Thursday, March 9, 2017

From Dissertation to Book: Doing Your Research



I defended in early September, and after awhile spent ignoring my dissertation completely, I'm about ready to turn my attention to it again. Six months isn't a terribly long time to put it aside--I know lots of people who have taken a couple of years before moving to the monograph stage--but I'm always looking for a new project. And happily, the next stage in this one is one that PhDs are already really good at: research.

Let's assume that you're at the same stage as me in the process of transforming your dissertation into a book. Your pre-proposal online sleuthing needs to get you the information you need about two key things: the presses that you're interested in submitting your proposal to and the acquisitions editors at those presses to whom you're going to direct your pitch (we'll get to that in a minute) and then your proposal.

The first question you need to answer is the question of which academic (or non-academic but scholarly--think Routledge) presses have a mandate and a catalogue that most closely match to your manuscript. This might seem counter intuitive--don't you want to pitch to a press that isn't already publishing competing titles? Ideally, no. You want to find a press that has proven strengths in your field, and that's going to see your book as fitting neatly with their strengths and priorities. Plus, you're going to do such a good job in your proposal of explaining the distinctive value proposition and contribution of your book that it will be clear to the presses you're sending your proposal to that your book will occupy a unique but complementary place on their list.

So your research is going to be aimed at helping you do some monograph matchmaking. The best ways to figure out which presses you want to date are to:

  • Scan your dissertation bibliography and remind yourself about the books that were the most important, and closely related, to your research. Which publishers did they come out with? Were there a number clustered with one press? Put that press on your list to explore further. 
  • Talk to mentors and colleagues in your field. Who have they published with recently? Which presses are doing (and publishing) interesting and innovative work in your field or subfield? Which ones come highly recommended? Which acquisitions editors do they know and trust? 
  • Review the online catalogues of the presses you identified in steps one and two, including recent and forthcoming titles. In which catalogues do you find your book's textual kin (a term I love coined by academic consultant Cathy Hannabach)? (Make sure you take notes on comparable titles that you find during this stage of research, as they're going to form a key part of your proposal). 
Once you've done your research and narrowed down the presses to which you'd be interested in submitting a proposal, it's time to begin researching those elusive and deadly creatures--the acquisitions editors (AEs). These are the people to whom you'll submit your proposal, and their job is to acquire, as the title suggests, new titles (books) for the lists (subject areas) they represent and specialize in. (You find lots of PhDs in AE roles, because they come with built in expertise and academic networks that help them source and evaluate new book proposals and titles to publish). AEs are the gatekeepers, and in pitching or proposing to an AE, you'll need to convince him/her that: 
  • your book fits the press's mandate and 
  • your research and approach is excellent and
  • your book has a strong market and 
  • you're more worth talking to and considering than the next guy
Here's where your online research and academic network comes in. Who do you know who knows the AE responsible for your subject at the presses in which you're interested? What is his/her approach? What feedback have others gotten on their proposals? What kinds of things is the AE just not interested in at all? What books are in the press's pipeline that haven't show up in the catalogue yet but are relevant to your looking into comparable titles and fit? Use that information to customize how you frame your book in the next stage. 

What that next stage is varies. You may choose to do the convincing above via your proposal and cover letter, which I'll talk about in the next post in this series. Or, you might start with a less formal email or conference pitch, which is the route I've gone. The logic is this: you're a busy person, as are the AEs to whom you're sending your non-insubstantial (somewhere in the realm of 10 pages, and always customized to each press's requirements) proposal. (You might be wondering why I'm talking in plural here. Unlike journal articles, it's totally okay at this preliminary stage--right up to when a press asks for a full monograph--to be in discussion with, and to send your proposal to, more than one press.) Why do that work without knowing that the press is even interested? And why not send your proposal to an AE who is already interested in and awaiting (eagerly, one hopes) its arrival? 

Many people pitch their books to editors during meetings that they've set up at the big academic conference in their field, and lots of people have great success doing it that way. Karen Kelsky (aka The Professor Is In) has a handy post on how to approach the conference pitch, and a fantastic script for exactly how to talk about your book to an AE. For those of you like me who aren't always at our annual meetings because of non-academic work commitments, for whom the timeline of the conference doesn't match up with our plans, or who would just rather write to someone than pitch in person, email is the way to go. Many editors also prefer email pitches to in-person ones, either because of personal preference or because their conference schedules are packed--your research into the AEs for your subject should help you figure out which is the case and allow you to plan accordingly. 

The script for an email pitch is very similar to the in-person one Karen gives above, with the addition of the fact that you should always try to leverage useful connections when reaching out to editors. Has your supervisor published with this press, worked this AE, and recommended that you pitch to him/her? Mention that in your email. Did you work with the AE for your field during the gap year you both took between your Master's and PhDs? (True story!) Then make reference to that prior connection when you reach out. As with hiring managers, AEs are likely to pay closer attention to people who are already in, or come recommended by someone in, their network.  

The best-case (although unlikely outcome) of your research and pitch is an invitation to submit a full manuscript. More likely, you'll be asked to submit a proposal, but with the advantage of it being a solicited proposal to which the AE is already kindly disposed. And because the research you've done at this stage is laying a solid foundation, your proposal--which I'll talk about next time--is going to be stellar. So get pitching! 



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