From Dissertation to First Book with Ken Wissoker and Kalle Westerling

In the Thursday Dialogue, “From Dissertation to First Book,” Ken Wissoker (Editorial Director of Duke University Press and Director of Intellectual Publics at the Graduate Center) in conversation with Kalle Westerling (Futures Initiative Fellow) discussed best practices for doctoral students who intend to turn their dissertations into books. Drawing on Ken’s long-standing expertise in academic publishing, the conversation touched on a variety of topics: What is the difference between a dissertation and a book? At what point in the process should I contact an academic press? How should I prepare for different types of interactions with an editor (in-person, email, phone call)? What are some strategies for working effectively with an editor? What does an experienced editor look for in a book proposal? What does a book proposal and/or book contract look like? When does an experienced editor know when they see “good writing”? What goes into an editor’s decision in selecting a book for publication?

While the brown-bag events Thursday Dialogues were originally thought of as smaller events, but we had a sense that the room would be filled with graduate students excited and scared about the topic. We were right—it was by far our biggest attendance at a Thursday Dialogue so far.

Kaysi Holman typed out very detailed notes for the event, and what follows below is basically a transcript of the entire event from her notes.

Kalle Westerling: What is the difference between a dissertation and a book? How is a book like and not like the dissertation that it grows from?

Ken Wissoker: Thank you. It’s great to be in this group, and this is one of my favorite topics. There’s a lot of information around about how you write a proposal, but we need to step back and think about the writing of a dissertation vs. writing of a book—much more unexamined.

This goes much more unexamined. You can have the same research at the base of both things, but they’re different writing in a concrete way. When you do a dissertation, someone thinks it’s a valid topic, you have a committee, and they’ve agreed to read it. The more research you do, the more field work and close readings you did, show that you did a better job. If there are sections they find boring, that’s okay, it’s their job to keep reading it. They’re basically showing that you did the work that you agreed to do in writing it.

What’s most obvious with that set-up is that you know who those committee members are ahead of time. You can then write and research to accommodate their preferences. You have an audience you’re not really supposed to write for, but it would be dumb if you didn’t write for them because they’re giving you the dissertation. That part people think about a lot.

The thing that strikes me the most is that people in principle agree to read until the end (when it’s your committee). That allows a certain kind of structure that’s unique. What is something allowed to look like when people must read to the end?

The convention that someone is supposed to read to the end is not always honored in practice, but that’s how you’re supposed to write. In the beginning, there can be background, historical background. It can take some people who know what you’re writing about and people who are less familiar with your theory and have that background that you need for each person.

You could have all the different forms of background. At the end, it adds up to something. Sometimes in the conclusion, you can say what you think all the cases add up to. Often in comparative work, there’ll be four or five things that have different chapters around them. There’ll be a theme. I use the example of someone who was a chair of English department writing about Passing white to black in the 19th century, canonical, etc. What does it all add up to? Passing in all of those texts are different and it is complicated. But that isn’t motivation to read a book. Suddenly a different kind of problem altogether.

That form of showing why it’s complicated is a really good dissertation. I’m not going to read a book about why passing is going to be complicated. I can just judge that it will be. In a book, no one has to read it. There are some people in your field who might have to read it. But, in general, people read things because they think it will help with their own work.

You are almost never doing things the way the readers of the dissertation are doing it, you usually do it because you think it will be helpful.

You’re never evaluating whether a book author did a good job. You’re usually doing it because you think there’s an idea that would be helpful. What is helpful is figuring out what your idea is.

In a dissertation, it needs a theme, a method, etc., but it doesn’t necessarily need to have an argument. If you go out to study a particular thing and report on it, then you’ve done the work. But, it doesn’t get you to the next stage—if I’m not interested in that particular case, but the general idea, then how does it get me there?

In the book, you have to step back and say, what am I going to argue? What is that thing you’re going to be quoted as saying? What do you want to be known for saying? What are you trying to convince people of?

If you’re reading a book and someone says something that seems kind of plausible, you need maybe one example.

