June 13, 2003

'A Paranoid Genre:' A Publisher on the Doctoral Dissertation

A professor I spoke to recently called the dissertation 'a paranoid genre,' and rightly so. The manuscript you produce as a degree requirement needs to demonstrate that you know the history of your field, that you have propitiated various deities, that you've found the right giant on whose shoulders you can climb and wave your tiny hat. Maybe that isn't paranoia quite, but it's at least a conservatism born of fear...

...A real book manuscript doesn't look over its shoulder, worrying that Foucault is running after it in a hockey mask. It has the confidence not to tell everything, like a tedious old uncle at a family reunion, but instead chooses which part of the story to tell even while knowing much, much more. Most important, a book manuscript doesn't suppress the author's commitment to the subject. That commitment might even be love.

-- William Germano, [currently sub-only; will edit to free URL as soon as it's available]"If Dissertations Could Talk, What Would They Say?"

Here's an interesting read for anyone trying to turn a dissertation into a book manuscript. Most dissertations, Germano claims, are "dry as toast and not as tasty:" dull, overlengthy, and written to fufill an academic requirement rather than to speak to a broader audience. Germano recommends the following:

Every graduate student needs and deserves instruction in writing an article for publication, instruction in planning a thesis that someone other than a committee might care about, instruction in how to maneuver quickly and safely through book publishing's hoops, instruction in how to revise one's work five times, not get sick of it, and understand that the result is worth every grindingly tedious moment spent. There are more attempts to provide those tools than there were 20 years ago, but the university has a long way to go and not much time to get there. Every graduate department or program, as well as every graduate-school administration, should be taking those fundamental tasks and building them into their core programs.

No doubt he is right about this, but don't look for these reforms any time soon.

This opens up another dimension to the "publish or perish" issue, which is briefly discussed in the Rachel Johnson article that I blogged about below. Johnson cites someone at Routledge:

‘We’re inundated with manuscripts and proposals every day,’ says Siobhan Pattinson at Routledge. ‘And what academics want is to publish something not that will sell but that will improve their position in the department. It’s a completely saturated market, so we are now focusing on textbooks’ — which cannot be submitted as research in the RAE process, I should note — ‘and less on the monograph for which we don’t pay the author an advance, which has a print run of 200, and sells for 65 a copy.’

As the academy demands more and more by way of publication, academic publishers increasingly call on academics to cease and desist from the overproduction of unprofitable monographs. As John Sutherland explains in "Publish or Perish,"

Academic presses are no longer prestige operations into which (like their football or basketball teams) college authorities are prepared to pour large sums of money. Even academic presses are nowadays expected to break even. Make profits, even.

The problem, as Sutherland describes it, is that there is simply "no market demand" for what is currently being produced: not only does the public not "want to read the thousands of academic monographs currently being produced by the tenure-needy literary critics of America," but "not even academics buy academic books."

Okay, off to finish revisions to a chapter for a monograph that no more than a handful of people will ever read...

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at June 13, 2003 09:14 AM

It's not just on the production end. I'm currently working for an academic library (and moving to grad school in a tiny field in the fall), and even just journals: we can barely afford the major journals in our field (non-biological sciences) anymore, due to rising costs. Our book purchasing is way down because of budget issues. I don't think that this is uncommon, so even academic libraries, who were a significant audience for monographs (due to the prohibitive price, in general), are dropping off.

A press at this institution has a monograph system where (and I'm not horribly clear on this because I came onto the book as a gofer and proofreader), after acceptance, they'll publish, but the author needs to provide a press-ready copy of the manuscript. Saves on a lot of back-end costs, so the end products tend to cost about $20-$25, but. A lot more work for the scholar, of course.

Economics and the current academic production milieu seem not to get along. Some scholars look down on "popular" books (I saw this a lot in linguistics, my undergraduate field), yet that's the sort of thing which presses are looking for these days, for there's more of a chance that sort of text would sell and help the press break even. It's not a very pleasant situation on any side of the triangle: creation, distribution, or purchasing.

