Five tips on turning your dissertation into a book

June 1, 2023
Eric J. Van Giessen

By Eric J. Van Giessen, PhD Student in Sociology at York University

Many graduate students dream of extending their research reach to a broader audience by turning their dissertations into a book. As part of Congress 2023’s Career Corner series, Acquisitions Editors Michelle Lobkowicz (University of Alberta Press) and Fazeela Jiwa (Fernwood Publishing) discussed, “Bringing Your Book to Life”, providing insider advice on the world of scholarly publishing. 

Turning your dissertation into a book can be daunting, but it gives your work the beneficial reach of a broader readership. Publishing presses can help to translate highly specialized scholarship into compelling manuscripts with a narrative ark that targets readers at various levels of academic engagement. Occasionally, publishers can help support scholarly work to cross over into the ‘trade publishing’ world — books that appeal to non-academic audiences (such as Robyn Maynard’s (2017) book, Policing Black Lives, published by Fernwood Publishing). Here are five essential tips offered by Lobkowicz and Jiwa on publishing your scholarly book: 

1. Understand the difference between a dissertation and a book: 

The first thing every graduate student looking to publish a scholarly book needs to know is that a dissertation and a book manuscript are two different writing genres that position the author in very different ways. The primary purpose of a dissertation is to demonstrate proficiency or competency as a specialist in front of a committee of professionals in your field. In this case, the role of your readers (your committee) is to evaluate your expertise. In contrast, when picking up a book, the reader is seeking your expertise on the subject of the book — in other words, expertise is an expectation of book authorship. This difference, though seemingly small, changes the posture and voice of the author. With this change in the purpose of the text, significant revisions are likely necessary, and authors often need to ‘bundle’ their methodology and literature review into a compelling introduction and craft a manuscript with a cohesive and compelling narrative. 

A quick tip: Many publishers and funding bodies require that manuscripts include at least 70% new material - that is, material that has never been published before (this includes social media or blogs!). 

2. Hone Your Central Argument: 

A compelling book begins with a robust proposal articulating its core argument and leading the reader to understand its significance. A proposal acts as a blueprint for organizing your book manuscript, shaping the hierarchy of ensuing chapters into a unified whole. In situating your book project, Lobkowicz and Jiwa encouraged prospective authors to stay humble and realistic about your book’s potential accomplishments and focus on what is unique about your argument. What is your big idea? What big question will your book address? How will you ensure that your book, from research question to argument to conclusion, is accessible to a wide readership? 

“A book is something that presents a sustained argument in a compelling way. Hopefully, there's a beginning, a middle, and an end —a narrative arc. So a book is not a journal article. And it's not a dissertation. It's not a blog post. A good book starts with a really robust book proposal.” — Michelle Lobkowicz (University of Alberta Press) 

3. Determine Your Target Readership (Audience): 

Who is your book for? Who is your audience? The success of your book hinges on a clear understanding of its intended readership. Are you addressing scholars within your specialized field, reaching across disciplinary boundaries, creating a course book for undergraduate or graduate students, or crafting a crossover book that straddles the academic and non-academic divide? Your book proposal should clearly explain who your book is for and how you’ll tailor your narrative to resonate with their interests and needs. Books are often more interdisciplinary than dissertations, so how will you adjust your manuscript to evade disciplinary language that will render your text inaccessible? 

Quick Tip: “Everyone” is never a suitable or realistic answer to the question: “Who is your audience?”  

4. Incorporate Peer Review Feedback: 

Once you have found a publisher and completed your manuscript, the next step is peer review. The peer review mechanism is a cornerstone of academic book publishing and will hone your manuscript to its full potential and result in a text that your readership can trust. Lobkowicz and Jiwa encouraged prospective authors to share ideas or suggestions regarding who you view as a ‘good fit’ to peer review your work. Though the press may not choose the people you’ve suggested, it will give them a good sense of what kind of scholar might be a good fit for your work. Your publisher will, as peer reviewers suggest improvements or revisions, speak to the quality of your citations, make comments about writing style and where the book might be condensed, and provide a synopsis of the book, including where it sits in the context of contemporary scholarship and what contributions it makes. Many manuscripts go through two or more rounds of revisions before approval. 

Quick Tip: Before approaching a press about publishing your dissertation as a book, ensure you’re interested in spending another year or two…or three working on your topic! Completing a book manuscript is a valuable but extensive process. Before jumping in, it’s best to reflect on whether you have the fortitude to invest more time and energy in your topic. 

5. Work with an Acquisitions Editor: 

While different publishing houses will provide different levels of support, some presses like Fernwood walk with authors through the publishing process to develop your work and ensure that peer reviewers receive the best and most updated version. An acquisitions/development editor from a scholarly press might help navigate you through the complexities of the publishing process. These professionals oversee the peer review procedure, aid authors in understanding necessary revisions, and ascertain the manuscript's readiness for production. Lobkowicz and Jiwa both heavily emphasized the importance of forging strong relationships with your publisher and acquainting oneself with the unique culture of their press so that you can work together to produce the best possible manuscript. 

So, now what? 

The best place to begin is to research different publishers, understand their expectations for a proposal, and reach out via phone or email to start building a relationship with an acquisitions editor at your prospective publisher. These steps will help you discern if your book project fits the culture of the press you are hoping to work with. 

Remember that most scholarly publishing houses are not-for-profits and rely on external funding to complete the publishing process. Thankfully there are great resources like the Scholarly Book Awards Program that award 180 Publication Grants of $8,000 and five Translation Grants of $30,000 annually. With the generous support of SSHRC, the Scholarly Book Awards have assisted with the publication of over 8000 books. For more information about the Scholarly Book Awards, click here.