First of all, let me recommend two books by William Germano: Getting it Published and From Dissertation to Book. Personally, I found Getting it Published most helpful - From Dissertation to Book is great to start with, but once you realize you want your dissertation to become a book, GIP is really what you need.
(Before I begin in earnest, you know, I've just had an idea: can I put a call out to other readers who've published monographs or textbooks or collections or whatever to post about their experiences, too? Because I really think that this is one of the most mystifying parts of academic life, this whole book publishing gig, or at least it was for me, and I think it would be really useful to have a lot of people talk about this. If you do post about this - in whatever fashion - could you also be sure to direct me to your post in comments so that I can edit this post and link to you? I really think this would be a valuable resource for the unpublished, and a really comforting resource for those going through the process for the first time, i.e., me.)
But so here's my story, for whatever it's worth. And in order to tell it, I have to begin with the dissertation, from which the much revised book manuscript was born. I'm not sure that this is what those who requested this post want, but I think it's worthwhile to provide a personal narrative here - not just instructions for how to do this. If you want instructions, they'll be imbedded in here, but really the thing to do is to read the books I've mentioned above. The reason I want to provide a more personal narrative is that I don't think that instructions really capture the process. So anyway, enough of the explaining what I'm going to do. Here it goes.
My dissertation topic emerged from a question that I flubbed in my oral qualifying exam - a question that my dissertation director asked. It was a question that stuck with me. I also had another topic in mind, when I went to him a month after the exam, and I wrote up two brief and probably hideous proposals for him. From the beginning, I was really flexible in how I conceived of what my dissertation would become. I did not enter graduate school with a "passion" about some specific thing that I needed to research. I mean, I have passions for the things that I research, but I'm not particularly single-minded in those passions. So I presented two topics. Both dealt with literature across an entire century, but each asked a question that had a different theoretical center. My dissertation director told me that both would work fine, and that one of them would be much more difficult but had the greater potential to be really ground-breaking. Because I'm a masochist, I chose the ground-breaking one.
Once that was decided, my director then advised me not to cover the entire century, but rather to focus on one period within the century. This advice was specifically aimed at marketability. I hestitated for about a second and a half, and then I took the advice. It was one of the best pieces of advice I've ever gotten.
From the beginning, I envisioned (with the direction of my adviser) the project as a draft of a book. I did not envision it as potentially ending up as a series of articles. I had a book-length argument, and really the individual pieces do not work independently. Even though the manuscript now has metamorphosed into something much more polished, the thread of the argument has not changed. This is not to say that my director told me to "write a book." Instead, he achieved some weird in-between sort of thing where I felt on the one hand that the best dissertation is a done dissertation - that it didn't need to be a book that was ready to go - but at the same time that I should be looking toward making it into a book from the beginning. It was always about getting it closer to being a book manuscript - not about making it a book manuscript ready to go. I knew from the get-go that it would need work after the degree was awarded. But I also knew that it made no sense to think of it as in some way distinct from the book. This is one of the reasons why I really did have one of the best dissertation directors in the world - that he was able to communicate this in-between thing to me in such a way that I got it and that I listened to his advice.
So anyway, the writing of the dissertation. It was horrible. It was wonderful. It was a life-changing experience, in ways that were both good and terrible. The first chapter I wrote garnered the following response from my director: "Well, Crazy, some people have to write things out of their systems.... you're one of those people." This "chapter" is bullshit, and it is gone. I don't even know if I have a copy of it anywhere. And I was devastated after that meeting, but it set the tone from the beginning - that a good dissertation, and then ultimately a good book, means scrapping the stuff that's crap. Without mercy. I am fortunate that I have absolutely no attachment to anything I write (which I credit to starting out thinking I'd be a journalist and writing under deadline for newspapers), and so scrapping without mercy isn't a terrible thing for me to have to do.
But so anyway, I wrote 75% of the dissertation draft over a three month period, in which I was living with my parents and in a crappy long-distance relationship with my once and future live-in boyfriend. I wrote every day for about 4 hours at a coffee shop that allowed smoking, and that had a jukebox that played Soul Coughing and Metallica. I had a complete draft in September.
I did not defend my diss until the following August. Because my adviser told me I should get it closer to book-level before I defended. We had a HUGE fight about this, but it was good advice. Oh, and while I was revising? I was working as a transcription typist.
So then I defended (right before I was to start my current t-t job), and my director had two comments: 1) I could have defended the dissertation more effectively and 2) that I had a really strong voice in the diss, that my prose was really engaging (the only compliment I can remember him ever giving me).
So I started this job with a strong dissertation. It was not a book manuscript. I knew that going in. And I pretty much abandoned it for about nine months. In part, this was because I had the opportunity to do something else that was related to the diss but that dealt with an author I didn't explore in the diss. In part, it was because I needed to let it sit. But what I did do in that nine month period was to apply for a grant for the summer that would allow me to work on the diss as a book manuscript. I envisioned writing two new chapters - I only wrote one and I'm still revamping it - but it was crucial to have it as something that I was expected to work on, and it was crucial that I had the responsibility to write up something at the end of the summer to report my progress.
