Over six years ago William Germano wrote a savagely witty essay in the Chronicle titled “If Dissertations Could Talk, What Would They Say?” They would whimper, perhaps. Or, they would drone on about things that few cared about. “Why are dissertations, the firstborn of the academic tribe, so dull?” he asked pointedly. “What does it mean when the best minds can create book-length work that commands so little interest? The answer, as we all know, is that dullness is safe. . . . A real book manuscript doesn't look over its shoulder, worrying that Foucault is running after it in a hockey mask."
I read this piece as I was finishing up my dissertation. The article, frankly, scared the living daylights out of me. What if my dissertation sucked, as they say? What if it was as readable as a phonebook, or, worse, as readable as a higher math dissertation? Could I put the “fun” into fundamentalism and could I unleash all that was pent-up in Pentecostalism? Or would my writing style and laborious arguments drain whatever life there was out of those vital religious movements?
I think history and religious studies scholars who are now finishing their dissertations still have some of those questions hanging over their heads like so many dark clouds or daggers. I’ve always been interested in hearing what editors have to say about the matter. Trade and university press editors often work with first-time authors and they are well acquainted with the challenges freshly minted PhDs face. (See Paul's post below on NYU Press's terrific new series.)
To get an editor’s take on publishing and converting that dissertation to a book, I interviewed Elaine Maisner (Senior Editor, University of North Carolina Press) a couple weeks back at the AAR meeting in Montréal. Maisner focuses on religious studies, Latin American and Caribbean studies, and regional trade books. (She offered great advice on academic publishing some years back in an article for Perspectives: “Getting Published by a University Press.”)
Here I ask her about readership and proposals, and I talk with her about some UNC books in American religious history that she thinks worked quite well.
I hope to do one or two similar interviews with an editor(s) at the AHA. Let me know if you have any suggestions regarding whom I should contact, or questions that you think I should pose.