I’m a VAP, on the job market, and trying to conceptualize the dissertation-to-manuscript process (I graduated this past academic year).
That intellectual labor aside, the thing that’s really making me anxious is the timing of the process itself. On the one hand, lots of people say “write a book proposal, get a contract, write the manuscript” and I see fellow junior faculty doing that on Twitter all the time. On the other hand, other people (including my adviser, who is wonderful but also wrote his first book in the late 60s) tell me to write the manuscript first because a contract doesn’t mean that much at this stage in my career.
Obviously one of those has to be the right path, but I don’t know which one it is! I also feel like everyone else understands this but me. Any thoughts you have would be appreciated.
–Thoroughly Modern Millie
Thanks for writing in. Increasingly over the past decade, I’ve seen more and more junior scholars applying for assistant professor jobs with book manuscripts under contract or even published, so your question is a very important one for many in your cohort of recent grads. I’ll be interested to hear what my readers have to say about this, (FYI, Millie’s Ph.D. and current VAP is in a book-intensive humanities discipline.)
Believe me, I understand the lure of snagging a book contract ASAP. I’ve fallen under that spell myself on occasion, but in the end I think spending some time thinking about the book you want to write and getting some major revisions done is the way to go. In other words, I think your advisor is right. (Maybe that means I’m an old fart too, although I see that I was a wee infant the year he published his first book. Old fartitude sneaks up quickly on you–one day you’re all like “hey, I’m 32, burn the candle at both ends!” and then you’re all like “two beers and I can’t get out of bed the next morning, srsly?”–so watch out.)
Speaking only for myself, I’m impressed more by quality than quantity or book contracts when vetting applications for assistant professors. Having an article or two circulating or even published is great, but a book contract doesn’t mean a whole lot unless it’s with a tiptop press. So ask yourself: what’s the most significant contribution your research might make in your field at this point in your career? How do I revise my dissertation research to write that book? And finally, which are the best publishers who might want to publish this book?
At this point, I think it pays to think bigger than your dissertation. I myself never published my dissertation and instead wrote an entirely new and original book, but I don’t recommend that course. (Mostly because I never get credit for having done this, but it was the right thing to do. Different chapters of my first book are anthologized in the two top American women’s history readers now, so I think that speaks to the larger, more important questions my book engaged. That never would have happened had I published a revised dissertation.)
At the risk of being too Pollyanna, you could look on the bright side of being on a VAP rather than in a tenure-track job. You’re not yet on the tenure clock, so you’ve got a year or so to think big and write the best book you can now, rather than get a contract with a NON-tiptop press and write a smaller book faster. I’d wager that writing about this process and your conclusions in your job letter will impress search committees more than that smaller, faster book project will.
One last point: you wrote, “On the one hand, lots of people say ‘write a book proposal, get a contract, write the manuscript’ and I see fellow junior faculty doing that on Twitter all the time.” If they’re on Twitter, they’re not writing their books! Believe me, I’ve wasted a lot of time not writing on Twitter myself, so don’t let the social media distract you from your real work.
I hope I’ve extended a rope to you here, but as always, I urge you to talk to lots of other people and hear what they have to say. I’m just one jerk, so I hope loads of my readers will chime in with good advice–yeas, nays, or otherwise.
In the end, it’s your book. You want to be proud and know that you did your best possible work at this point in your life. So do it right, and take your time to think about what you really want it to say.
Dear readers, take it away!