Posted by: K. at June 13, 2003 10:17 AM

Everyone can agree that academic books are not going to be market successes for the most part, but they have never been and should never be.

University presses (this doesn't apply to Routledge, etc., though they have to assume something of the mantle when they publish academic books) must continue to realize that they provide a public service in distributing knowledge. Though there is more pressure to publish now than there was fifty years ago, I don't believe the overall quality of work (at least in the fields that I know something about) has declined as much as some would like to believe. Due to the brutality of the job market in most humanities fields, I'd say that 'natural' selection has increased the quality of faculty entering the market substantially; it's certainly increased their ability to publish.

Not to sound like I have a simple solution to a complex problem, but, as usual, this can be blamed on administrators. At many English Depts. across the country, administrators who want to increase or maintain the "prestige" (i.e., U.S. News Ranking, or possibly Carnegie classification) of their university, would never alleviate the "book-for-tenure" (or, the even more ominous and increasingly common "book-for-job") requirement for fear of losing status.

These administrators answer invariably to trustees of the Lord Dimwit Flathead genus, who, in many cases, are under pressure from troglodytic state legislators, who are in turn elected by an uneducated and/or uncaring populace. This is the main reason why I think that tenure, even with the very mitigating 'deadwood' factor, must remain: it is the only thing that allows faculty to have some measure of power against these corrupting forces.

The publishing issue is, as I mentioned, not hard to solve. Departments must substitute journal articles for book publication as a requirement for tenure. Journals are a superior means for scholarly communication, esp. if they are available on-line. It's interesting to note that an index of how retrograde a disicipline is provided by its attitude towards this issue: scientists, mathematicians, and analytic philosophers tend to want to spread their work far and wide electronically in pre-print form; whereas literary scholars almost never do this, being constrained by the paranoid fear that someone will 'steal' their ideas or that the work will be somehow adulterated by being accessible on-line.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at June 13, 2003 10:39 AM

Online dissemination is not the perfect answer even in the sciences, as it's currently implemented. The cost for peer-reviewed journals is becoming far too high, new journals start and fold and start; and if you think pre-print is the answer, you've never been on the receiving end of a pre-print related lawsuit. I don't know how aware our patrons are aware of this (they ask for more and more to be subscribed to online, although we simply don't have the budget to satisfy all of them); but then, but having been on the working end, the academic science libraries are facing a looming crisis, and modern technology has not saved us yet.

Posted by: K. at June 13, 2003 11:17 AM

I'm working now as an acquisitions editor for a commercial publisher that's specifically targeting the academic market. And even we don't want dissertations. Trying to turn a dissertation into a "real" book is often more trouble than it's worth. Indeed, it would be better for authors to simply try to get journal articles out of the dissertation and submit proposals for a NEW BOOK that addresses the major theme of the dissertation--it's easier to write and easier to get a publisher to bite on.

Posted by: James Joyner at June 13, 2003 11:23 AM

No, I've never been on the receiving end of a pre-print related lawsuit, but I seriously doubt that any literary scholar has or ever will be. This would remain the case if they as a group adopt the practice, I'd bet.

The science journal cartels are a bad thing, I admit. Browsing through the Z section of the journals last night, I found an article by the president of JSTOR in what was allegedly a peer-reviewed librarians' journal which seemed to be an extended advertisement for his company's product (which I've found handy--if annoyingly designed).

Regarding dissertations and books--in English at least, the vast, vast majority of first books are slightly revised dissertations. Some are published unrevised. The differences commonly cited between a publishable book and a dissertation are often exaggerated, only apply to certain groups of potential authors, or are a product of only certain types of committees and authors. There's a lot of gamesmanship involved in concealing from an acquisitions editor the extent to which a proposal is based upon a dissertation, a lot of which, I'd venture, is based upon concealing other, unspoken principles, about what types of academic works are publishable--principles which have unmeritocratic assumptions about institutional prestige, both in terms of training deparment and current job.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at June 13, 2003 12:38 PM

"There's a lot of gamesmanship involved in concealing from an acquisitions editor the extent to which a proposal is based upon a dissertation, a lot of which, I'd venture, is based upon concealing other, unspoken principles, about what types of academic works are publishable..."