Readership is also very different as it relates to the argument: Trying to figure out what you need to make the argument you need to make is a very different form than anything in the dissertation. The readership is also very different. Are you just trying to address people in your own field, or are you trying to cross over? They may define research or archives in a different way, and you may have to argue in a different way to convince them. You are trying to figure out what you want to argue and to whom you want to argue it. Then you have to think of the genre: what gets people to keep reading?

You have to be concerned about what will keep them reading the book. This is a problem that doesn’t exist in the dissertation.

There are two models:

One can be compared to a film-maker: A couple years ago, we were at a writers and artists place, and Ramona S. Díaz, a woman who just made a film called Motherland, on the largest birthing center in the world, in Manila, and she’s made two films before, one at Sundance and one at VH1. She had done the VH1 documentary on Journey [“Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey”]. She knew how to make movies, and had done this filming in the largest birthing center, and her editor sent her 9 hours, and she knew that if it was going to be on PBS, it had to be 90 minutes. — That’s the case with books. If you have all the time in the world, you might want to see all the research, but when you’re writing the book, you have to do the PBS version.

So sometimes that means what was in the film won’t make it into the movie, you have to have an arch. You have to keep with rhythm and pace. There isn’t going to be a story arc in a dissertation to keep people reading. It doesn’t have to be there.

Second model: Last month, I was up at a Science Studies meeting and talked with Lee Edelman, and asked him how he does it. He said that once you have the chapters in place, you have to pull something up from each chapter about what it’s going to do for the argument as a whole. Otherwise, you end up saying the same thing in five chapters. That’s really important because it’s not what I know about each object, it’s about what each chapter is doing in my book, and what could I say about that to contribute to the argument of the book: What’s this chapter going to do in the argument in whole? What is this chapter doing in my book?

These are questions that wouldn’t come up when writing a dissertation, and not thinking about it as “fluffing” your dissertation, or about having to write the whole dissertation again, but taking it as an opportunity to reflect that you know more than anyone else about what you research, and you get to decide what you want to do with it. It’s the idea that you get out of writing the dissertation that could help someone else.

Kalle: The 9-hour film is what I want to deliver to my advisor, but this helps challenge me to even structure it into my dissertation. Those two models are helpful. I want to move into thinking about the actual process. What is it like? At what point in my dissertation writing should I reach out to an academic press? Should I do it while I’m doing everything else, or should I wait until I’m entirely done? Especially for international students who have to get a job within three months.

Ken: There’s no right or wrong answer to that question. I’ve seen people introduce themselves to be 8 years before they finished their dissertation. Other people gave papers as a grad student, and we started talking about publishing. Most occasionally, four times, I’ve heard of people getting published before they get finished with their dissertation. I would never send something out before someone was finished with their dissertation because it would be too distracting. It happened one time because the book topic became part of his dissertation later. It’s never bad to introduce yourself. It depends on how pressured the editor seems, how much time they have, the affective state of the editor, the social environment. Most people won’t publish (for ethical reasons) until you’re finished. One of the things you can ask yourselves and each other is “What am I arguing?” That might be something you want to know before you talk to someone very seriously. Every year, I like to go to conferences where they allow you 15-minute sessions, and it’s a no-fault situation. If I were at the American Studies Conference and I had signed up for an hour to talk to them, then it’s difficult. You should also know what you want to get out of it. The editors Iike to think of it as kind of a midwifery. Many of the authors I publish are friends or become friends, and it is really a conversation.

Kalle: So, not too early in the pregnancy, but closer to delivery? (Laughter) The next step would be a book proposal?

Ken: I don’t like book proposals. Karen Kelsky gives a lot of good advice, but one of the pieces of advice that is less useful is to do a book proposal. I think it depends on what the book proposal does for you, the press, and what you’re trying to get out of that exchange. If I’m at an academic press, I need something that iI can send out to peer review.

