Ever wonder what it’s like to complete the dissertation to first book process? How people find publishers? How much the publisher and editor influence the project? This podcast offers a roundtable discussion where six scholars discuss these questions and more. All six published some version of their dissertation, and they have unique insights and anecdotes to help explain and illuminate this process.
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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.
Podcast with Rachel Lindsey, Cooper Harriss, Craig Martin, Derek Nelson, Emily Clark and Finbarr Curtis.
Transcribed by Helen Bradstock
Interviewed by Brad Stoddard
BS: Hello. This is Brad Stoddard with the Religious Studies Project. Today’s podcast features a roundtable discussion with six scholars who address the dissertation-to-first-book process. In addition to introducing their projects they answer several questions to help graduate students, or early-career scholars, who are either thinking about the dissertation-to-book process or who maybe are somewhere in the process themselves. Let’s start by putting some voices to the names. Will each scholar please introduce yourself and the topic you address in your first book?
RL: I’m Rachel Lindsey. I teach at St Louis University, and my project is A Communion of Shadows: Religion and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America.
CH: Yes, my name is Cooper Harriss. I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University, and my dissertation-book is now called Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology. Some version of that has remained within the title all along. It’s had some other versions.
CM: My name is Craig Martin. I’m an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at St Thomas Aquinas College, which is a smaller school outside New York City. My first book was Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion and the Private Sphere. But Masking Hegemony is what I refer to it as.
EC: My name is Emily Suzanne Clark. I’m an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University. I got my PhD from Ferris State University in the Spring of 2014. And my book is A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans.
FC: I’m Finbarr Curtis, I’m Assistant Professor at Southern University. And the book project is The Production of American Religious Freedom, which borrows from – but is not exactly based on – my dissertation, which is called: “Speaking of the Nation: William Jennings Bryan, Al Smith and the Idioms of American Populism”.
BS: Thank you. How would you describe the process of transforming your dissertation into your first book?
RL: Long! It’s taken me a little bit longer than it has some other people. It’s taken about four years to get it from dissertation into book production. And part of that is because I switched jobs a couple of times. And also because the scholarship on visual studies and material cultures of religion has grown so much in the last four years. So I really wanted to take a chance to engage that material. The process essentially went from defending the dissertation to a period of dormancy for about a year.Then I shopped the proposal to a couple of presses and had really good traction with UNC and that’s where I landed the contract two years ago. And Elaine Maisner, my editor, has been very helpful in shaping the final product from a fairly limited scope dissertation into a much broader cultural history of photography in the nineteenth century.
CH: The process of dissertation-to -book for me was largely dictated by reality. I left Chicago to take a visiting appointment. So the dissertation was largely done and then was submitted. But I was still looking for a tenure-track job. (5:00) And one of the things I wanted to be careful of, first-off, is not to . . . I didn’t want to get too far beyond the dissertation. I wanted to have a book to bring into hopefully a tenure-track job. And so I began working on the revision process and I was constantly revising. And I had a post-doc in Pittsburgh and was trying to keep it right at the place where I could say, “It’s basically done to go.” But, as a pragmatic matter, I did not immediately go seeking a publisher. I tried to hold back. Now, had I gone on much longer I probably would have gone ahead and submitted. But it was about a four-year process for me between degree and entering a tenure- tracked job. And what I found fortunately was, once I entered into the actual job itself, I basically had it ready to go out.
CM: So my dissertation had a lot of material that I cut from the book, in part because a lot of the material in the dissertation was designed for me to respond the specific, somewhat idiosyncratic requests of my committee. Not “idiosyncratic” in a bad way, but they wanted to push me on some things and they wanted me to demonstrate my knowledge, but those things just didn’t need to go into the book. Also, who needs a hundred pages on John Rawls? So when I finished my dissertation I had recommendations for how to improve it and I sent out a couple of the chapters as articles. And one of the most substantial revisions was actually from . . . I got a revise and resubmit saying, “ You should do all these things to this article” . . . and it ended up being rejected. But, actually, those were some of the most substantial revisions to that chapter, based on the journal editors’ requests. So I cut material, I substantially revised that, and I think the biggest change was revising the introduction and conclusion to frame the book in a different way. So the way that I framed it, when I wrote my prospectus, was to ask a certain type of question about the material. But then, when I turned it into a book, I had a different question because after the research some clarity came about. And I realised it was a different question I wanted to ask about the same material. And the chapters remained mostly the same, but I framed it differently. So with a different frame it’s a different book. So I think cutting, adding historical detail and substance and then changing the framing of the into and conclusion were the main changes that I made to the book.
