Defusing the Fear: Publishing A Book Based on a Non-Embargoed Dissertation
This is the second article of a three part series on dissertation dissemination and publishing for humanities and social science scholars.
View part 1 on open access and dissertation embargoes here. View part 3 here.
In their darker moments, most junior academics have imagined a version of the following scenario. You spend several years painstakingly revising your dissertation and producing a manuscript of your first book. You send your book proposal to a university press acquisitions editor. The acquisitions editor likes the proposal and appears positive. Maybe she even asks for the full manuscript to send out to anonymous readers and receives enthusiastic reports. You are ready to ink the contract when the editor casually asks whether the dissertation, on which the book is based, is available online. Once you admit to having put your dissertation on ProQuest or, even worse, on an open access archive, the editor abruptly cancels your contract, leaving your book manuscript rejected and homeless. The university press, the editor explains, cannot afford to publish a book that nobody will buy given that its rough draft circulates freely on the internet.
In real life, this nightmare is either exceedingly rare or never happens. And yet it is precisely this fear—nobody will publish a book based on a dissertation that is available online—that motivates most dissertation embargoes. In a 2015 survey run by Dissertation Reviews, a majority of early career scholars (184 out of 336 respondents) said that their intention to publish a monograph based on their dissertation was a consideration in whether to release or embargo (delay the release of) their thesis. Universities commonly say that they permit embargoes so that an author can subsequently publish a revised version of the dissertation. Some academic groups have argued vehemently for the need for embargo as an option, such as the American Historical Association that pronounced in 2013: “Many universities award tenure only to those junior faculty who have published a monograph within six years of receiving the PhD. With the online publication of dissertations, historians will find it increasingly difficult to persuade publishers to make the considerable capital investments necessary to the production of scholarly monographs.”
Junior scholars are surely entitled to worry about whether their first monograph will be published by a good academic press. Many worthy book proposals and manuscripts are rejected for a host of reasons. Many more are not seriously considered at all. Scholars are also correct in perceiving that tenure publication requirements are becoming more stringent and onerous. In spring 2005, the Modern Language Association surveyed 1,339 departments in 734 United States institutions and found that over 62 percent of departments reported that publication had increased in importance in tenure decisions over the last ten years. Regarding books, almost one-third of departments surveyed (32.9 percent) confirmed that they require not only a first book but also substantial progress on a second book for tenure. For PhD-granting institutions, that percentage rises to 49.8. The effect of failing to publish a first book is brutal: the scholar is likely to be denied tenure or, increasingly, may fail to be hired for a tenure-track position at all. We all need to publish to survive in the academy.
Given the harsh realities of the twenty-first century academy, the core questions for junior scholars regarding publishing and dissertation embargoes are as follows. Do dissertation embargoes actually help scholars secure book contracts? Is it likely that releasing the dissertation on a closed access (e.g., ProQuest) or open access internet database will harm a early career scholar’s ability to publish a revised version as a book?
The core claim of this article is this: not embargoing one’s dissertation immediately upon deposit is unlikely to harm an early career scholar’s chances of landing a book contract. Many researchers before me have reached this conclusion using different methods. For example, five scholars conducted a survey of journal and university press editors in 2011 and found that a mere seven percent of university press editors said they would refuse to consider a book based on a thesis that had been made previously available in an electronic repository. Based on my conversations with acquisitions and senior editors at numerous university presses (discussed below), there is good reason to question whether even that seven percent actually act as they claim.
Statistical evidence is powerful, but it fails to explain the larger dynamics at work and why embargoes are not the answer to academic publishing woes. Here I tell that story. Our entry point is to see through the eyes of the gatekeepers themselves: university press editors. In Dissertation Reviews’ 2015 survey, the majority of junior academic respondents reported that they have not spoken with an acquisitions editor at an academic press. Yet many of these scholars are embargoing their dissertations precisely because of what they suppose those editors think. Here, based on interviews with editors at eight North American academic presses along with staff members at university libraries and academic book sales companies, I offer an inside perspective on how university press editors acquire and evaluate book manuscripts as well as the broader pressures that are changing the very fabric of academic publishing.
What Acquisitions Editors Want in a First Book
When asked what they look for in a good first book based on a dissertation, university press editors give a fairly consistent set of responses. They want a book with a fresh and compelling argument, perhaps something counter-intuitive that takes the reader in an unexpected direction. As Ken Wissoker, Editorial Director at Duke University Press, puts it, he is “looking for something that is going to do something.” Mary Francis, Executive Editor at the University of California Press, seeks “a clear, forceful argument that will change a field.” Acquisitions editors also prize elegant prose and a good narrative that is “engagingly told,” according to Emily Andrew, Senior Editor at the University of British Columbia Press.