I then abandoned the manuscript for another year - actually, I think, two years. I got bogged down in projects that emerged from the thing that I did in the nine month interim of my first year on the t-t. But then, this past summer, I decided that if I didn't do something with it now then I would have too much supplementary research to do to make it a viable as a real book project. So, this summer, I began reading stuff about how to do a book proposal (Germano's books, and others I checked out from the library). I didn't actually do anything to the manuscript, but I started thinking in earnest about what I needed to do to it to make it work.
And then I decided to go on the market. And that motivated me more, as I knew that at the very least that if I had a proposal I was shopping I would be a more attractive candidate. And so I busted out the manuscript again, and I also continued with reading books that had to do with getting an academic book published. And then I asked my second reader on my diss for a letter of recommendation, and she mentioned that her book was coming out. And in a bold move, I asked her if she would mind letting me see her proposal. Why was this bold? I don't know. I suppose I felt like I couldn't ask about the particulars of how to do this thing. I felt like admitting that I didn't know what I was doing was something that would reveal that I was a fraud. Part of this has to do with the culture of my grad school department, but I also think that part of this has just to do with me - I tend to be a very solitary scholar. I never participated in a diss reading group, and I don't generally let people see my work in draft form - ever. But I asked. And she was so generous, and sent along a version of her proposal and letter of inquiry. When I saw those, I thought, "Oh my god! This isn't that hard! I can do this!" and so I used hers as a model, and off I went.
I did not have a totally complete and polished book manuscript when I sent off the first batch of proposals. In fact, I don't even have that now (ugh). Now, when my mentor sent her proposals off, her manuscript was completely finished. I figured that the process could prove to be long and arduous, so I took the calculated risk of sending off the first proposal without being totally done. I thought that having the proposal out there would motivate me to continue working, and I expected a number of rejections, and for the process of shopping to take a while, so there I was. (Part of my choice has to do with the fact that I don't need a book for tenure here, and so I could afford to take it slow with sending out proposals. Oh, and by the way, one thing that was a revelation to me is that one can send out book proposals simultaneously - it doesn't work as it does with journal articles. Only when one is under contract or sends out the whole manuscript at the request of an editor is it uncool to have multiple things out at a time. Who knew?)
So anyway, as I reported on the blog, I got a rejection in December. I also got another rejection, and one publisher never responded. So I was gearing up to send out another round, and then fate intervened. I had put out a CFP for a panel that I'm organizing for MLA, and it drew the attention of a good publisher. They wrote to me inquiring about possibly developing a collection out of the panel. Now, as I have no proposals for the panel as of yet (ahem), I didn't have anything to propose related to that. But I had the chutzpah to suggest that maybe they'd be interested in my monograph. I sent off the proposal (slightly revised) at the beginning of this month. Today, I got the email about the contract.
So here's the thing: my experience is not normal. Most people I know have had to slog away for much longer than four months to get a book contract. Most people I know have had to send out their proposals to more than four publishers total. I got lucky. In some ways, I've made my luck: I'm very engaged in a scholarly community that allows me to get my name out there, and I sieze opportunities that cross my path. But in other ways, well, I'm just lucky. I'm lucky that I seem to be thinking about things that are interesting to people right now, and I'm lucky that ... Hell, I'm just lucky. I'm not saying that to diminish my achievement here - I'm saying it because I really feel it. Sure, there are parts of this story that I can take credit for. I'm persistent. I don't let projects fall by the wayside. I'm really good for setting internal deadlines for myself and meeting them. And yes, I have good ideas. But parts of this have nothing to do with me. The process - like so many processes in this profession - is not uniform, and it's not entirely based on merit. And yes, luck plays a part. And, really? I think I'm a pretty lucky person. In some ways we create our own luck, but I don't think there's necessarily a formula for doing so. And so other than feeling really fancy and elated, I'm also feeling really grateful that I happen to be lucky. Again, this is not to diminish my accomplishment. It's just to say that I really don't believe that good ideas or good writing or good whatever are in themselves enough.
But so that's my story. So on to some concrete things:
- While you don't need to have a completed manuscript in order to submit a proposal for a book, my sense with academic books is that it is not wise to submit a proposal without a very-close-to-ready manuscript. If it's your first book. Not sure about if one is an established scholar.
- You can submit proposals simultaneously. If you wait to have a polished manuscript before submitting proposals, you may send out 25 at once. If your manuscript is not polished, you might do it in waves (I did 3 initially). A lot of this depends on the tenure requirements for one's institution, or, if one does not have a t-t gig, if one thinks a book contact will help one to get a job.
- A dissertation is not a book. The titles (of the whole thing, of chapters) are different, there isn't so much need for lit review, etc. Read Germano's books.
- Shameless self-promotion is a good thing. While it's true that nobody will reject you if you don't put yourself out there, it's also true that nobody will say yes.