Have a Ph.D. dissertation you think can be turned into a book? Good luck with that.

On a panel moderated by Publishers Weekly senior religion editor Lynn Garrett, three publishing veterans offered a cup of cold reality to religion scholars attending the America Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature joint meetings in San Diego in late November. Baylor University Press director Carey Newman likened dissertations to compulsory exercises in competitive figure skating. “You’re [just] demonstrating you can do the figure 8s,” he said. Newman pointed out that the audience for a dissertation is the committee of fellow scholars who determine whether someone knows enough to be admitted to an elite academic guild. The best use for a dissertation, he suggested, might be journal articles. “You won’t be a scholar until you do something beside your dissertation topic.”

Jana Riess, who has a Ph.D. in American religious history and whose books include Flunking Sainthood, a PW top religion book in 2011, agreed that dissertations have no appeal for trade publishers. “Dissertation and tenure committees value different things than book editors,” she said. The right dissertation topic could be the basis of a book, however, and in that case, she advised, craft a good book proposal and don’t send in the dissertation. “Nobody wants the entire dissertation,” Riess said. “Editors are insanely busy.”

Because editors and publishers are always looking for intelligent and original work--which is what a dissertation contains, or should--panelists urged the scholars to unlearn the obscurantist academic writing style, develop an authoritative voice, bring an audience if possible, and be prepared to promote themselves and their books. “I want to find books to publish,” said Mickey Maudlin, senior v-p at HarperOne. “Every editor and publishing house is invested in that.” Maudlin urged scholars to think in a business-like fashion about the intellectual product they created. “Think of the publisher as a bank or venture capital firm whose goal is to make money,” he said. “What makes you a good investment?”

Maudlin talked at length about changes in the publishing industry that are producing new business models and routes to publication, stressing the value of discoverability and publisher curation in producing a book that can stand out in a loud and crowded universe. Traditional publishing provides those advantages, he argued. “That’s a huge reason why you work with publishing houses,” he said. “Someone has filtered [the book], worked with the author, made it presentable.”

Panelists agreed that self-publishing has produced some enviable success stories--none of which have been serious nonfiction. They also said the academy was especially unlikely to regard self-publishing seriously. “The academic structures are very old-fashioned and not open to change,” Maudlin said. “It drives me nuts how much the academy does not support people who want to reach a wide audience.”