A quality that is more elusive and perhaps frustrating for authors is that presses want a good fit with other books that they have published. Acquisitions editors are “curating a list,” I was told. Anne Routon, Senior Editor at Columbia University Press, estimates that her press rejects up to 80 percent of manuscripts on the basis of this slippery category of fit.
All the university presses that I contacted currently accept first books that are revised dissertations and plan to continue doing so. As Reed Malcolm, Senior Editor at the University of California Press argued, a lot of academics do not have a second book, and so there is substantial demand for first books among publishers. Most acquisitions editors accept book proposals from authors with whom they are not previously acquainted, although one might have better luck going through a network. At least one acquisitions editor acknowledged that she frequently relies on senior scholars to recommend junior academics whose work is worthy of publishing attention. Senior scholars also wield influence by serving as editors of book series focused on specific topics. Academia is a social place, and who one knows can be critical for publishing.
Most of the editors with whom I spoke said that their approach to evaluating a revised dissertation is identical with their methods for assessing subsequent books by more senior scholars. A few editors mentioned that, specifically for first books based on a thesis, they are keen to see substantial revisions. When pressed on the question of revisions, all the editors I interviewed concurred that the book must be structurally significantly different from the dissertation. University press editors offer a fairly standard set of prescriptions for how to enact these revisions. The highlights are as follows: cut the literature review, reduce the notes by one-third, spend less time directly quoting other scholars, write better, have a punchier and broader argument, and make the introduction and conclusion more dynamic. For scholars currently revising their dissertation for publication as a monograph, many editors highly recommended William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book.
None of the university press editors with whom I spoke actually compare book manuscripts to the dissertations on which they are based when assessing book manuscripts. On the contrary, when I asked editors who said they demanded revisions how they knew if a thesis had been revised, nearly all professed to rely exclusively on the book proposal and their own judgment. University press editors differed on whether they even looked to see if the dissertation was available online. Editors at the University of Chicago and MIT presses said that they occasionally download a dissertation in order to help the author reformulate her ideas, but the editors emphasized that this is a possibility rather than standard procedure. Alan Harvey, Director of Stanford University Press, says that his editors will pull up a dissertation online but primarily in order to compare the table of contents with that of the book manuscript (more on the reasons for this below).
But most university press editors said they never look for, much less at, the earlier dissertation form of a book they decide to publish. One acquisitions editor told me point-blank: “I would not waste my time reading a full dissertation.” Editors evaluate revisions and whether a manuscript is ready for publication independent of any review of the dissertation and usually without even bothering to determine if the thesis is available online.
Their actions suggest that university press publishers are not primarily concerned with whether a dissertation and book are substantively different (not enough to actually check for differences, at least). What they really want is for a book manuscript to follow particular conventions that make it look and read like an academic monograph. To be fair, these conventions differ from the expectations of PhD theses in many fields, and so most dissertations will need to be extensively revised. Additionally, editors presume that differences between the dissertation and book will necessarily emerge if one is successful in publishing with a top academic press. In addition to the standard line-up of expected revisions, editors consistently told me that they and their staff add a considerable amount of value to the final form of a book, especially a first book. Their editorial skills will ensure a significant degree of transformation.
In short, university press editors are generally invested in the book as an entity unto itself, independent of its rough draft dissertation form. Moreover, there is often a gap between what university press editors say (and perhaps think) they do and what they actually accomplish. Most claim to publish only heavily revised dissertations. But what they actually seek are book manuscripts that meets specific expectations, regardless of how those manuscripts relate to earlier theses. For most acquisitions editors, an author’s dissertation is not a significant concern.
Market Pressures and Library Budgets
University presses are subject to market pressures. They are nonprofit entities, but they need to bring in some money in order to stay afloat. Many university presses receive Mellon grants and funding from other sources, but they also make money by selling books. Most first academic books lose money (roughly a 12,000 USD loss per book, according to one university press editor). It is not uncommon for presses to ask authors for a subvention or financial contribution for specific production aspects (e.g., index, reproduction costs) to make publishing a first book financially feasible. Given the finances of university presses, the difference between selling 100 and 500 copies of a first book is substantial.
