Publishing the Great Academic Monograph

New Chronicle article on the same topic: how to turn a dissertation into a book.

Again, good advice in general, but puzzling statements as well. I’m not sure how we can reconcile all these requirements with academic rigor.

Quotes of note:

Maybe it’s a History thing, or maybe my dissertation was really different from most others. I must really be old-school.






7 responses to “Publishing the Great Academic Monograph”

  1. Erik Lund says :

    Okay, well, first off, if you have to publish a monograph to get tenure, you’re a loser. Tenure should fall on your shoulders like a heavenly mantle. (I leave the details of dress selection to others.)

    Second, your monograph should be much, much thicker than your dissertation, so that literature review and footnotes vanish into its creamy pages. And it should have a solid, blue, CUP-type binding. No, strike that. It should be by CUP. Or the Clarendon. Or you’re a loser.

    Third, it should breathe the witty erudition that you’ve been sharing with your classes lo these many years, the polish prose with which you shape the fate of nations through the rising generation of the best and brightest. Wait. You don’t shape the fate of nations? Loser.

    Fourth, it should strike right at the heart of the Zeitgeist. You know, like Piketty. Oh, sure, there’s a book like that once a decade at most, but this could be your decade! Okay, I admit, not this decade, because there’s already a Piketty. Loser.

    You might think that these are high expectations, but, you know, they’re the expectations we’ve got. There’s a word for people who don’t live up to them, and that word is: Loser.

  2. Literature Thesis says :

    Agreed with y our Erik

  3. jegrenier says :

    How much valuable feedback have you ever received at say, SMH? The 2x-blind referee process works great (sometimes it’s uncomfortable to write those reports, and to get them). I’ve never gotten any supremely useful feedback from a conference presentation. Reviews in journals say as much about the reviewer as the book on question, so as a feedback tool, they IMHO have limited value. Read them once and then be done with them. So, I recommend not putting on hold the diss-to-book conversion to part out the diss for papers and articles from which you hope to get feedback (and let’s be honest: we’re after validation as much as feedback). Of course, it’s easy to spot the “rushed from dissertation to book” monograph. So, again only IMHO and what that is worth (aka nothing), young scholars would be well served by slowing down and taking the time to let their ideas age. Ideas, at least good ones, are not perishable. First-time authors should use the peer network (which SMH and the presentation game can help develop, but a committee offers a better ticket to the inner circle) to get the important criticism they will need for a “good” book. This obsession with tenure has really hurt the quality of scholarship because we have all these books that could have been better if the author had just taken the time. Is the purpose of the first book to fill a tenure block, or is it to establish your big idea that has broad explanatory power? Should someone who can’t write a book that meets the latter goal really have tenure? Patience is a good thing.

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks for the comment(s).

      Should a young scholar sit and spin or semi-blindly forge ahead? My sense of the obvious is that it depends on: 1) how content you are with your dissertation, 2) whether you want to expand your geographical/chronological/topical scope further. If you are generally happy with your diss’s argument, then I’d say go for it, at least after some revisions. Or if you don’t want or can’t expand your work greatly, I’m not sure what the downside would be to publishing sooner rather than later. If the press has a problem, they’ll make you alter it anyway, so is it worth taking the chance making changes that a future press might not want anyway?

      It’s generally true that good ideas don’t go bad, but in addition to the rare case where your research gets scooped or your diss disseminated, historiographical debates evolve and sometimes move on, possibly leaving your contribution frozen in amber while the rest of the discipline has either resolved the dispute to its satisfaction, or even decided after a decade of arguing that the question isn’t that interesting after all.

      Regarding conference feedback, I’d agree that the Q&A during the panels are rarely useful, though they can help in pointing out potential exceptions/objections that you might want to pre-rebut before publication. At the very least, it gives you a clearer sense of the boundaries of your work, and what others would be interested in reading about. That being said, I have had some very fertile discussions at various times during the rest of the conference (see my inaugural post on this blog), often discussing the papers heard in the conference. Admittedly, it’s a rarity unless the right combination of people are in the same room at the same time. Conferences are usually the only place where you are likely to see much of your peer network in any case. But maybe that’s because there are so few EMEMHians.

