How to Publish your Dissertation: an interview with Art DiFuria

How to Publish your Dissertation: an interview with Art DiFuria

Some weeks ago, Art DiFuria gave a lecture upon the publication of his PhD research. I interviewed him afterwards, asking him the all important question: how dó you publish your dissertation?

At my work as a freelance project manager for Brill, I get to know how to publish books inside out. Since many PhDs aspire to one day publish that ‘thing’ they worked on for so many years, I wondered how you would get to the publication of your dissertation. Art DiFuria actually got what we all aspire to and this June 12th he gave a lecture upon the publication of his PhD research Maarten van Heemskerck's Rome: Antiquity, Memory, and the Cult of Ruins (Brill, 2019). I spoke to him afterwards, and asked him how to publish your dissertation.

MO: First, we would like to have some insight in the practicalities.

How do you choose a publisher? In your case, how did you choose Brill?
ADF: I was very fortunate that my topic was attractive to just about every publisher I pursued. When I was in the process of developing a dissertation topic, my advisors were very quick to point out that not only would it provide an intellectual challenge, but it would be publishable, if only because Heemskerck's drawings hadn't seen sufficient state-of-the art reproduction since 1913-16. Given that most publishers were receptive, it was really most important to me that I could work with someone I trust. By the time I was closing in on completing the manuscript, Walter Melion[1] had spoken to me about working with Brill. It really seemed ideal since I felt that I could be candid with him about the process.

Do you have any tips on writing a proposal which will likely get accepted?
I think it's most important to be concise and to foreground the unique aspects of the proposed book, especially its main argument. This means writing a first sentence that really answers that question right away. It's important to remember that anything we write in proposals is ultimately a reflection of how our book could read. Making your book's argument clear and easy to find suggests that your book will be clear and direct as well.

Publishers get a lot of book proposals, ©Wikimedia Commons

When you have found your publisher, how does the process go about?
Broadly speaking, once you turn in the manuscript, you receive suggestions for changes from blind peer reviewers, and then you turn in a revised manuscript that becomes the subject of line and copy editing for typos. In that first stage, you should expect to hear back from blind peer reviewers within a few months. I turned in my manuscript in early October of 2017 and then received peer review responses in January of 2018. I turned in my changes in April of 2018. From there, it took until about early January of 2019 to get every last piece in place for publication. [2].

In the blind peer review phase, I think one must perform revisions based on what one finds reasonable in what the peer reviewers say. Blind peer reviewers have a difficult job; they have a short amount of time to weigh in objectively and constructively in a way that will help the manuscript. When you consider what they're up against, it becomes easier to understand if their observations suggest that they haven't read closely enough. But even if that seems to be the case, such a response at least indicates what's not coming across clearly in your manuscript. In our heart of hearts, I think we all know the deficiencies of our own work. So the blind peer review phase can be what Americans call "reckoning time." Some of the suggestions blind peer reviewers make can be addressed in that short window of time one has for making changes. But some suggestions can't. A good rule of thumb is based in common sense: any place where both reviewers point out a deficiency independently of one another is a place one must at least try to address. I was lucky. I found most of the suggestions that my reviewers made to be very astute and I did my best to honor those suggestions. After turning in a new manuscript based on the blind peer reviewers' responses, the process shifts focus from content to putting the manuscript in book form. We went through four or five proofing stages to rid the text of typos and make sure that all of the images were in their proper places. It's important to know that the book isn't really done during this phase! A mistake there will last forever. So one must continue to pay attention with open eyes!

Proofreading, nowadays computerized. © Volkspider, Flickr

Second, we would like to know a bit more about the experience and the issues an author faces.

How long after you finished your dissertation did you start on publishing your book?
My situation is probably not that different from very many others'. After I was done the dissertation in 2008, I became Chair of my department, was hired by a different university, re-located, married, had a child, and became Chair again. I was also the editor of an anthology on genre imagery during that time, so... it wound up taking ten years. The demands of our lives -- what we must do to put bread on the table, but also other opportunities that are irresistible -- sometimes take precedence. Meanwhile, the book continues to percolate. That can be a slippery slope. At a certain point, one must put aside everything else and say "enough; I have to finish this." And it's quite an effort to do so.

