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Writing a book proposal part II – the market section & avoiding dissertation style by Astrid Bracke
Astrid Bracke

Astrid BrackeIn this series of posts, Astrid Bracke writes about the process of moving from disseration to book. She has a PhD in ecocriticism and contemporary British fiction and teaches English literature at the University of Amsterdam and HAN University of Applied Sciences.

In the previous two posts I wrote about making the decision to turn your dissertation into a book, and what to include in the book proposal. In this post, I’ll continue by discussing the market section of the proposal and the importance of making your book look – and sound – less like a rewritten dissertation.

While the market section may seem a particularly difficult section to write, you’ve established yourself as an expert in the field through your dissertation, so you most probably already know what’s out there in terms of other works. For the publisher, this is a vital aspect: they need to know that the book will sell, otherwise they’re unlikely to take it on. This section is not just about proving how unique your book is: just writing “no one has ever done this before” is not enough. In fact, you’ll have to explicitly refer to other books that are somehow similar to yours, or that present an argument that you’ll continue, in order to show that their readers will also be likely to read your book.

Rachel Toor’s very useful article on the market section really helped me to think this through more: she recommends starting to think about the author questionnaire, which asks specific questions related to marketing your book, early. While writing the market section of your proposal, it is also useful to think about the conferences that where your book might be put on display, and the professional organizations that you belong to of which others members might be interested as well.

In the previous post I wrote that the piece of advice I got most frequently when I asked people about their experiences of turning their dissertation into a book, is that you should only do it if you can find the time, but especially the motivation and energy to do so. Another piece of advice that I heard again and again is the importance of making your monograph – even if it’s based on your dissertation – look less than a dissertation. Although it may seem that this is a matter that can wait until you start writing the book, it is actually an issue that you need to think about when you’re writing your book proposal. Some publishers explicitly ask whether the monograph is based on your dissertation, but even if they don’t explicitly do so, you’ll have to demonstrate in your proposal that the monograph is an actual book, not a dissertation.

So what is the difference between a dissertation and a book? One of the biggest differences is its purpose: the purpose of your dissertation is to prove that you are worthy of belonging to the academic community. The – published! – monograph, on the other hand, implies your membership of the academic community, so you don’t need to explicitly show it. Instead, the monograph will have to be both intellectually thorough, and broad enough to appeal to an audience large enough to merit the publisher taking it on.

William Germano, in From Dissertation to Book, also provides an interesting discussion of the dissertation versus the book. He suggests that in addition to differences in purpose and audience, a dissertation “rehearses scholarship in the field,” while the book “has absorbed scholarship in the field, and builds on it” (157). For instance, many dissertations include lengthy literature reviews or initial chapters that set out precisely what kind of work has gone before. While these demonstrate your so-called “cabinet making skills” as a PhD student, they are less relevant to readers of monographs, and often need to go. The audience for your book is interested in your argument, and far less in seeing that you know everything that has gone before in your field.

Other signs of “dissertation style” that Germano warns against are an overdependence on citation and reference, and repetitious statements of intent (“In this section I will demonstrate that…”, “Following the preceding discussion of X, I will now move on to analyze Y…”). These are all things to avoid when writing your book, and require you to take considerable critical distance from your dissertation before turning it into a monograph. Rewriting the dissertation, then, may very well turn out to be more about extensive cutting and revising, than about giving it a mere polish.

While you’re determining the focus of your book you’ll also have to decide on a publisher to submit your proposal to, which I’ll discuss in my next post.


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