Can you guess which of the following award-winning, widely reviewed books from the past couple of years originated as a dissertation?
Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart
Pekka Hamalainen, Comanche Empire
Brian DeLay, War of a Thousand Deserts
Aaron Sachs, The Humboldt Current
Danielle McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street
Sarah Igo, The Averaged American
It’s a trick question; they all did. First books – often dissertations revised with the help of editors and peer reviewers – are among the most important scholarship published by university presses. The best revised dissertations are field-defining buzz books that generate excitement in, and sometimes outside, the academy. (Moreton, Sachs, and Igo were all reviewed in the New York Times.) Many sell well too, especially if they get assigned widely in courses.
If you think about it, the success of superlative first books makes sense. To make it in a cutthroat job market, new PhDs must position their work for maximum impact, and as a result they’re often especially attuned to market considerations. But revised dissertations catch a lot of flak these days. Some of my colleagues at other university presses talk openly about how they won’t acquire this kind of book at all, even as the presses they work for continue to publish revised dissertations that are (as far as I can tell) strong performers. When some publishing professionals talk critically about books based on dissertations, I think they’re really talking about less interesting, less successful books in this category. “Revised dissertations,” according to this thinking, equals “bad revised dissertations.”
At the presses where I’ve worked books by junior scholars have been, and remain, an important part of the publishing program. They complement books by professors at other career stages and by authors outside the academy, adding richness and variety to the portfolio. If you’re an author currently revising a dissertation for publication, please feel free to hit me up.
A slightly different version of this post originally appeared on the University of Nebraska Press blog.