From Dissertation to Book: A Few Things I Learned Over the Past 10 Years

I don’t tend to get overly personal on this blog very often. Although I adore social media (clearly), the first person singular is an uncomfortable voice when I address the public as a historian. I have always used banter about ancient or medieval history as a kind of protective tortoise shell that makes me seem extroverted. However, I did want to post a blog today that reflects a bit on the process of transitioning your book from a dissertation format to a published monograph–along with some personal anecdotes. The occasion? After ten years of ruminating on Greco-Roman disreputable tradesmen and the socio-legal construction of dishonor, my book, Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean, has come out with the University of Michigan Press. Here are a few things I learned:

5. Take a Break From the Dissertation: After you defend your dissertation, you need to put the book in a drawer for a little while. Tell the printed copy (you know, the one with all those fresh signatures on the top) that while you love it, you need a little “me time” where you don’t see each other. Then lock it in a desk and forget about it for 6 months. While you are doing this, begin to think about all the things that didn’t make it into that dissertation. Gather the proverbial hair off of the beauty shop floor. These research scraps can usually form the beginnings of at least one article. For me, the book was focused on artisans and tradesmen, and yet I had all this research on late antique heretics, apostates, and non-Christians that received the stigma of infamia in Late Antiquity. Eventually (with much aid from James Rives and Andrew Riggsby in particular), this became an article called, “Altering Infamy: Status, Violence, and Civic Exclusion in Late Antiquity.” During this time, you will be developing clearer eyes for when you return to the dissertation.

4. Reflect On Whether You Need a Monograph In Your Life At All: Not all dissertations will make good monographs. Moreover, I am not convinced that the monograph is the end-all and be-all of becoming an “academic.” It is not the ruler by which we must measure greatness either now or in the future; however, the field of history generally requires a monograph for tenure requirements, and thus I began to re-conceptualize and adapt my book for those requirements. First, I started to write a book prospectus (you can download it here (PDF): bond_prospectus) after emailing Prof. Greg Aldrete at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Why did I do this? I have admired Greg and his writing for years. I want to be Greg when I grow up. Ergo, I modeled my book proposal and my tone on a successful prospectus from someone I truly admire. Greg and his wife Alicia would become integral to this book in so many myriad ways, but it all began with a cold-call email to him (get used to these). He responded by sharing his book prospectus for Floods of the Tiber with me. Veteran historians: If you can? Always share a book prospectus with younger authors. We don’t know what we are doing about 87% of the time, and, well, we need your mentorship.

3. Conference: Yes, that is right. I am using this word as the ever important academic verb “to conference.” I presented some new research on Roman tanning practices at a conference called the Association of Ancient Historians (AAH) while writing the chapter on tanners. Like a standup comic, it gave me a chance to try out new material. And at that conference, a professor heard my paper and introduced me to the executive editor at the press I would later work with, University of Michigan Press. You have to get your work out there and present it. There is no use keeping your brilliant thoughts on the page alone. Conferences allow you to workshop your chapters with people that can not only give you good feedback, they can introduce you to editors and other people that can help you. It is cliché to say “it is who you know,” but there is a lot of truth to this. Also, don’t be ashamed to apply for early career aid to help you afford the travel. I know it ain’t cheap, but it is necessary.

2. Blog: Writing is a muscle and you want to be buff, don’t you? I would suggest beginning to blog much earlier, say, during the writing of your dissertation, but if you haven’t started to create an online voice, you need to. You are not Ariel. You need a voice that is recognizable. Blogging and Twitter also allow you to meet people doing similar work to you and  begin to develop your own ideas. A lot of people tell me they are afraid to put their dissertation thoughts or current research online, but please do not fear your ideas being stolen. First, that is a bit narcissistic of you. Second, the blog (and its timestamp) are a way of staking your own claim. Blogs are citable under MLA and Chicago Style guidelines. Moreover, blogging allows you to develop a voice that is accessible, creates a visible audience that is attractive to publishers, and allows your curiosity to take you in new directions. I never thought my most popular blog post would be on chastity belts, but, well, here we are. I am okay with the fact that the number one google search for my name is “Sarah Bond Chastity Belt.” It means people are reading what I write and that, just maybe, they will read my book too.

1. It will Take a Village: Close to 100 people read, edited, contributed to, or brought me a libation during the writing of this book. I tried to thank as many as I could in the acknowledgements, but try and keep a running list in the first footnote of every chapter while you are writing or revising. Then move all of these chapter citations to the acknowledgements section when you are finished. There will indeed be people who leave your life (breakups or perhaps colleagues you lost touch with) and a whole bunch of new people that enter it during the course of writing your book. Why? Because you didn’t write this damn thing in a vacuum. You wrote this book while you were living your life and damn it, a lot of amazing and horrible things will happen in between your hours seeing it via Microsoft word over the next few years. Here is a PDF of my acknowledgements. I am truly thankful for all the help they gave me.

This certainly isn’t everything I learned, but it is a start. Some of the best tips actually come from ‘The Professor Is In‘ and from books written on this subject, but these are just a few of my own recommendations. Thanks for reading this blog for all these years and if you care to read the book, that is great too.

Image graciously given to me by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for the cover of the book. It is an image of two imperial-era Roman potters. You are going to need a lot of gifts of time and resources from friends, colleagues, and… sometimes museums. 


4 thoughts on “From Dissertation to Book: A Few Things I Learned Over the Past 10 Years

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  1. Thank you so much for this piece. I’m in the middle of the process right now, and this is so reaffirming. I really appreciate how you’ve thought through so many of the sticking points for prospective book authors–wait v. not waiting, blog v. not blogging, etc. There are so many good insights that are structured in a refreshing and approachable way.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Richard. Many of us have been where you are right now, so don’t be afraid to ask questions. As you are finding out, there is a highly supportive community of late antique historians for you to get to know. Don’t be afraid to track us down at NAPS or perhaps at Shifting Frontiers.

  2. As you are in the position to promote your dissertation as a book already, congratulations. I like the contributions you’re giving at your blog on ancient history and literature with all those sources. Dissertation troubles, I share with you – we are not alone. Best wishes.

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