Thursday, August 05, 2010

Getting It Published, Part 2

Yesterday I sent my manuscript off to the publisher who expressed interest in it. Assuming they send the thing out for review, I'll likely have several months where, for the first time in what feels like a bazillion years, I don't need to be actively working on or thinking about my book (or feeling guilty for not doing so).

In the interim, I'll be sending the manuscript to my dissertation director, who hasn't seen it since it was a dissertation; I'll probably also send a copy to another mentor, and I'm already thinking about who among my friends and associates I can persuade to read a chapter or two at a later date. But mostly, I'm looking forward to doing some serious work on my scholarly edition and starting a new article-length project.

But since I'm sure I have a number of readers who are grad students, recent PhDs, or others wondering how the hell to wrest their dissertation into something like a book, I thought I'd break down my own process and timeline.

*

My dissertation consisted of four chapters, each one on a different author, and a short introduction. When I finished, I knew I wanted the book to have a new first chapter on a fifth author, and I thought it might make sense to add a new final chapter on a sixth. I also knew I'd eventually have to write a new introduction and revise the existing chapters to a greater or lesser degree.

That's actually pretty close to what I wound up doing, but it took much longer than I expected. If you'd have asked me, back in September 2005, how long all the above would take--the researching, writing, and revising, while also adjusting to a full-time faculty job--I'd have guessed two or three years. And I'd have thought of that timeline as a sane and generous one.

In the end, it took me five years.

A lot of stuff happened in the first couple of years. I started a full-time lectureship, which involved commuting a hellacious distance and teaching 3/4 for a total of four new preps (after never previously having taught more than one seminar-sized class per semester). I went on the job market for a second time. I moved to a new city to take a tenure-track job. I had to adjust to another new department and set of students. And I went through the catastrophic end of a long-term relationship.

But it's not as if those things prevented me from finishing my book sooner; they're just the stuff that happens in a junior scholar's life, and though I wasn't working especially vigorously on the book for while, I was still working: I wrote a rough draft of my new first chapter just a year after finishing my dissertation; I published several articles (some from or related to the book, some not); I got a couple of short-term research fellowships; I got recruited to co-edit a scholarly edition (based on the work in one of my chapters); I gave a couple of invited talks; and I did the usual conference-paper thing.

However, it wasn't until last summer that the project really came into focus for me--and it's taken me 15 months of pretty steady labor since then just to revise my five chapters and write a new introduction and a coda (the subject of the intended sixth chapter having turned out to be so entirely dull, from a literary perspective, that he got demoted).

Basically, it took me four or five years to grow enough as a scholar to write this book. My dissertation and my book share most of the same raw material: the authors, the texts, and even most of my close-readings remain the same. But the book conceives of that material and presents it in a totally different way, with a larger argument that progresses and develops through each chapter, rather than each chapter being, in effect, a separate case study. There's a reason now for this to be a book rather than five articles.

*

So although I think Bill Germano's From Dissertation to Book is in almost every way an excellent guide to the process, I have to take issue with his claim that a new PhD should be able to complete a course of "major" revisions in a year and "minor" (cosmetic) revisions in three months. I don't know anyone who has made major revisions in anywhere close to a single year--and that includes people who wound up with fancy-pants post-docs that gave them two years of uninterrupted research time immediately after finishing their dissertations.

Sometimes, you have to live with a project for a long time before you realize what it's about. Sometimes you have to set it aside. And there's a reason why we get six years before tenure.


Readers: what have your dissertation-to-book experiences been? And what revision advice would you give recent PhDs?

15 comments:

life_of_a_fool said...

"it took me four or five years to grow enough as a scholar to write this book."

This is pretty much exactly what I was thinking about my own book writing experience. I am nowhere near done, but I do feel like it is finally coming together as a coherent, book-length project. Most of that time has involved ruminating and marinating (and writing other things).

Horace said...

Your experience, Flavia, is very close to mine--although a few factors, including an unintentional departmental emphasis on articles over books, and the active raising of three children has slowed me down a bit more.

All of that though suggests to me that what is important about this process is precisely what you say it is: the time to live with the project's big ideas for a bit. I'm hoping to send in my manuscript within the next couple of months, but even though I defended all the way back in 2003, the real shape of the argument has taken shape only in the last two years, after writing some other things, teaching a grad course on the subject, and just getting more intellectually sophisticated than I was seven years ago. That's 12 years since I started working on the first version of this project, and I now think I finally get it. Some things just can't be rushed.

Dr. Crazy said...

I think that Germano's timeline is fairly true *once you are in the place where you have the project clearly in your mind and if and only if nothing in your life gets in the way*.

From defense to publication it was 6 years for me. And I feel like that was actually fast, given my teaching load and lack of pre-tenure leave and only very limited course releases.

Anyway, I agree that sometimes a project just needs time. Actually, I think that's the thing I've learned while on the tenure track that never even occurred to me in grad school.

Flavia said...

Dr. C: I think that's an accurate assessment--a year is reasonable, when you're in a place to do the work.