Every press has its own rules. They don’t necessarily want to see one from a press. They want to see as much of a manuscript as possible. If someone sends me a proposal and a chapter, I might say: “This is great! What do you have?” And then I’ll be disappointed if they don’t have things ready. Long before we get to a year and a half later, I’ll have forgotten entirely about it. They may be thinking that I’m really excited about it. You don’t want to get people really excited until you have a way to follow up. I haven’t submitted any book proposals to them, but some of the more commercial presses, then maybe a proposal would be enough. A proposal can do something for you, though. Just like the form, “What’s the Screenplay Going to be?” it could be a way to stop revising chapter four and thinking instead about what’s going in chapter four and how do I imagine this proceeding? That’s one good thing a person can do because it requires you to ask what’s happening, in what order, and why it’s happening in that order.

I feel less excited about the competition. People are reading certain books because they’re interested in those topics. For most of our work, there’s no competition at all. There are things that could be… Let me give you an account of the subfield and where does my work fit within it. Rather than trying to list off every subfield, the editor, wouldn’t they have an idea since they published them??

Sometimes it helps us to have a shorthand account of what the project is. So when you’re sending something off to editors, you send them to the most relevant presses, but you should do that at the time that you are most able to follow up.

Kalle: How do you know which publisher/ which presses are good?

Status of press, e.g., Cambridge is something to think about. What forms will your project exist in? (Digital, print, both, etc.)—this will determine who will read it.

“Fit” makes a big difference from publisher’s point of view. Who do we send the book out to for review? Difficult to find reviewers if fields are familiar to press. The part of choosing the “fit” is choosing a place that is going to know what to do with it once they have it. If you were trying to cross between literature and political theory, is it going to work or not. That would be something that you’d like to ask the publisher.

Lists for most presses are historical and moving. You need to know where the press is and where it’s going.

Look at your shelves. Look at the books you use. Is that the conversation you want to be in? Where will the book stand out? How are you trying to make your book appear? Trying to figure out what the timing is and where you want to be.

A firm rule in academic journals is that you can’t submit to more than one press simultaneously; that is not true for books. You can send your books out to many places. Presses compete with each other all of the time. Some presses might ask you not to submit your book elsewhere.

Responses from multiple presses will let you know if they are excited or not.

Kalle: So, be promiscuous with your book pitching?

Ken: One of the things that you can learn that is wrong is that presses are giving out advance contracts, I can think of just two. For most university presses needed to be reviewed before being considered.

But you can put “solicited” in your cv/ resume if an editor asks for additional chapters/materials.

So you’re sending something end and then hoping the press will send it out for review. For example, Duke will send it to two people, not on your dissertation committee or at your doctoral institution, or anywhere you are teaching (even as an adjunct). It will be sent to one person with knowledge about the subject and another person who might be theoretical b/c they are an interdisciplinary journal.

It’s people’s investment in the field, the subject, and the idea.

There might be a cross of disciplines. But, I think of it as a “test screening” for a film. Here’s the dress rehearsal and see where it dragged, if it’s something you’d recommend to someone, something you’d want to tell the author about raising up particular issues.

A lot of time in first books what is needed is a genre. People are still burying their arguments. When in graduate school, you often build your argument off of what other people have argued and defined. In definitions, you use others’ voice. It tends to be that your argument is the least bold, the least attended to, in the writing. It often takes 2–3 reviews to get to focus on that argument, make it central and upfront to the book draft. A good peer-reviewer focuses on that and comments on what the argument is and making sure it’s the central focus. It turns out the one’s own argument is the most cautious thing.

Different forms of feedback from different disciplines—very discipline specific. Example historians: very specific, detailed feedback, line by line suggestions. Others are more broad—chapter by chapter comments.

The response is about trying to solve the problem rather than defend. The reviewers are letting you know what’s not working. For us (Duke UP) the contract is an internal process. And then the director and I approve and then it goes to the board.

University presses aren’t playing games with people and not publishing them. That is constructing an anxiety that is not helpful or needed.

Kalle: As a question about the process: Who is your favorite author to work with, and what was the process from getting the idea of the book to getting the book on the table?

Ken: What’s most interesting is how people work in different ways. You see the idea in the distance, and you get to see them filter through to get down to it. Other people walk in with that.

The writing takes place in real life. There are hardly any books that we do that someone doesn’t go through a big life thing in the middle of writing the book.