I don't think the acquistions editor is so easily fooled. What we are hearing, increasingly, is that editors/publishers are no longer willing or able to play this game.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 13, 2003 12:53 PM

There may be something inherently corrupting about the requirement to do *original* work, especially in fields where the base of knowledge is relatively stable. C S Lewis remarked that if you deliberately set out to do something original, it will probably be no good; whereas if you set out simply to do something *excellent*, it may very well turn out to be original.

Also, Chun commented that..."scientists, mathematicians, and analytic philosophers tend to want to spread their work far and wide electronically in pre-print form; whereas literary scholars almost never do this, being constrained by the paranoid fear that someone will 'steal' their ideas..." Reminds me of an observation that Tom Watson (the younger) of IBM made in his book: People in IBM's mechanical-development lab tended to hold ideas close to the vest and to be suspicious of their co-workers, whereas people in the electronics-development lab tended to be much more open. Probably attributable to the fact that new ideas were relatively scarcer in the former than the latter..

Posted by: David Foster at June 13, 2003 01:10 PM


In English at least, they are either fooled or are willing to play the game. It's a simple matter of fact that the overwhelming majority of first books published by literature scholars are slightly revised dissertations. Does every dissertation get published? No. But of those who finish a dissertation and publish a book within ten years, almost all are nearly indistinguishable from the diss.

I don't think this is a bad thing. Dissertations do not have to be filled with dull literature review or written for an audience of five, and increasingly they are not.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at June 13, 2003 01:19 PM

Another Chronicle article that addresses these issues: "Recue Tenure from the Tyranny of the Monograph" by Harvard UP executive editor Lindsay Waters (4/20/2001). Waters' entire essay is worth reading, both for its cogency of argument and its moving sense of mission. One of his central points is that the crisis in the academic humanities has much to do with the fact that, in requiring junior faculty to publish one or more books in order to be eligible for promotion, an increasing number of departments have effectively outsourced tenure decisions to university presses.

Posted by: Erin O'Connor at June 13, 2003 02:14 PM

It's going to take me a while to get rid of the image of Foucault in a hockey mask....

Posted by: askpang at June 13, 2003 03:59 PM

I can't read Germano's Chronicle piece, but I assume it's like the talk he's been giving around the country (plugging his forthcoming book), which I have heard.

If that's true, then I would say that Germano has English/comp lit dissertations in mind, acknowledges that it has been the case that dissertations have been published even recently, but further claims that this is unsustainable, and was a mistake to begin with.

His big idea is that a book has a narrative line or urgency, while dissertations don't. At least in his talk, his standard model is the literary dissertation, with the canonical "theoretical model or historical setup" + four chapters of readings. (He has a short version of this argument on 34-35 of Getting It Published.)

It is of course true that some first books still look like this, but there *is* usually an intense amount of revision between the diss and the book. It's a good idea--in fact, a psyche-saving one while one's still trying to finish--to compare a recent first book to an ILL-obtained microfilm of the source dissertation.

Posted by: Jason at June 13, 2003 05:47 PM

As someone who will shortly be submitting her revised dissertation for final review, I find this discussion very interesting. I think I was lucky in having an advisor who gave me a fair degree of freedom in choosing topic and approach and a committee who put a strong emphasis on readability and relevance; it's meant that my work with my editor has largely focused on reframing -- rather than gutting and rewriting -- the book so that it will be appealing to a general audience as well as academics.

Two additions to the discussion -- first, the comment K. made about the scorn towards "popular" books -- I think this is still active in history, if only because one can only stomach so many badly written glossy-photo coffee-table books on the Civil War and tell-all bios of presidents and their wives. On the other hand, at least among my cohort, there is a real push to write books that are readable and relevant.