DN: I was very sick of my dissertation by the time I got to the end of the process. And so I just let it sit for a while. I debated rewriting from scratch for a wider audience than the four people whom I wrote the dissertation for. I started to think of publishing some of the chapters as articles or spin-offs. But then ended up sending it to a German Press for the kind of rigorous substantive thing. But then I realised that most of their books were 250 bucks a piece and they wanted more revision than I was willing to put in. So I went with a press that I realised appeared in my footnotes a lot – and thus had a lot of overlap with the kind of things I was interested in – and sent it to them and they loved it.
FC: Well, my process is sort-of a negative example of things not to do – although it might also be something that reflects even just the change over time. So when I was writing my dissertation in graduate school dissertation was a place to experiment and think about new ideas.And I was particularly interested in thinking about new ways of talking about populism and I had a set of social theories that were involved with that. My advisor was Cathy Albanese who sort-of disciplined me on history – or at least tried to – and then I had Roger Friedland as a social theorist and Giles Gunn as a literary critic and Wade Clark Roof as a sociologist. And so I was really shooting for something inter-disciplinary. And I really wasn’t thinking in practical terms about how this was going to become a book. I was just working through ideas. And so, once I got out and hit the job market, I was publishing articles and I sort-of was thinking about the book. (10:00) But in my mind, and really in my advisors’ mind, the process was: you go through, you get your PhD, you get a job, and then you take 5 or 3 years and work your dissertation into a book. And so I just found myself in contingent faculty world with very heavy teaching loads and on the job market applying for jobs and so it was, frankly, hard to work on the book. And so what I ended up doing is. . . it was actually when I was driving along to the University of Alabama, where I was teaching at the time, and I was spending a lot of time trying to think about how to take this dense social theory that I was thinking about in American populism and make that a readable book. So part of it was just market. And at some point I said, “Screw it!” I’d written this piece on intelligent design to do with questions of freedom. I was working on this Charles Grandison Finney piece for another conference paper I was giving. I had an Al Smith piece that was a spin-off of the dissertation – that was a stand-alone piece that was actually very different from the way the dissertation was structured. I was working on another stand-alone piece on William Jennings Bryan, and I said, “You know what, why don’t I just take those?” I had written a paper on Louisa May Alcott in grad school, a paper on Malcolm X in grad school. I was kind of interested in the Tea Party, then. And I was like, “I’ll just do a bunch of essays on religious freedom and that’ll be the book.” And I was already in conversation at that point with Jennifer Hammer at NYU Press about transferring the dissertation to a book. And we were sort-of going back and forth on that. And I said, “Well actually, I have this new idea.” And she liked that. And she said “That’s great. You should do that.” And that’s how I created this new idea for a book. So it was really an arbitrary, contingent process. And it was very much a creation of the fact that I was a contingent faculty member who had to kind of smush some things together. At that point, too, I’d sort-of given up on the job market. So I was just saying, “I’d like to write a book and then move on with my life.” I’d been on the job market for about 6 or 7 years at that time. And so this book is probably not a book I would have written had I followed that model of getting a PhD, you know. I would have written that book on populism and it would have been more of a coherent monograph in some ways. But, in a way, this is kind of a product of that necessity of invention. I needed something I could get done that I had some material, and that would be a more accessible book on freedom.
EC: It was time-consuming. It takes a lot of effort, a lot of thinking and it takes a lot of copy, paste, move around, see how that works and then move something around again. So, for me, it was just a lot of reorganising.
BS: How did you find the publisher that published your first book?
RL: I really wanted a press that took my work seriously – not only as a scholar of religion but as a historian of the United States. So I looked very closely at presses that had very strong lists in both US History and Religion. UNC was at the top of that list, so I’m very fortunate that they welcomed the book as well.
BS: Did you reach out to them? Did you cold call?
RL: I basically cold-called, yeah. Before AAR in 2013 I reached out to Elaine and said, “I’m going to be at the AAR, do you want to take a look at this proposal?” And she said, “Yes.” And so we met very briefly at the UNC booth, for 10 minutes, that November. Then I followed up three weeks later. And she really helped me think about the proposal. She saw the proposal as a new kind of document. This wasn’t just the abstract of the dissertation. Really this was the gate to the new project. So she walked me through that process. It was very helpful.
CH: I was interested in NYU’s North American Religions Series, that this book would come out in, all along. I met, for the first time, Tracy Fessenden at a Symposium in Syracuse. (15:00) That turned into an edited volume on Race and Secularism in America edited by Jonathon Kahn and Vincent Lloyd. She was there and she heard that paper and she was writing the afterword. She just wrote an email saying, “Hey, I like this.” and I said “Hey! Funny you should say that! I have this book proposal I’d love to show you.” So I sent it to her and that got things in motion.