What pays off the most is when I feel like I can give institutional backing to someone who is trying to change a field. When I can give institutional backing to people whose careers are going to be good careers in otherwise unwelcome, or less welcome, positions. And when ideas really take off and become bigger than the things you expected and change the world outside of the academy.

Working together and sense of how something that starts off as one book and finds the idea that the book becomes known for only arrives at the last stage. It can be at very end that people will quote you as saying comes around.

Kalle: How or when do you (or an editor) know that a manuscript is finished?

Ken: The author could be finished too soon. The author could be finished too late. Some people who won’t let go.

As a writing process—not trying to do it by yourself, having other people’s insight is really great. Don’t get caught up in grad student thinking as having to cite more people. Good writing groups are interdisciplinary groups where people aren’t as invested in disciplinary nuances.

Closure for Duke comes with the review process. Each change brings out something else.

The things that are hardest to do are the introductions and conclusions.

It is a really writerly moment. There is much more space for writing that actually goes out and appeals to people.

Voice is also a big difference between books and dissertation. You don’t need a voice in a dissertation—it’s just the facts. But, in a book, the author’s voice is important. There are books that people are writing partially, or mainly, to get tenure-track or to fulfill a certain goal or obligation, but then someone gets to meet the person and becomes a huge fan of them and their work. You’re writing in the voice of the person you want to become, you have yet to become.

Once it’s approved by our board, there are pictures that are involved. (You should ask about this quite early). Those are difficult to get the rights to, and you should ask about that early. Then, I turn it over to managing editor, which is reviewing pages and indexing, and that process will vary from press to press, but that typically takes, for academic presses, about 10–12 months. It’s important to not disappear. If you think about it as being a musician, you wouldn’t think about releasing an album and then just not doing any gigs. You want to do talks, go to conferences, blogging, etc. You have to go out and support the books. There’s a lot more that happens when the author is there to take up and stand up for their ideas. In a dissertation, the process can be too long and you can feel abject about it, but you have to fight that and get out to support the book. — Show up and be available to get out and support the book.

Kalle: Thank you, Ken. We’ll now open up for questions and answers from the audience.

Question: Can you talk about the timeline of having a book proposal and having a manuscript ready to send to the publisher if they’re interested. The dissertation isn’t the manuscript, so what’s the best practice for turning it into a book?

Ken: The book proposal is a tool, not an end in itself. If your hope is to meet with someone at the MLA, you might need it right away. If your hope is to get a contract, you could write to a press and see what they need to get to a contract.

Look at press’s website for guidelines. No standard measures. The worst thing you can do is refinish the dissertation—to fix all the things that you meant to do when you were writing your dissertation. You have to know what you want those chapters to do in the book.

Question: In terms of the writing, the prose, are you looking for something closer to academic writing, or closer to trade books that are reviewed in the Times or something? What you say about your voice makes me think it’s the latter, but you send it out to professors to review. A lot of people find it hard to do both journals and a book at the same time.

Ken: There is not one single answer. Very interdisciplinary. American historians have a possibility to write for a general audience. If you’re doing sociolinguistics, that’s probably not an option in the same way. We’re a press where our best-selling book is Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. You could have something written in a very clear, nonfiction way that does worse than a theory book. It depends who you are writing for and for what audience/press. Different presses put a different value on that. If you’re a colleague that is a very special writer, you couldn’t let the writing carry you to a topic that would be of no interest to a trade press, but you can imagine in a lot of what we publish that a different writing style would yield a very different public response to the book.

Question: Can you tell me about images? Different advice about how many images you are allowed to have.

Ken: Probably every press has their own rules. It also depends on the discipline, and your topic. Some things require more. For most presses, black and white images are no problem, but color images might be a problem. The type of paper you can print color images on is different. The thing we think about a lot is the total length of the book. So, if you have 50,000 words, which would be 150 pages, and then they need 70 pictures, maybe it’s 185-page book. A lot of images in books now don’t have the quality that you need for good print images. It’s probably more the press’s policies.

Question: I’m writing a monograph about an art practitioner, a general biography was published recently, but I have a different argument about authorship. Is that something I should bring to a publisher, or is that more journal?

