actual research work and empirical data. Don’t force it! Only add what helps to make your points clearer. It’s the way in which your story and your theory go together that will make your book compelling.

As in other styles of persuasive writing (like grant writing), it’s a good idea to structure your book around a “hook”. This means don’t make it a predictable narrative, but instead present the narrative as a paradox, an unexpected development, or an unresolved question that merits further inquiry. This helps to get your reader emotionally invested in your prose, and provides intellectual energy that keeps the reader’s interest over the pages that follow.

There are many ways to write a dissertation. Typically, you want to provide the historical and theoretical background to your thesis, a discussion of how you got there (your methodology), followed by chapters discussing and unpacking different facets of the experience; finally, draw your conclusions. For your first book, everything is flipped. You have to demonstrate what you want to argue at the beginning. You have to commit to that core message, and let the other pieces of the investigation fall away. Most of the literature review that took a substantive place in your dissertation will now drop down into the footnotes of your book.

When putting your proposal in front of an editor, try to anticipate the objections that will be raised in the book review process, and do the minimal work necessary to allay those objections in advance. While it may sound obvious, it’s worth restating the importance of writing confidently. You are now the expert! Because of this, the flow and style of the prose should reflect your own writing voice.

Remember that reframing your dissertation as a book is a process that takes time. For people working in full-time academic positions, it typically takes three or four years to develop the book while juggling other commitments, so don’t be too hard on yourself if progress goes more slowly than you’d like.

Getting a Book Deal

If you’re considering an academic press, consider that when it comes to getting academic tenure, all publishers are not weighted equally on the job market. Bear in mind the implications of your choice of publisher on the career you want to make for yourself. Search out prestigious university publishers, or smaller publishers that specialize directly in your area of expertise.

When courting an editor, the important things to give them when making your introduction are these. First, let them know your intervention, and what’s at stake in your work. Second, communicate what stage of completion your dissertation is currently in. Third, show them a chapter-by-chapter outline. And finally, send them a writing sample. It’s also a good idea to have on hand an introduction chapter handy, as well as a chapter from the body of the book, to send to the editor.

Your cover letter to the publishing house is the equivalent of an extended “elevator pitch,” in which you discuss the topic, methods, main findings, and broader impacts of your research in a concise manner. In terms of format, your cover letter should spend two or three paragraphs describing your project and your authorial credentials. It’s important to review the submission guidelines on a publishing agent’s website first, and make sure you tailor the description of your proposed book to their requirements.

More rarely, other things you may be asked for include a biographical sketch of the author. Depending on the publisher, you may be asked to provide a marketing proposal, along with sample publicity to promote the book, and possibly a discussion of competing books.

If you are asked to select potential readers for your book, think of people whom you think it would be helpful to receive comments from in your field.

Remember that it’s ok to have presses be in competition over your book. You can even tell the editors which other presses your book is under consideration for, and this will tend to solicit these editors to give you different feedback and advice about your manuscript.

Finally, if you’re writing for a popular press, you may want to hire an agent to promote your work. Do your research beforehand to find out if getting an agent is the right choice for you. A good way to find a suitable agent is to ask for referrals from people in your professional network, or from authors and book acknowledgments that may be topical to your own research. Consider joining the website, where you can create a web page to promote your work and network with agents and other authors (for a monthly subscription fee of $25).

Once You’ve Been Published

Leverage your book to build your brand. Solicit positive reviews on Amazon from friends, family, colleagues, and people in your social networks. Make friends with your local bookstore/s, and volunteer to sign all their copies. They’ll be grateful, and more willing to promote your work and give you free marketing in your city. There’s nothing better than word-of-mouth advertising!

Finally… start thinking about your next book.

Further References:

Germano, William. 2013. From Dissertation to Book. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Germano, William. 2016. Getting it Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

– Anders Wallace