This brings me to the second point -- the problem of getting such work published. While I was lucky in having a wonderful editor to work with on my dissertation-to-book, -- in no small part because of my advisor's efforts on my behalf (perhaps this is why dissertation-to-book is so common?) I and another junior colleague completely failed to interest any publishers on a collection of essays we had compiled without the oversight of an advisor or other mentor. These essays came out of a small conference on a fairly popular topic during which all of the presenters noted a lot of useful crossfertilization and common themes emerging, so it's not like the collection lacked coherency or relevance. When we tried to sell our proposal to publishers at the national conference, most of them expressed interest, but refused to look into it further. The reason given by virtually all of them? All of the contributors were untenured, junior scholars who had not yet published a book. If we could find a Name to lend gravitas to the project, they might consider it, but all the Names we asked were uninterested; they were pursuing their own research.

It makes me wonder whether the fixation on books and articles is cutting off other options for young scholars without an established publication record, and the dissertation-to-book path is taken because there the assumption is that the material has been vetted by experienced scholars (the advisor and committee members) before the editor sees it.

Posted by: Rana at June 13, 2003 05:50 PM

As an English-specific complement to the Chronicle piece to which Erin O'Connor links above, here's a link to the "Recommendations" of the MLA's ad hoc committee on publishing.

Items 1-3 of "Recommendations to Departments" basically boil down to: "Don't expect a monograph for tenure if you're not a top-ten program," along with "don't let university presses make tenure decisions for you."

But then again, the committee backs away from this in "Recommendations to University Administrators," thus making the whole recommendation a little pointless.

Posted by: Jason at June 13, 2003 05:54 PM

Thanks Erin and Jason for these references.

Chun, I think the problem is more complex than you allow. "University presses," you write, "(this doesn't apply to Routledge, etc., though they have to assume something of the mantle when they publish academic books) must continue to realize that they provide a public service in distributing knowledge." I think they do realize this. They are obviously not producing mass market paperbacks for people to read on the beach. Instead, they are producing a type of book that is apparently not very profitable, and perhaps even the very opposite of profitable. The publishing of a monograph with a print run of 200 needs to be supported/subsidized by some other source -- perhaps through the sales of a money-maker (eg, textbooks) and/or by university money. Even if a press is committed to the mission of distributing knowledge for the good of the public, there's no escaping the economics of publishing: they need to at least break even, and in some cases, are increasingly expected to turn a profit.
What we are hearing from the publishing end is that they can no longer support the increased volume of publication characteristic of the 1990s.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 14, 2003 08:08 AM

I can't imagine a publisher allowing a print run of only 200. The cost for each book would have to be several hundred dollars to break even!

Brassey's, my company, typically prints 500 hardcovers and 2000 softcovers of any academic book we put out that we think will have limited or no trade (i.e., popular) interest. And even with a print run that small, there's no profit unless the book catches on and there's another print run. Now, unlike some companies that are in the commercial-academic realm, we don't price our books so that only libraries can buy them--we try to make them feasible for academic course adoption as supplemental texts.

Posted by: James Joyner at June 14, 2003 03:01 PM

200 is the figure mentioned by Siobhan Pattinson of Routledge (in the Johnson article cited in this entry), who speaks of the monograph "'which has a print run of 200, and sells for 65 a copy."

Perhaps she is hyperbolizing to make a point? Or maybe this is a difference between the US and UK?

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 14, 2003 03:19 PM

IA, I think she's hyperbolizing. My book contract, which is with a UK press, is for 500 copies--which most would consider a small run. As I understand it, though, that's standard for a monograph. It is possible, I suppose, that some of Routledge's more esoteric publications have a print run of only 200, and certainly my father tells me that their classics and ancient history titles are stunningly overpriced ($80+ for a book under 100 pages long?!).

Posted by: Miriam at June 14, 2003 04:42 PM


I didn't read the MLA guidelines as making the same "top-ten" rec. that you did; and, even if they did, we have to realize that, however you choose to rank them, at least thirty departments think of themselves as top-tier (and their universities' administrations certainly do). And as such there's little to no chance of them dropping the book(s) for tenure requirement (unless it started at the "top"). I'd guess that there's a b-f-t standard at between 125-200 English departments in the U.S, though I hope that's too high.

Also, regarding diss. into book, I have looked at several of these cases and have found nearly verbatim instances for every heavily revised one. This may just be an oddity of my sample, but anecdotal evidence also seems to support it. Sub-specialty, etc. has a lot to do with this, I bet.