CM: Well, first I sent off lots of book proposals to all the top presses and none of them bit. So I reached out to a series editor for a book series. And I had a prior rapport with the series editor – it’s Russell McCutcheon, and he thought that my book would quite possibly be a good fit for his series. And he was like, “Absolutely! Send me your book proposal!” Actually, what he said was: “You should send your book proposal to the most elite book publishers first.” And I did that and got rejected and so I sent it to Russ’ series – which I think is a really good series, but as far as getting a job or tenure or promotion something like Oxford University Press would be more advantageous. But Alas! So it was through identifying a book series editor that I thought would be sympathetic to the project.
DN: So my dissertation advisor suggested The Press – the German Press. But, as I said, the books were so expensive. The review was positive and really helpful, I learned a lot from their external reviewer. But I just cold-called T&T Clarke. I sent them an email saying . . . I think I did not tell them it was a dissertation. I think I told them what the idea was, what the book idea was and how it was a kind of contemporary critique of traditional Protestant Theology; they’re good at doing Traditional Protestant Theology. So I tried to work the angle of: “This is in keeping with what you’ve been doing, but it’s a kind of newer cutting edge (dare I say it?) take on it.”
EC: So I put together a book proposal. I asked a couple of friends who’d already published their first books, or [written] their book proposal, to see what it looked like. And I sent that to three different publishers, two of which were not interested and one of which was.
FC: You know, it started out by Laura Levitt, who’s one of the Series Editors, walking up to me and saying “You should be in our series.” So there wasn’t a whole lot of initiative on my part. And that was David Watt, Laura Levitt and Tracy Fessenden had this series that they were creating and she thought I should be in it. And so that started that conversation process. And originally we were going back and forth about making the dissertation into the book. And I think Jennifer’s editorial input is that she was thinking about markets, being practical, and making something more accessible, something that undergrads could read. And a lot of what I was writing might not fit that – it was a little denser. And so those were some of her concerns. So I think NYU, in particular, wanted something that could be read by Americanists. and that was kind of how, when I re-imagined this religious freedom book, it was sort-of in response to that editorial guidance.
BS: To what extent did the editor and publisher influence the final draft?
RL: Elaine in particular . . . it’s a really unique sort of relationship, right? Because they certainly respect the authorial integrity, my authorial integrity (this is the story that I’m telling). But she does have a very keen sense of : “What is the big story here? You want to speak beyond the people that attend conferences and listen to your 15 minute presentation” So she was really helpful in helping me hone the “So what?” question, beyond “What does this mean for the study of religion?”into “How is the Communion of Shadows really part of American history?” And that had been there all along, under the surface and she – through conversations with her – she really helped me bring that out. Essentially, through the organising thematic of the book.
CH: I found that I’ve been able to go largely my own way with this project. Jennifer Hammer and other folks at NYU certainly made very good suggestions that I’ve followed. But it’s not been largely managed or controlled. Now, some of this is because I was tinkering on it for several years before I sent it in. (20:00) So it’s not like I was sending them drafts hot off the computer. But, because I had been revising and rewriting it for so long, it probably came to them as more of a finished product. So it wasn’t quite as necessary.
DN: They let me do what I wanted to do, which was great. The team was very good to work with. They copy edited it pretty well. They didn’t ask for substantial revisions, except to the introduction. There was a little bit of wrangling between the subheadings: how narrow I could get in dividing up the chapters so that they weren’t just really long. And that was good. The finish product: I had no say in the design, the cover, a little bit I guess in the title. So I had pretty good autonomy, but also support for the meat of it. I’ve written now ten books and I haven’t got to pick the cover of any of them! So I’m really mad about that!
EC: Not a whole lot. I was quite lucky that the two reviewers of the manuscript didn’t suggest a whole lot of revising. And so my editor, for the most part, put the ball in my court in terms of what I wanted to do, what I wanted to change up and how much I wanted to shift things around. So [she was] not overly involved, and really let the book be mine and acted more as a champion and an advocate for the project.
FC: I think, a lot. Because if it wasn’t for the editor I don’t know if I would have conceptualised this project. Because it was my attempt to respond to the broader editorial concerns about the lack of accessibility of the project that I was working on. And so, here’s a kind of practical response. It would be hard for me to do what I want to do on American populism – and there are still some traces of that in this book. So, for example, the chapter on DW Griffith is probably the densest. It’s the one that engages people like Ernesto Laclau and Giorgio Agamben, and in a way that was going to be the book. It was going to be a book on populism that engaged those sets of social theories. And so it’s still there, and the way you can read the book is, you might just gloss over what’s going on in this fourth chapter and just skip to the fifth. And that’s fine – you could read the book like that. And so it was in response to those editorial concerns that I wrote other much more readable chapters. So I think my Malcolm X chapter is much more readable. And that was written after the book already had a contract. Because I really ended up scrapping that old grad student paper I had written and wrote something from scratch.