When is final really final? (PhD Comics, © Jorge Cham)

Did you worry, when deciding to publish your dissertation, that too much of your research was ‘already out there’? For example in the form of articles in journals or edited volumes, or in blog posts.
I worried that I was simply going to reiterate the findings in those documents. But a friend of mine in another discipline said "look...I know you're not going to copy/paste your articles into the book; you may start there, but of course you're going to revise because you've continued to think about these issues and discover more. But even if you don't do that, you certainly wouldn't be the first scholar to take content from articles and integrate it into a book." I realized he was right. The goal should simply be to serve the book's idea the best way possible. If that means an article you've written takes that idea as far as it can go, but that it also has a place in your book, then put it there.

In what respect is your book different from your dissertation? Can you give an example of how you reworked your dissertation?
There are many differences between dissertation and book. In some cases, there were ideas I wanted to integrate at the time of the dissertation -- and again while writing articles on these topics, but I didn't have the time to serve them properly. As you saw when I recently spoke at the University of Leiden, Heemskerck's print of St. Jerome in a Ruin Landscape continued to grow in importance for me. I had always known about the print, and also the painting that provided the composition for it. But the significance of the timing of both -- a simple observation, really --had further reaching implications. The St. Jerome painting was his first ruin imagery since he had been in Rome, and he painted it a full ten years after his return. Why that long interim with no ruin imagery? In fact, I still need to explore that question more fully than I even do in the book.

Another augmentation from dissertation to book appears in the section on the Self-Portrait Before the Colosseum. That is probably the best example. I wrote an article on the Self-Portrait, which appeared in the Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaerboek in 2009[3]. Since then, I've added sections on the compositional precedent for the portrait and Heemskerck's use of the trompe l'oeil cartellino, which appears in many of his works. And again, in noticing how the image was interwoven into the events unfolding in the visual culture of its time, my thinking on the image became enriched.
And of course, even as I continue to give talks to promote the book, I see aspects of the imagery that really demand attention and discourse; these realizations make one think "oh, I really should do it again, or write more!" There's always room for further thinking.

Self-Portrait before the Colosseum by Maarten van Heemskerck, in the collection of the FitzWilliam Museum, Cambridge. (Wikimedia Commons; collection record FWM)

Did your dissertation have the same title as your book?
The dissertation's title is very similar to the book's title with one change: Maarten van Heemskerck's Rome: Antiquity, Memory, and the Berlin Sketchbooks. One of my dissertation advisors, David Stone, helped me devise that title. And I told him, "But David, not all of his drawings are in Berlin!" He said, "It doesn't matter; most of them are. You can make your first sentence say that there are other drawings elsewhere, but you need a title that focuses your reader." He was right. For the book, since I had been able to study the drawings in other locations more closely, and because I was more focused on the interest in ruins by Heemskerck and how it fit with the more general interest in ruins, I changed the last item in that serial construction to "and the Cult of Ruins."

The cover of Maarten van Heemskerck’s Rome: Antiquity, Memory, and the Cult of Ruins (© Brill)

Last, is there anything else you would like to share about the publishing process?
Hmmm...I feel as though I am still learning. And so maybe there's a lesson in that. It's probably the ideal state of mind to maintain in order to want to keep working, right? Do not be intimidated by rejections. And on the other end of the process, know when to let go. Nothing is ever perfect. Serve your idea, and do your best to do so of course, but do move on with no regrets. There will be critics no matter what. But if you've done your best to serve the idea, then you've made a contribution.

[1] Walter Melion is the series editor of Brill’s Studies on Art, Art History, and Intellectual History in which DiFuria’s book is published.

[2] The period between the last changes and actual publication may vary from a very short 6 months till even longer than the 9 months of this book. It depends on, for example, the quantity of images, the method of printing, the number of corrections in proofing, the format of the book etc.

[3] DiFuria, Art. “Remembering the Eternal in 1553 Maerten van Heemskerck's "Self-Portrait before the Colosseum".” Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, vol 59 (2009): 90-109. <link>

© Art DiFuria, Merel Oudshoorn, and Leiden Arts in Society Blog, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author and Leiden Arts in Society Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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