And I should add that I know or know of people who revised their books rather quickly because they were, essentially, over their diss projects--and they needed a strong line on the vita sooner rather than later. If you find yourself with a PhD, and you're happy enough with your dissertation project but are really itching to get working on a new project, it's a perfectly reasonable and defensible strategy to find out what your institution (or your desired institution) considers an acceptable publisher, get the book out with them so you can feel secure about tenure, and then move on to the project you really care about.

But keep your eyes on the prize, folks. I've known of people who got fucked over because they were sick of the diss project and abandoned it to start a new project--but didn't have time to get that new, genuinely better book project under contract before tenure.

It's okay for the book to be just a tenure bid (or just a TT job bid). The point is to know a) what you most care about, and where your intellectual energies are best directed, but b) how to preserve your career while you're doing it.

feMOMhist said...

I think this is such a conundrum. I always joke that it took me 10 years to recover from graduate school. I took a really risky path. I took a joint admin/teaching job as my first position (following a nasty divorce). I didn't even publish my first ARTICLE out the dissertation until FIVE years after filing. I then had two children back to back and started a tenure track position. So far I've published 10 articles out of my dissertation without doing a book. In the meantime, my topic has become "hot," I've found a theoretical framework that makes the topic far more relevant, and I'm about to apply for sabbatical to turn the damn thing into a book, for which I will have no difficulty getting a good publisher. Now TTLAC is way nice about tenure without two books, so I'm in an unusual position, but just my .02 worth. I think it is particularly difficult for women who wish to reproduce. The period after grad school i pretty much the fertile window and small children are not conducive to writing. So either stick with that 1 year time frame, prepare to put your newborn in extensive daycare, or take a big chance.

Dr. Crazy said...

"But keep your eyes on the prize, folks. I've known of people who got fucked over because they were sick of the diss project and abandoned it to start a new project--but didn't have time to get that new, genuinely better book project under contract before tenure. "

This is why I published the first book from dissertation even though I am not totally in love with it. I knew that I wasn't going to achieve the goal of writing a whole new book pre-tenure, and while it's true that I didn't need a book for tenure at my university, I did want the option of moving elsewhere (even though I ultimately didn't do that pre-tenure), and book = mobility, not just tenurability.

Renaissance Girl said...

It's seven years now since I drove away from my PhD-granting institution. I am just closing in on finishing a good solid draft of the book, which bears only a slightly passing resemblance to my diss. Yes, things intervened: kids, cancer, divorce, remarriage, work in my other field. But I really just needed the time to discover how the book was different, more substantial, more theoretically far-reaching, than the diss could be. My brain needed to grow up a bit.

I think we who select into academia are used to being quick achievers. Sometimes the book goes against our constitutions, our training, the advice we get from how-to manuals. Rumination isn't usually part of the PhD curriculum.

(LOL: captcha= "spent")

Flavia said...

feMOM: I think your story shows the importance of knowing what's most important to you--and precisely how your personal desires and your professional desires might (might!) wind up limiting each other. But as your comment also shows, you just can't plan or anticipate everything.

RG: I think we who select into academia are used to being quick achievers. Sometimes the book goes against our constitutions, our training, the advice we get from how-to manuals. Rumination isn't usually part of the PhD curriculum.

I think this is exactly right. Or rather, the PhD program does, sorta, start to teach us this: I remember being very surprised (as someone who had always taken deadlines very seriously) that most of my professors didn't care that much about due dates for seminar papers. One of them actually said he'd rather give a whole bunch of incompletes, but get good papers in the end, than receive mediocre work on time.

None of my other profs were that crazy, but still: I started to learn then that good thinking and writing can't be forced, and that it's better to go a little over deadline than turn in a weaker product.

But that's a hard lesson to learn, fully, when you're also getting the message that if you stay in grad school beyond a sixth year you will bring SHAME and DISHONOR upon your program--and are just UNFOCUSED and UNWILLING TO JOIN THE REAL WORLD.

Whoo. Got shouty there for a minute. Grad school flashback!

Flavia said...

Actually, though, it's occurred to me that this post could be a stressful one for current grad students to read--that it might be demoralizing to be reminded, mid-dissertation, that even the best dissertation (which you've been moving heaven and earth to produce), is almost always still a very long way from being a book.

That wasn't my intention, obviously. I think of this post as being somewhat of a companion piece to my "good enough" post, and I hope it can be reassuring, in a way, to know that even the best diss is rarely close to being a book: because you have lots more time to get it to that point. A good dissertation is still a good dissertation, and a very worthwhile thing on its own terms.

Doctor Cleveland said...

I have to agree with Flavia and the whole gang. The time matters.

My experience was long stretches of rumination punctuated by occasional rapid progress.
For years I've sworn that I was going to follow that advice about working at regular productive intervals and avoiding writing binges. And I have genuinely gotten better about that in some ways, while at other times I look exactly like Bad Writing Habits Guy.