      As to getting feedback from your peers: perhaps my experience was atypical, but I really didn’t get a lot of critical assistance on my Vauban book (other than my wife) at any stage of the project – at least not about the argument or the historiography. Approval and bits of advice here and there from my advisors and peers, and all the other quotidian elements you get out of grad school. But I don’t recognize the grad school experience assumed by so many commenters on higher ed blogs: that the dissertation was written to please your advisors, or that it was based off of their research somehow. Almost the entire argument and research was my own, not a surprise since nobody else was saying what I was thinking. Nor was there really anybody I knew who was working on the same topic as me, i.e. siege warfare. I also took forever to finish the PhD; I wrote 100+ pages of draft chapters and ended up dumping them to write a new, narrower, diss in maybe 6-8 months, so I didn’t reuse many of my course papers which had feedback (or not). That being said, maybe my book had a longer incubation period than many, since I took almost 10 yrs from BA to PhD and then two years of a postdoc.

      Reflecting further, the most useful academic advice I’ve received from others has been of a few general kinds:
      a] MECHANICAL (need a better term): about computers and software, about writing and editing, about time management, about finding a job…
      b] HORIZON EXPANDING: discovering new sources and archive collections, learning details about other periods that I can compare to my topic, and learning to avoid overgeneralizing from my war to others.
      c] GENERAL HISTORIOGRAPHICAL AND METHODOLOGICAL DISCUSSIONS that I then applied to my own work. One of the single most fruitful learning experiences in grad school happened when I picked up a copy of Stephen Jay Gould’s Full House. I also took several “practical” courses that were absolutely key to my intellectual development: one on Writing for History graduate students (taught by an English prof), a course on quantitative history, and a course on cartography. Discovering argument mapping as a postdoc was another big influence, even though my book was set by then. As you can likely tell from my blog, my knowledge of general history is weaker than others, but I pride myself on my argumentation, methodological thoroughness and immersion in the sources. Which often means I have far more questions than answers, and that my answers are longer and take longer to answer.

      I agree with your concern about half-cooked books being published too early, but I also understand why people would choose tenure over the perfect book. My banal advice is to limit your book to a topic you can adequately cover. Like you and I did! 😉 But I’m also anal enough to have 100+ notes in the hard copy of Vauban under Siege – I keep finding more examples to prove my points! As my blog is a testament to, once I latch on to an idea, I can’t seem to stop thinking about it.


  4. Erik Lund says :

    Why thank you for y our strangely nonspecific agreement, Literature Thesis! I must say that I find your ideas interesting and …Why, is that a link in your nom? Now I am curious as to what fascinating places it might lead!

    The reason for my cynical post is that my suspicion is that when people give contradictory advice, it is because they either do not understand the process or are unwilling to understand the process by which a tenured academic’s dissertation research flows into a published monograph.

    Upon that say no more. My advice, of course, would be to get that scholarship out while you can. You may not get another chance. Unless you know that you are getting another chance, but I promised to say no more about that. So, anyway, half-baked is better than never-baked. I have three published theses kicking around my apartment right now: on British tank production, army radios in World War II (yes, yes, sorry) and the deployment of Mulberry A. All three are incomplete and would have been well-served by more research, greater length and more careful proof-reading. Feedback, if you will.

    The chances of that happening, unfortunately, is pretty minimal. But we have the research!

    Contrast that with Connelly, Parthenon Enigma. If you are like me, Amazon stood over you with a club and made you buy it. Which isn’t a bad thing. I’ve read a bunch of touted heterodox books about fifth century Athens in the last decade (sorry some more!). This is another one, and certainly interesting and good and important and deserving, on its own, of its publicity. It’s just not the best. It brings us closer to understanding the Bronze Age–Iron Age hiatus, but not very far, because, in spite of the buildup,

    Why is it not the best? Because, in my opinion, it is rather less ambitious than some of the others. Connelly, from her privileged place at the peak of the academy, put together a polished and well-argued (and pretty book). Capizzi’s Cosmic Republic, by way of contrast, is half-baked in the style of some of the best Italian scholarship, and is available in a weird Brill edition, which as we all know is an advertisement in itself for half-baked (and over-priced) scholarship.

    Would I take a Bryn Mawr (Knopf) product over a Brill given a choice of first-rate authors and the same subject? Of course! But would the former two houses take a flyer on the kind of scholarship that Brill routinely supports?

    Yeah, right.

  5. Joseph says :

    Just a point about footnotes: You seem to have miscalculated the number of footnotes per 1,000 words.

    * For the dissertation, the number is 764 notes per 126K words = 6.06 footnotes per 1000 words.

    * For the published book, the number is 848 footnotes per 171K words = 4.96 footnotes per 1000 words.

    Thus the number of footnotes has increased, but the number of words has outpaced the rate of increase, resulting in a lower density.

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