Advice for turning a dissertation into a book manuscript is readily available. In our Author Guide we say the following:

Some of the key things that will help the transition of your manuscript from a dissertation (addressed to a small committee of specialists) to a book (aimed at a larger reading audience) are the following:

  • limit specialist jargon
  • limit repetition
  • limit the review of literature
  • limit footnotes to what is necessary
  • limit bibliographic entries to what is necessary
  • limit subheadings
  • make chapter titles concise and clear
  • keep the larger picture of implications in view

Some resources to help you think through these issues and provide more specific advice are:

  • Harman, Eleanor, et al., editors. The Thesis and the Book: A Guide for First-time Academic Authors. 2nd ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.
  • Luey, Beth. Handbook for Academic Authors. 4th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • ———, editor. Revising Your Dissertation: Advice from Leading Editors. Updated ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 
I would add to the list of resources:

Germano, William. From Dissertation to Book. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

You can find a lengthy excerpt of Germano’s book here. It is a good read. Here’s a taste:

Before you begin, you may have to do something so tough it can be crippling: overcome your boredom—maybe even revulsion—at what lies in front of you. Every scholar knows what writer’s block feels like, and dissertation writers are a target group for this disorder, especially in the twilight period of postdegree revisions. After having spent so much time working on a long and difficult project, some scholars simply cannot return to it. Suddenly, it’s easier to do nothing or to send it out unrevised.

Resist that temptation. An unrevised dissertation is a manuscript no one wants to see, but that doesn’t necessarily mean leaving yours in a desk drawer. As long as your work has potential, you owe it to yourself to find out what it can do. Rethink, decide, make your plans for revision and carry them through. Until you know what you have, you can’t know what remains to be done. Revising the dissertation may be going back to square one, stripping the whole project down to its chassis, or it might be something much less drastic. At least the material is familiar. At the moment, however, the thing before you, the manuscript that only a couple of months ago was your dissertation, is now something transitional, the not-yet-a-book. Once you can face your dissertation as actually something in the middle of its journey, you can begin to see it as others might.

My own experience as one who’s published his dissertation and as an editor who has shepherded dozens of dissertations through the publishing process might be helpful.

  • Consider the publisher. That is you must keep in mind the sorts of books a particular publisher publishes. Do they seem to be focused theologically, ideologically, or otherwise? Do they publish books for a more general readership or a more academic one or both?
  • Related to the previous point and maybe something to think about even before it, consider your audience. Most dissertations, if they get published at all, are published as academic monographs. That is, the audience is an academic one. Too often I see proposals from freshly minted PhDs that have in mind to reach “a broader audience” or “laypeople.” I’m sorry, but your dissertation on Lutheran missions to Mexico in the mid-19th century simply will not reach a broader audience no matter how much academic jargon you remove from the prose. I am always surprised by the importance and reach people assign to their dissertations. It often borders on delusion. There are, however, dissertation topics that have potential to have a longer reach than academia. Be realistic about whether yours is one of those. If it is and if a publisher thinks so too, be prepared to do a lot more revision than your classmate whose dissertation is being published as an academic monograph.
  • For many—this applies to some disciplines more than others—it is important to consider a respected monograph series. On this, and on many other things pertinent to the topic of this post, I highly recommend the relevant portion of the last chapter in Nijay Gupta’s book, Prepare, Succeed, Advance: A Guidebook for Getting a PhD in Biblical Studies and Beyond (Pickwick, 2011). [I recommend the whole book for things outside of the scope of this post!] Some series offer the added benefit—at least for career purposes—of peer review. On this, however, see what K. C. wrote a while back.
  • Consider time. You will spending a good deal of it making revisions. The extent of those revisions will depend largely on the previous considerations I’ve noted. You will likely not be doing much that will get your creative juices flowing. Unless you are having to re-write for a general audience, most of your time will be spent making the manuscript look a little less like a dissertation and a little more like a book (see excerpt from our author guide above). Also, I’m guessing that the bibliographic and citation style of your degree-granting institution will not be the same as that of the proposal-accepting publisher. So in addition to making it all more book-like, be prepared to rework your notes and bibliography to conform to the publisher’s (and sometimes series’s) house style.
  • Consider money out of your own pocket and out of the pocket of potential readers. Let me excerpt a rather lengthy bit from our author guide again. It is an explanation of the typesetting fee we charge for most titles in Pickwick Publications, our academic imprint. For my purpose here, the excerpt is meant to point to the monetary considerations you will want to make when looking to publish your dissertation with any academic publisher.

Pickwick Publications is the Wipf and Stock imprint for volumes aimed solely or primarily at an academic readership. These projects include revised dissertations, scholarly mono- graphs, translations of historical documents, and multi-authored volumes (Festschriften, conference papers, and other collaborations). By their nature, most of these volumes have limited sales potential, no matter how brilliantly written and no matter how popular the topic.

Because of limited market potential, the financing of volumes published in academic imprints is handled in different ways by publishers. One way is to pay the author no royal- ties; the key problem with this is that the author has no stake in the success of the book. A second way is to charge very high retail prices; the key problem is that this limits sales solely to libraries, and the author cannot have their own students order it. And a third is for authors to handle typesetting themselves; this results in unevenly produced books, and authors have to invest time they don’t have and learn skills for which they have no further need. Some publishers employ all three of these strategies. A revised dissertation published by a European academic publisher typically is only available in hardback, has a retail price of $150 to $200, and the author receives no royalties.

We have adopted a policy of charging a typesetting fee based on the page count of the typeset pages. For monographs this fee is $1.50/page (thus $375 for a 250-page volume), and for multi-authored volumes the fee is $4/page (thus $1,000 for a 250-page volume). The higher price for the multi-authored volumes is based on the extra time and effort it takes to deal with multiple contributors, different levels of proficiencies among the essays, and inexperienced volume editors. In addition, the $4.00 per page will cover the cost for a certain number of additional presentation copies for contributors. This strategy has the author sharing a small part of the typesetting costs with the publisher. This does not cover our costs for editing, cover design, printing, binding, marketing, advertising, and other costs. Some academic publishers have employed this subvention policy in addition to the three strategies listed above.

This subvention strategy allows us to pay royalties to the author on all copies sold (not including those sold to the author or contributors at the author-discount rate), keep the retail prices reasonable (approximately $27 for a 250-page volume), and to insure the quality of presentation by having our professional typesetters handle each volume.

These are just a few of the things to consider as you look to get your dissertation published. We editors do a lot of meeting with authors who are trying to navigate  this path. Our schedules at AAR/SBL are especially filled with these sorts of meetings. Let me invite any of you who may be giving all of these things consideration (please do consider these things before approaching publishers with a proposal!) and who will be in Chicago next month for the annual conference to contact us to set up a meeting to discuss publishing your dissertation.