Ken: You heard monograph, which could mean a lot of things in other disciplines, but in art, it means it’s about one practitioner. It means a very specific, rather than theoretical cross-over book. Often when I give publishing talks, I say, and this is my own take, that we’re publishing for a post-positivist moment, which means that people aren’t reading to try to fill in all the information in the world. People aren’t trying to fill in like a Wikipedia. Mostly, in our fields—humanities and social sciences—they read because the ideas are good. You can have another book on the same person or topic, as long as the ideas are good. Your work argues something different. Is it just something specialized to that artist? Or can it be generalized to the field? What are the ideas that you’re bringing forward? (And make sure when you pitch the book that that’s obvious.)

Question: The phase of the process past the reviewers. Ideally, reviewers review the manuscript, give reviews back, and then there’s a revisions plan that goes from the author and editor. What goes in that letter? What should be included? What sort of timeline is the editor expecting?

Ken: That’s one of those things that will be different in each place. Letters of response to readers reports are always different. You want to make sure you’re in the details and that you can and want to change things. Editors are looking for engagement. You don’t want to be defensive and say why you did what you did. If the reader hit a speed bump at some point, they’re not you. They’re trying to give you feedback, and that’s just a suggestion and a way of solving some problem. The editor wants to see you consider that problem, and decide what to do about it, whether it’s the recommended action or your own solution to that problem.

There are a lot of books that don’t reach 800 copies now. Having the book that catches on, that people are excited about, that people are passing on to each other—that’s more important to me than getting something 2 months earlier. Sometimes, you’re either in the space, or not in the space. Whoever did Monica Ourselves and put it out right into the Bush era, it didn’t seem as relevant. There are things that are time-bound. If you’re trying to change people’s opinions, then it doesn’t matter as much when it happens. Need to be realistic with your own tenure clock and what you need. When it’s about getting the book to be better, it’s better to make sure the book is fantastic and take more time. You can always turn it in early, but it’s better to push the deadline back to give yourself more time.

Question: Can you say a bit about the connection between publishing and journals, and the value of the book? The value of the book before you publish the book? Not publishing too much.

Ken: Always important to publish in journals because otherwise who will know who you are? I think it’s good to be strategic. If you’re thinking I want to address sounds studies, Asian-American studies etc. you want to be publishing in those journals.

You want to pick journals where people will actually see it in. The version in journal vs. version in the book—it’s a complicated question that has changed four or five times in my career. When journals go online, anyone can download it. So, what is the form it will take in the book? How much are article and chapter the same thing?

Journal article is a particular form and book chapter are different forms. Usually, you can say something like, “A much earlier version of chapter three appeared in “x” journal.”

How much can be published? This question depends on who the audience is and where. Really the journal article is the place for the more monographic writing and the book more argument-driven.

Question: We just ran an internal book completion award. What is the future of academic publishing?

Ken: I think your question is is there a crisis in academic publishing and my answer is no. Academic publishing is going quite well. Then there is the question of do we publish non-academic. Everyone that we publish isn’t an academic. I think the question of if you should publish your dissertation and you don’t want to have a career in the academy, that is not something that I would encourage unless it is something para-academic. The possibilities now and in terms of publishing and thinking; there is incredible work coming out.

Question: I find a lot of academic publishing very jargony and limiting. I’m thinking of transitioning from dissertation to book where dissertation is loaded with footnotes, and I don’t see that in books much. How much can you write for public audiences and still seem credible?

Ken: People get excited about ideas, not about jargon. The books that change people’s minds have an idea/theory. It’s all about finding a way to express ideas so that people recognize what you know. It’s one of the hard transitions from grad student writing to writing your own book. One of my friends in grad school was giving each student a list of 10 words they couldn’t use. If you can’t just use the word “neoliberalism” or something like that, and you have to think “what do I mean by that?”—that’s when you come up with your own idea. I try to get people to put all the citations and things in the notes, and then think about whether those really need to be there. People’s habits that often make it into books are paragraphs or summaries from certain theorists. Those aren’t things that editors are readers want to see. You have to find that voice that’s not you needing help. You have to make your own argument. I try to give advice for where people are and how they write.


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