University presses see two major buyers for their books: libraries and individuals. Many of the top academic presses are most concerned with library buyers. For a long time, a gentlemen’s agreement ruled whereby many university libraries bought the books published by academic presses, thus ensuring that these presses could survive and publish more books. This also benefited universities because scholars need to publish books for tenure and career advancement. Over the last decade this virtuous circle has fallen apart. University press editors told me that book sales to United States university libraries are down, some said by 80 or even 90 percent in some cases as compared to a mere five or ten years ago. There are several culprits behind this nosedive in library acquisition rates, among which economic pressures and academic journals stand out.
The financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent recession hit many United States universities hard. Most of us remember the hiring freezes, but less visible perhaps was that library budgets were often frozen or cut. During the same period of time, the major companies that publish academic journals reported massive profit increases. Unlike university presses, the overwhelming majority of academic journals in both the humanities and sciences are owned by for-profit, commercial organizations. These companies make money primarily by selling online access to their journals and databases to universities. Elsevier, the largest publisher of scholarly journals in the world (primarily focused on science and medicine), is the most lucrative of these companies. In 2010, Elsevier made 1.1 billion USD in profits (not revenue, profits). As of last year, top universities coughed up an average of more than 1.1 million USD apiece for access to Elsevier journals, with some paying far more.
To take one poignant example of what this looks like for libraries, according to Stanford library staff, Stanford’s subscription to Elsevier currently eats up roughly ten percent of the entire library budget. When I asked why Stanford does not simply cancel their subscription, the response was compelling: half of the campus relies on Elsevier for access to research and publishes in and edits their journals (although other universities have found a middle road). Humanities scholars are also implicated in the ascent of commercial companies that publish academic journals. After Elsevier, Taylor & Francis is the next largest academic journal publisher, and other significant journal publishers include Springer and Wiley. Crucially, these companies most commonly sell journal access to university libraries in bundled packages, whereas books generally are bought piecemeal. When administrators need to trim the library budget, it is far easier to put individual books on the chopping block than large journal packages.
Some university press editors fear that the growing pressure to cut back on book purchases has led libraries to single out monographs based on dissertations. The theory—which I heard from several university press editors—is that university libraries are increasingly thrifty about what books they purchase and are deliberately not buying books based on dissertations (after all, most of them pay for access to ProQuest). I was unable to confirm with libraries whether this is a known practice. However, YBP Library Services, a middleman that provides print and digital content to university libraries for purchase, confirmed that they mark books that are revised dissertations within the lists of books available for purchase that they supply to libraries. YBP has a team of “Book-in-hand profilers” that goes through available titles and creates lists that offer information about each title. Among the dozens or even hundreds of things these profilers note about a book (e.g., subject, geographical focus), they record whether it is based on a dissertation. YBP determines this link based on the title, acknowledgements, and information from the publisher (they do not look online for dissertations, I was told). Stanford University library staff confirmed that they have received such lists with dissertation-based books marked as such, even though Stanford’s library has not requested such information to be flagged.
While this development may trouble junior scholars who are trying to publish a revised version of their dissertation, it is crucial to underscore that, for library acquisition purposes, it makes no difference whether a thesis was released or embargoed. YBP does not flag books in cases where the dissertation is online but merely whether there was an earlier draft in the form of a dissertation at all. In other words, the alleged problem is that a book is a revised dissertation rather than how that dissertation was disseminated.
Accordingly, publishers who are concerned with this issue do not see embargo as the solution but rather try to efface any easily detectable connection between the dissertation and the book. Common strategies include altering the title, changing section titles, and adjusting the acknowledgements section. The goal is to reduce the ability of YBP and similar companies to ascertain whether a book had a previous incarnation as a thesis.
It is worth noting that, while many editors believe in the narrative that libraries are no longer purchasing books that are based on theses, this theory holds limited explanatory power. Not buying dissertation-based books cannot account for the 80 to 90 percent reduction in library acquisition rates reported by some university presses. More likely, first books based on dissertations may be collateral damage resulting from much broader changes within university libraries.
University press editors also take other approaches to counter changing library acquisition practices and to survive in the digital age. For example, Duke University Press targets individual buyers and accordingly publishes most of their academic books simultaneously in hardback and paperback. The University of California Press is beginning to publish some open access monographs with costs covered by subventions. Stanford University Press is rethinking the form of the book altogether and recently received a Mellon grant to begin publishing digital “interactive scholarly research projects.” Many university presses now offer eBooks, although editors differ on whether they think this is a solvent financial option. Most problematically for early career scholars, some university presses have reduced the number of books they publish annually.
