MFA--mighty fine archive

Dear Miss Snark,

The university where I'm working on an MFA in creative writing has just decided that all theses and dissertations must now be electronic. I have dreams (probably delusional ones, I know) of getting my creative thesis published as a book. Several of the stories from the collection have been accepted by various literary magazines, which I suppose must help the book's marketability. Am I screwed, though, if the entire work, in more or less complete form, is available on the Internet as a downloadable PDF through the university's library system?

I do realize that it's easier to pass a poodle through the eye of a needle (sorry KY) than to get a collection of stories accepted for publication, and I know also that I would probably be looking at small or university presses. Still, I don't want to do anything that would make the odds of acceptance even lower.

My university says that it's possible to restrict access to the work so that it's available only to on-site computers and for interlibrary loan. Would that at all help my cause? And if so, for how long should I ask that the work be restricted in this manner?

You'd be surprised how easy it is to shove a poodle into small places when the need arises (sudden visits from the health department; arrival of Mr. Scrooge, the building super; good short story collections arriving in the slush pile).

Don't worry about this. Having your work in a library as an MFA thesis accessible only to library patrons isn't going to cut into the market for your book. In fact, should hordes of devoted fans read your work in pdf form I'm betting they'll want to actually buy a copy to carry around, underline, and read again and again.

Work on getting those stories out into the world. Don't assume you'll be "settling" for University presses or small publishers. There's a lot to be said for those guys and one of them is they'll publish new and interesting stuff. You sure as hell don't see the University of Nebraska publishing Nicole Ritchie.


Anonymous said...

Graham Salisbury's thesis from the Vermont College MFA in children's writing program is his first published book - a Middle Grade group of short stories. Blue Skin of the Sea. Wonderful stuff and with Delacorte, no less.

Nancy Beck said...

You sure as hell don't see the University of Nebraska publishing Nicole Ritchie.

And let's pray we never do.


Anonymous said...

Short stories can always be revised or expanded.

Raymond Chandler would take something like "Killer in the Rain" and turn it into something larger: "The Big Sleep."

I sold a short story that eventually became the first chapter for a novel that sold.

Do your MFA and deal with selling afterward. Chances are good you'll have a lot of other stories in your head to add to the current batch.

Dave Fragments said...

In my incarnation as a scientist, we always republished a Thesis as a journal article.

I don't see why this wouldn't be possible for creative writing and fiction.

Anonymous said...

I have a friend who went on to publish his thesis with a major publsher. It was a great jumping off point for him and many books followed.

Now he hates publishing because he says that publishers don't know how to sell books.

Hildieblog said...

It is me, or are you all missing the question? The letter writer is worried that by electronically publishing her thesis she is bursting her publication cherry, that the University now owns it, and pub rights, etc. Get it?

Even in the dark days (my aunt graduated from Johns HOpkins in 1970, her thesis was bound and put on a shelf in the archives of the library. Now that I think about it, I think mine was as well. I think it counts more like the proceedings of a conference than as "publication".

Miss Snark said...

The university doesn't own it. They'd have to acquire it with a contract. They are not publishing it, they are archiving it.

Anonymous said...

All true. But aren't we told not to website-post excerpts of novels we hope to sell, since this would deny the publisher first rights to the MS?


Anonymous said...

Officially, in acacemic circles, a printed thesis or dissertation is considered unpublished, hard cover binding, gold lettering, and availability through interlibrary loan notwithstanding. When citing dissertations in research papers, they are listed in the Literature Cited section as "unpublished dissertation." In APA style, it would be:

Snark, M. (2006). Nitwit or not? A phenomenographic analysis of online comments by writers under the influence of juniper-enhanced ethanol. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

When you consider that the doctoral candidate must print his or her own copies and have them bound, and probably all of five copies will be created that way (one for the library, one for the major professor, one for the department, one for the student, and one for the doting parental units), that could hardly be called a print run.

Anonymous said...

I’m the letter writer. Just to clarify, my question wasn’t really about the possibility of a thesis or a dissertation being published as a book—I know that this happens all the times with both creative and academic works. Rather, I wondered if it changes anything that the thesis is no longer a bound volume that resides just in the university’s library but is instead an electronic document that can be downloaded from any computer connected to the Internet.

My question isn’t really about rights (I realize that I retain these) but about marketability. Miss Snark has touched upon some of these issues in a response to a question about publishing a draft of a novel on a community site (http://misssnark.blogspot.com/2006/05/first-serial-rights.html). Although I know it’s unlikely that anyone is going to bother to find my thesis through the university’s library website, the fact remains that it will be available; and I’ve worried that a publisher might be less likely to take a work that is available as a free download to those who know where to look. Miss Snark’s comments reassure me, but do others have thoughts on this issue?

Anonymous said...

I would suggest going to your college's library and talking to the librarians there. I am sure they will work with you to place any restrictions you would like on your ms. Most academic libraries are currently dealing with issues about copyright/access/electronic resources - often they have restrictions on downloads (only available to students/faculty who have to login, etc). Your otherwise friendly librarian may grown and grumble at doing a little extra work to accomodate you, but no more than they would at a clueless undergrad looking for a book with no information other than "I remember the cover being blue."

-writer by day, librarian by night

fiveoclockbot said...


From my perspective as an editor (university press, nonfiction), I don't see having your dissertation accessible electronically to library patrons as being a deal breaker in signing it up in book form. The issue wouldn't be format or accessibility so much as readership and reach.

Every once in a while a publisher will pull together a special issue of a journal or a set of previously published conference papers and put out a book; the publisher sees a greater potential market for the collection in book form. Also, keep in mind that with the right press and the right editor, your manuscript could under go some changes -- for the better, of course . The end result might be a much-improved book by which the .pdf of your dissertation (in an ugly dissertation font) pales in comparison.

On the other hand, I could see publishers balking if the .pdf were available to any and all with a web browser and if it remained up on the web at the same time as the book. I would ask that restrictions be placed on access for as long as the published book is in print.

Anonymous said...

I just met you, and I already think I'm in love. Of course you'll crush me to dust, but I'm strangely okay with that.

I found your blog while doing smart, short, pointed, hey, you did great with Writer X how bout me pitches. I gots an mfa, journalism experience, even an online following. And a finished, polished novel ready for someone interested in selling it.

New York is unimpressed. The numb resignation of another three bucks in postage and 6-8 weeks, then woulnd't be right for your work but in my SASE has me whining to you, who I at least know will read far enough to say something clever.

===deep knee bends===

Now hit me, you magnificent bitch.

Anonymous said...

Obviously Killer Yapp could write one heck of a blockbuster memoir!

Anonymous said...

Another librarian weighing in here. First, I don't think that your chances of publication will be harmed by your thesis being made available through the library's catalog as a pdf any more than a circulating copy of the traditional bound volume would hurt your publication chances. Second, if it makes you feel better to have access restricted, go ahead and restrict it, but no more than two years max. It's a heartening sign that you have been writing and publishing, but I've seen too many grad students who never write again after their thesis is done. MFAs have that effect on people sometimes. Third, regardless of what promises the university is making, always, always, always insist on having a backup bound copy--for your collection, if for no one else's. Digital archiving is an iffy business and if the library loses a server, the on-line electronic copy may be too corrupted to retrieve.