BS: And for my final question: What do you now know about the dissertation-to-first-book process that you wish you had known at the beginning of the process.
RL: I wish that I had been more confident in myself. It took me a long time to really trust my own voice, and to trust my instincts as a researcher and as a story-teller and I think that that’s probably what kept me from really digging into the revisions earlier. I can say that I was moving around from school to school, that I had teaching and kids, and all that stuff. But, I think, part of it was really learning to trust myself. And my editor was really helpful in instilling confidence, and colleagues along the way as well, so I think that’s probably what I wish I’d known.
CH: My advice would be that once you reach a point where you think you have the project going ahead, go ahead and start getting it out there, start talking to editors, start sending the proposal out and around. Also use the leadership, or mentors and people in your life for advice. They’ve gone through this. There are books that are handy, but it’s not necessarily always an intuitive process so don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice. But also, don’t be afraid just to put yourself out there and get it going.
CM: I guess I kind-of knew this, because somebody told me this when I was working on my dissertation. (25:00) Somebody told me: “This is the hardest thing you’ll do in your career.” Because the expectations for peer reviewers from a press are less intrusive, perhaps, than the people on your dissertation committee. I’m not sure if that’s completely true, but it’s pretty close if its not completely true. The other thing about writing a book is that you have to find an interested press, and if you don’t find an interested press you’re out of luck. But, because I was able to find an interested press, preparing the book for publication was easier than preparing the dissertation for my defence – because dissertation committee members are hard, because its their job to push you. But I’ve always found peer reviewers for other book proposals to be less intrusive on my project than my committee members. Again, I think that’s a good thing. But future things in my career have not been as stressful as that was.
DN: I wish I had taken more time to redraft portions of the book. But, frankly, I was so sick of it that I wanted to just get it out there. And in my case the book was about Social Sin, it was a pretty heavy dissertation-level kind of thing. But the press that published it has this series “Guides for the Perplexed”. And so because I got the first book done and out they asked me to write the guide for the perplexed on the doctrine of sin. So that was starting from scratch, in a sense, but it built on all this research that I’d done. And that was truly my own book. I really feel good about how that one came. So, getting the first one out there – even though I wasn’t thrilled with how it went – got my foot in the door and gave me the credibility to then launch into the next topic which was related. That’s how I think about it. If you’re going to write more than one book the first book doesn’t have to be amazing. You can use it to find your way. You want to still be proud of it of course, and have it be a genuine contribution, not just something on your CV. But don’t put too much stock in: “This has to be the magnum opus.”
EC: One thing that I wish I knew sooner was: every publisher has their own stylistic guidelines that they want you to follow. And I wish I had found those sooner after I went under contract with the University of North Carolina Press. Because I went through at least one more revision. And I could have started putting things more in the stylistic guidelines that they want instead of having to really hustle down into. . . kind-of all together with. . . a final copy editing process.
FC: I have very complex, ambivalent feelings about that question. Because– and I don’t know what the word for this is – but there’s something that. . . I kind of like the process, even though it destroyed my life for eight years! I like where this book ended up, and I probably couldn’t have written that book unless I had taken that very experimental approach to writing a dissertation. I think that was true of a lot of us at Santa Barbara at the time. I was a couple of years behind John Modern – you know, his book is not his dissertation. The dissertation is this crazy thing that’s sitting in the Davidson library at UCSB! And I guess the book is kind of crazy too, but in a different way, a more publishable way. Same with Kerry Mitchell. The actual dissertation that he wrote is very different from the book that he wrote. And so I liked that I used my dissertation to think about new ways of inventing Religious Studies in the United States. But that wasn’t very practical. So, I don’t know what I would say. A lot of times the advice that I would give about doing interesting things in academia is very different from the practical advice about how to get a job. So I would have had to be a very different person to take the advice I would give now, which is the more practical advice that anybody would give: be a little more modest and realistic about what you can accomplish and think about the book market. But I didn’t think about that at all. I just thought about the stuff that I was interested in. So the advice I would give is: Just don’t talk to Finbarr Curtis! He has no idea, and he can’t really give you any meaningful guidance about how to actually navigate the book market. Just talk to other people.
BS: And with that we’ll end this discussion. First and foremost, thanks to everyone who participated and we hope the listeners learnt something about the important dissertation-to-first- book process. Thanks.
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Citation Info:, Clark, Emily S, Finbarr Curtis, M. Cooper Harriss, Rachel Lindsey, Craig Martin, Derek Nelson and Brad Stoddard. 2017. “Six Scholars Discuss the Dissertation to First Book Process.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 20 March 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 23 March 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/six-scholars-discuss-the-dissertation-to-first-book-process/