For junior scholars who are trying to build a career in this rapidly changing environment, the prospects for publishing a first book can seem grim. Nonetheless, most university press editors feel that there is little early career scholars can do to address these larger structural concerns, with one notable exception.
Several university press editors told me that they are alarmed that scholars are actively, if unintentionally, harming the publishing industry on which they rely. Many of us assign scanned or copied portions of books in our classrooms rather than requiring students to buy the entire book. Several university press editors expressed dismay at the (in their view) poor judgment of academics in this regard, often (again, in their view) in violation of copyright laws. Editors were overall less aware of the robust trade of pirated PDFs of recently published scholarly monographs, although a few recognized that this is a growing problem. Many junior scholars are active participants in this shadowy world. In short, some internet activities are harming academic publishers and thereby posing problems for junior scholars seeking to publish a revised version of their dissertation. But the issue is not putting the dissertation online. On the contrary, what will reduce one’s chances of publishing a first book are practices within the classroom and the willingness of scholars and students alike to download and share copies of books in contravention of copyright protections.
The Failure of Embargo and the Better Option of Takedown
When asked directly, the majority of university press editors I interviewed were ambivalent on the question of dissertation embargoes. A few admitted that there was disagreement about the issue among editors they knew, and several mentioned that having a dissertation online was something that they heard “other presses” worried about. Notably, not a single editor brought up the issue of embargoes before I asked about it. When I queried university press editors about the major factors they consider when evaluating a manuscript of a first book, embargoes were not on their minds.
When prompted directly, several editors said that at no point in their process of considering and publishing a first book do they even ask whether the author’s dissertation is available online. Nobody said they would reject a manuscript on the basis of the dissertation being included in an internet repository. Many of the top university presses do not care if an early career scholar released her dissertation or not. Some editors do inquire, typically once they have already decided to publish the book and are thinking about maximizing sales. At this stage, however, an immediate embargo upon deposit is typically not the best option.
North American universities most commonly allow dissertation embargoes for up to two years, but few junior academics will publish a book within this period of time. Some proactive scholars may submit a book proposal and even a manuscript within twenty-four months of depositing their thesis. But the process of internal and external review is often lengthy, especially for humanities book manuscripts. One typically does not even sign a book contract (not counting a non-binding “advance” contract) until after the completion of external blind review. After a scholar inks the contract, it takes months, sometimes more than a year, for a book to go through copyediting and proofs. A one- or two-year embargo on the dissertation, or even a six-year hold if the university permits it, will likely expire before or shortly after the publication of a scholar’s first book.
Precisely for this reason of misaligned timing, some university press editors that are concerned with an online dissertation adversely affecting book sales favor takedowns over embargoes. For example, Alan Harvey, Director of Stanford University Press, said that he requests authors permanently take down their dissertations from ProQuest and open access online repositories prior to publication. While university databases rarely advertise it, most will comply with a publisher-endorsed takedown request (as will ProQuest). Ten years ago, Harvey said, taking down the dissertation from ProQuest was required for authors publishing with Stanford University Press. These days, however, the press concedes that authors hold varying views, and they will not insist on a takedown. In Harvey’s experience, most authors prefer not to have the rough draft dissertation competing with the polished, revised book. I wonder, however, if many junior scholars underestimate their ability to disagree with the press publishing their book and perhaps feel pressured to take down the dissertation when they would prefer not to do so.
Only a few editors with whom I spoke recommended embargoing one’s dissertation at the time of deposit. However, for these individuals, there may be a gap between purported and actual practices. One university press editor told me that her press does not like seeing the dissertations of their first-book authors online (provided that the book is based on the thesis). This editor reported to me that she recommends graduate students embargo their dissertations. However, I contact several people who have published revised dissertations with this press in the past five years. Most of them attested that at no point did anybody from the press even ask whether their dissertation was available online; nobody reported receiving a request for an embargo or takedown.
Dissertation embargoes upon submission are too short to be an effective safeguard against fears that a revised book version will not sell. An embargo enacted at a later date, or even a permanent takedown, may address parts of this worry (although, for the purposes of selling books to university libraries, changing the title, table of contents, and acknowledgements is far more crucial). But most of the publishers with whom I spoke think that embargoes are really a red herring. As a group, acquisitions editors are far more concerned with the appeal of a book’s argument, the quality of its prose, and the strength of its author’s connections. Early career scholars have plenty to feel anxious about regarding publishing their first book, and much of it is unfair, network-driven, and out of their control. Whether their dissertation is online or embargoed is simply not one of the major issues.
Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow
Department of Religious Studies