My Dissertation is Done! Now What?: How to Get a University Press Interested in your Book Project

Finishing a dissertation is an awesome accomplishment! Woohoo! Yippee!!! Congratulations!! Time to go on a serious vacation!

But when you get back from Aruba, get ready to reacquaint yourself with your dissertation and start thinking about what to do with it next.

If you earned your Ph.D. in history or a similar discipline, chances are you will want to start thinking about how to revise your dissertation into a book. Hopefully, your dissertation defense included an extended discussion about that, so this would be a good time to get out your notes from the defense. Also, you will want to reread your dissertation, making notes as you go. Then create a list of the revisions you would like to make. These might include:

  • Conducting additional research
  • Finetuning the argument
  • Polishing the writing
  • Reading new literature
  • Removing repetition
  • Tightening the prose

You do not need to make these revisions before you start looking for a publisher! In fact, you can interest an acquisitions editor in your dissertation and even obtain a publishing contract for the book before you undertake major revisions. What you will need, however, is a beautifully rendered book proposal followed by a highly polished sample chapter.

The book proposal should be relatively short—no more than ten pages single-spaced, including a bibliography. A book proposal that will appeal to university press acquisitions editors will do the following:

  • Open with an attention-getting anecdote or idea that gestures to the significance of your work and/or relates it to a contemporary issue or concern
  • Explain the scope and the significance of your book project clearly and succinctly using a writing style like the one in which the book will be written
  • Articulate your argument clearly, so that anyone reading the proposal can zero in on it quickly and understand it immediately
  • Provide a list of your chapter titles and a quick summary of each chapter but focus on explaining the research question the chapter addresses and/or the argument it makes
  • Describe your primary sources and methods—emphasize what makes your sources or your use of them creative and exciting
  • Imagine who will want to read the book and describe them. Will it be scholars in labor history? Undergraduate students who are studying the black freedom movement?
  • Offer a list of similar titles. Is your project part of a new wave of scholarship that is emerging? If so, how is it different? Does your project revise older interpretations? If so, what are these and how and why do they need to be revised?
  • Include some very honest facts about where the project stands now. Acknowledge that it began as a Ph.D. dissertation. Explain the revisions you plan to undertake and how long you will need to complete them. Offer to send a sample chapter. If you have published sections of the dissertation—a version of one or two of your chapters or, perhaps, an online essay—say so and provide citation information.

Some important don’ts:

  • Don’t ever write that your work “fills a gap.” Just don’t.
  • Don’t italicize the title of your dissertation or book project—you’re not there yet! Instead, enclose the title in quotation marks until the book is actually in production.
  • Don’t distribute a proposal that contains a single error in grammar, spelling, or punctuation. The proposal is short, and it must be perfect—just like your cover letter and the emails you write to query editors.
  • Don’t be overly grandiose about the likely market for your book. Editors can smell exaggeration and it makes them suspicious. 

Procedural advice:

  1. Find presses that publish high quality books like the one you plan to produce. Look up the names and email addresses for acquisitions editors in your area of expertise.
  2. Send query emails to as many editors as you like. Keep them short. You just want to know whether the editor is considering new manuscripts and is interested in your topic. Offer to mail (by U.S. Post) a proposal and a sample chapter or request an in-person meeting at the next major conference in your discipline.
  3. You may send your proposal to as many editors as you like and should send it to each and every editor who seems like a good fit for you and your project. Whether you deliver your proposal in person or by mail, it should be accompanied by the following flawlessly rendered documents:
    — a cover letter (on the letterhead of your Ph.D. institution or current university employer)
    — a curriculum vitae

Prepare to talk with an editor by:

  • Sending a query email to assess his/her interest in your project
  • Requesting a meeting at a major conference to discuss your project further
  • Taking printed copies of your proposal and c.v. (and any other relevant materials) with you to leave with the editor
  • Being ready to answer questions about your project
  • Preparing to communicate passion for and commitment to your work but/and also responsiveness to feedback and editing

For more on how to handle conversations with editors and negotiate the contract, see our follow-up post “A University Press Wants to Publish my Dissertation!: How to Negotiate the Book Contract.”

More excellent advice:

Susan Ferber, “An Editor’s Book Publishing Tips for the Uninitiated.”

“Fearless Academic Publishing,” with Susan Ferber.

Dale Edwin Murray, “10 Point Guide to Dodging Publishing Pitfalls.”

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