Re Routledge and "narrative urgency," again it could just be the books I've read, but I don't see much of that philosophy in their list. I don't have any problems with the six-chapter format as a book, personally; and I think the "popularization" of academic work is dangerous. I sympathize to a certain extent with the arguments made by William Dowling here about Germano.

The only thing I can see wrong with abolishing the bft is the potential pressure it would put on the academic journals. Already there is a lot of murkiness about evaluating their quality; and if departments had to come up with some type of alternative metric to weigh journal publications (which will have to be much more complicated--and contested--than the presence of a book), then this could become a very serious problem. I've rarely heard the same answer when asking people in my field what our most prestigious journal is.

Thinking about this makes me recall the Onion columnist who wanted someone to do something about all the problems.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at June 14, 2003 04:51 PM

"I'd guess that there's a b-f-t standard at between 125-200 English departments in the U.S, though I hope that's too high."

It's not the one-book-for-tenure requirement that I object to, but the increasing pressure to create a two-books-for-tenure standard.

And the pressure extends to entry-level expectations: In my field, there are so many candidates chasing after so few jobs that I'm told by many people that I can't expect to land a tenure-track job without a book. Indeed, I've applied for at least a couple of tenure-track jobs where the search committee asked for a book ms -- not a dissertation, mind you, but a book ms.

Shortly after I defended by dissertation, I had a conversation with my second reader, who looked at me and told me something I had already begun to figure out (though I hadn't yet experienced the job market firsthand): "I'm afraid there are no jobs right now in your field. It will probably take you several years, and you may not be able to secure a position until you have a book contract and most of the manuscript completed."
So I guess I can't say I wasn't warned, though as this blog makes clear, I think people should be warned before they enter graduate school in the first place.

Thanks for the reference to the William Dowling piece.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 14, 2003 05:37 PM

In his book "Forging of a Rebel," Arturo Barea writes about growing up in Spain during the 1920s. He worked for a bank that had the following policy: every year, they hired a batch of high-school graduates for clerical positions. They were paid *nothing,* but the hope was held out that they might, after a year of unpaid work, be hired for a paying job. At the end of the year, maybe 10 out of 60 were in fact hired--the rest were canned, and a new batch of hopefuls was brought in...

I wonder if university administrators have been reading up on Spanish history.

Posted by: David Foster at June 14, 2003 05:43 PM

"They were paid *nothing,* but the hope was held out that they might, after a year of unpaid work, be hired for a paying job. At the end of the year, maybe 10 out of 60 were in fact hired--the rest were canned, and a new batch of hopefuls was brought in..."

Yes, this is all too apt an analogy.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 14, 2003 06:13 PM

There are print-on-demand publishers who seem to be able to make money on tiny runs. Either they scan in out-of-print public-domain books, or they ask the authors to provide the electronic equivalent of camera-ready copy. I don't think that academic publishing is taking full advantage of new technology.

I know people who are trying to develop electronic (paperless) publishing as an alternative to the present system. The mechanics are easy and cheap -- my guess is that free electronic publication is cheaper than mailing a journal (at a loss) to 300 paid subscribers. As a method of publication the problems are soluble, but when it comes down to awarding points for validating careers they have problems, since "The Internet" sounds like porno and conspiracy theory to many.

This whole argument needs to be dissected into parts: teaching undergrads, producing scholarship, publishing scholarship, teaching teachers and scholars, paying for everything, and choosing and remunerating staff to do all the various jobs. Right now it's a big ungodly mess, with everything overlapping with everything else.

Posted by: zizka at June 14, 2003 07:36 PM

IA: is the two-books-for-tenure idea spreading? When I was job-hunting, the faculty in charge of placement at Chicago named one department that had tbft as a requirement--and even those research-driven Chicagoans thought the idea was anathema. A few years on, said department (which I'll leave anonymous) is still the only department I know of with tbft in place. Or is history different?