But I'm starting to wonder if long stretches of working on side projects, punctuated by bursts of productivity, is a reflection of a necessary process.

For somewhere between two and a half to three years after finishing my diss I told myself, and my advisor, and everyone else, that the book needed to add a chapter on Subtopic X. I'd even built quiet little transition hooks for that chapter into the diss itself. (Two diss chapters have passages that anticipate or recall the projected new chapter.) And for two and a half to three years, I really didn't write a word about Subtopic X.

Then I sat down and wrote the central argument of that chapter, which is now possibly the signature chapter, in about six days. There was work to do after that, of course, shaping and refining and expanding, but that six-day draft is still the heart of the chapter.

Shouldn't I have written that draft earlier? Sure. But the other question is, Could I have written that draft earlier? And I think the answer is no. I knew that my argument needed to deal with Text Y, and intended to make an argument about Text Y, but I didn't have an argument to make. And then I did.

Calypso said...

I'm a newly minted PhD in the UK, and the message I'm getting here is: publish your dissertation ASAP. At least one very distinguished and experienced voice even claims that it's very difficult to get a job interview these days without a book contract. Another distinguished and experienced voice, who also worked in the US for many years, told me that dissertations here tend to be more book-like than in the US, and require less revision.

Yet looking at my dissertation, I can't help but think that, beyond my obvious PhD-fatigue and the desire to start a new project, it's very likely that it would make a much better book after substantial revision (adding another author, for instance). I'm worried that if I get lucky and find a publisher for the diss now, I might regret it later. But what if waiting means compromising my chances of getting a job (interview!)?

The experience of most commentators here suggests that letting the project mature while you grow as a scholar is a good idea, and that makes a lot of sense. Taking that time really shouldn't be a luxury, should it?

Flavia said...

Calypso:

I met a U.K. PhD who told me a similar story--although in this case the scholar was Irish and wanted to work in Ireland, and was told that the market there was so small and so competitive that a book was absolutely necessary. s/he turned the diss into a book very quickly and got a job, but when we met was actively telling people not to read it--because s/he wasn't at all proud of it.

But your advisors may be right that that's how the U.K. job market as a whole works. Maybe you can take an informal survey of other recent PhDs from your program and see what they've found to be necessary or have done?

And for what it's worth, some U.S. PhDs get told the same thing--both about the need to publish immediately, and that they should think of themselves as always "writing a book, not a dissertation." (We were definitely encouraged to do the latter at my grad institution, though not the former.) I think it's probably smart advice to think of/try to write a dissertation that's as close to a book as possible. . . but I'm skeptical that many people can actually do so, when the diss is their first attempt.

CattyinQueens said...

This post is really resonating with me right now; I'm about to go to the UK to do some archival work in service of my (hopefully reworkable awesome) introduction and book proposal. I'm 5 years out now, with a 3/3, so I know it could be worse. But it still feels pretty much like I'm never going to be ready to send it out. It's one thing to mature as a scholar, but so much that happens in the jr. faculty life is not really focused on the project, so it does not feel like i'm maturing intellectually at the moment. I mean, I haven't read a book that wasn't related to my own topic in years, and I haven't even read all the current work on that. And yet, I keep at that intro...

irina said...

This post also really resonates with me, probably because when it went up, I was struggling (and I mean struggling) to draft a book proposal. Part of the difficulty was dealing with the new genre, but part of it was my concern that, just a year out of grad school, I couldn't have the intellectual maturity to put together the same kind of thing I would four years from now. (Unfortunately, four years from now would be too late for me...) And most of the people I know (most, but not all) did take about 4-5 years to do this.

Here's the kicker though: one of my colleagues told me, as I fretted about all of this, that by serving on a university-wide tenure committee, she had seen a number of people from our alma mater, Flavia, who took too long to get the first book out. As she saw people repeatedly fail to get, or nearly fail to get tenure, she got to wondering what we were taught at our grad school.

It has never occurred to me that graduates of other schools might be more ruthlessly practical about things like the book (despite visible evidence). And I wonder: is this true? Are some of us taught to be unrealistic about the time line for our first book?

michele said...

As someone who defended the dissertation only three months ago, I didn't read this post with angst, but reassurance.

In discussing my lack of work this summer with a colleague, he suggested it would be a fabulous time to start reworking the dissertation into a book. But up till this week, I've been dithering and finding that I have no idea how I want to go about doing that. I know there's some significant work to be done, but I've actually got a few options, including splitting the material into two separate projects. For a while, I was really getting antsy because I couldn't decide what was the better route.

But just this week I realized that the sky won't fall in if I don't make that progress this summer because my sense is, as you suggest, that I need time to think this through.

I'm a little disturbed at the idea of turning the dissertation into a book that I won't like. I'd like to think that's not absolutely necessary to landing a job. But I realize that time might be a luxury I can ill afford. But the idea of writing a book that I'd tell people not to read is just disheartening.

But for now I'm going to continue reading and thinking and trust that the vision will come when I've matured as a scholar enough to do it justice.