Chun: I wonder if 125-200 might be too high. I spent two years on a senior search committee, and almost none of our candidates had faced such a requirement. Departments in the CSU system rarely require a book, if ever; the same goes for the 4-year SUNY colleges. And in a surprising number of liberal arts colleges, publishing leads to perishing.

Posted by: Miriam at June 14, 2003 07:52 PM

Electronic publishing can be cheap, though I wouldn't call it easy -- I've seen too many publishers falling into production morasses and settling for utter crap as output to say that.

I do hope it's the answer to some of these problems, but I get *ahem* seriously irked when the very real difficulties involved are swept under the carpet. If you read the ebook category on CavLec, you'll see some relevant rants. This one in particular has been popular.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at June 14, 2003 07:53 PM


I hope you're right, but I was basing my estimate on the fact that there are approx. 125 English PhD granting programs in the U.S., and I assumed that all of them would have bft. Add to that the liberal arts and comprehensive schools which also have it--sad but true--and that's what I came up with.

Also, I don't know if you were talking about any of the various Ivies, but I think that Harvard and Yale would deny most English Dept. people tenure no matter how many books they've published. Columbia and Penn have also denied tenure to many worthy and well-published people.

One of the most absurd things I've heard is when the book you publish before you get (in order to get) the job then doesn't count towards your tenure.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at June 14, 2003 08:09 PM

I honestly don't know if the two-books-for-tenure idea is spreading. I do know that in my discipline, and especially in my subdiscipline, the requirements for an entry-level position are certainly increasing.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 14, 2003 09:09 PM

125 could be right, then.

My father tells me that among classicists, at least, Harvard junior positions are known as "collapsing chairs." (As in: "I thought I might get tenure, but it was a collapsing chair after all.") I think Harvard's current president is trying to change the non-tenure climate, however.

Posted by: Miriam at June 14, 2003 10:21 PM

Harvard (that Ivy-covered revolving door) has gotten so much criticism of late about its failure to tenure anyone, ever, that it has begun actually tenuring a few people from within. I interviewed at Harvard for a job in the History of Science department in 1994--they wold me up front that if they hired me, I should understand not to expect to get tenure. Matter of policy, don't you know.

As for number of books to tenure: what I found is that the number of books required for tenure is, like so many aspects of this opaque and corrupt process, in the eye of the beholder. There were two different department chairs while I was an assistant professor. The first one took me out to lunch my first day on the job and said, "You have to write two books to get tenure." Three years later the second one told me, and everyone else on the tenure-track, that you had to have one plus progress toward another. Those chairs also differed on what was required for third-year reappointment--the first said you had to have publications plus a completed book manuscript ready; the second that you just had to show good progress toward a book. People lost their jobs because of the confusion surrounding that one.

When even your chairmen can't or won't give you straight, consistent answers, you sort of figure out that a) you had better write as many books as you can by year six, and b) you are not being evaluated according to clear, fair, transparent standards.

Posted by: Erin O'Connor at June 15, 2003 02:36 AM

My own department seems to be unusual in that it explicitly stipulates--in writing--either a mix of seven articles and reviews or a book. (We're a comprehensive with a 3-3 load.) No room for quarrel there. There may be some difference between state university and private university "culture," in the sense that private universities can deny tenure because they don't like your hair--OK, that's an exaggeration, but not by much--and a state university actually needs a paper trail. That doesn't prevent state institutions from making really stupid tenure decisions--see under "K. C. Johnson"--but it does make them a lot easier to sue. I don't think anybody could win a lawsuit against Harvard for denial of tenure, although I seem to recall that someone is trying.

Posted by: Miriam at June 15, 2003 08:28 AM

Don't these numerical targets (eg, BFT) undermine the value of scholarship -- aren't the ideas what is important? -- and undermine much of the pleasure the academics have in doing their research?

Posted by: JT at June 16, 2003 01:43 PM

The whole idea of quantitative targets for scholarly publications reminds me of Soviet ideas of industrial management. A plant manufacturing plumbing supplies was measured on total weekly tonnage of shipments. So they made all tubs and no faucets....

Posted by: David Foster at June 16, 2003 06:19 PM