Publishing your PhD thesis: “Big words. Small print. No sales.”

At the PhD Life blog, we like to predict your reading needs. That’s why Felicity Chaplin is here to give you advice on anticipating the expectations that a publisher might have of your own writing. That’s right! This post is all about turning your thesis into a book…

 

There is a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope in which reference is made to the kind of books philosophy professor Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) publishes: “You know… big words, small print, no sales!” Generally speaking, publishing houses don’t want to publish academic theses for one reason: they don’t sell. That is not to say that there is a huge market for academic books (the hardcover editions of which can retail for around $100). What it does mean is that if you want to publish your thesis as a book, the general advice from publishers might be: “don’t make it too ‘thesisy’”.

Academic publishing houses want you to consider a broad readership for your work. In practical terms, this means transforming your thesis into something someone would actually want to read. This is something you should consider before submitting sample chapters to a publisher. Try it out on a loved one first. If their eyes glaze over after the first paragraph, go back to the drawing board. Of course, realistically, academic monographs are going to be of little interest to the general reader, but you need to aim in that general direction.

With this in mind, and having gone through the process recently with my own thesis-to-book project, I can offer the following advice on how to make your book or book proposal less ‘thesisy’:

  1. Remove as much academic signposting as possible (you still need to guide the reader through your book, but in a more subtle fashion than in a thesis). The reader needs to know they are in capable hands and too much signposting may cast doubt in their mind.
  2. Make more of the aspects of the thesis that might be considered to be ‘of general interest’.
  3. Shrink your literature review and methodology sections. A necessary part of the thesis is to show your examiners that you are an expert in your field and your place within it, this can be redundant and less interesting for a general reader. While it is still important to set up your argument and the contribution it makes to your field, don’t be as exhaustive as in the thesis.
  4. Take out the dry academic language and liven up your writing. If you manage to do this during your actual thesis this will save you time for the rewriting for the book.
  5. Take out footnotes except when absolutely necessary.
  6. Consider your cover image for the book – that is, if you are permitted to choose one (this depends on the publisher). You may have to pay for the image, but it is worth it to have the cover you want. I paid about $400AUD for an image of Audrey Hepburn for two reasons: first, because the image best captured the subject matter of my book; and secondly, because, let’s face it, Audrey sells books. Consider your cover the first point of contact with a potential readership.
  7. Every publisher is different. Take a look at a few recently published books in your field from your targeted publisher. This will give you an idea of the kind of books they publish and of what is expected of their writers. Publishers usually have their style guides and other requirements online, so familiarise yourself with their websites too.

Finally, remember that every publishing experience is different. There are many factors which will need to align for you to receive a positive response from a publisher. Luck plays its part, too; but if you consider the above points (by no means exhaustive), you will give yourself the best chance of having your proposal accepted.

 

Are you hoping to turn your thesis into a book? Do you actively write your thesis by keeping a potential book in mind? Have you started to restructure your thesis into a book? We all want to hear your advice: tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at pgcommunity@warwick.ac.uk, or leave a comment below.

 

Felicity Chaplin is a Scholarly Teaching Fellow in French Studies at Monash University. Her book La Parisienne in Cinema: between Art and Life is published by Manchester University Press. You may reach her at felicity.chaplin@monash.edu

 

Image: Courtesy of Felicity Chaplin.

8 thoughts on “Publishing your PhD thesis: “Big words. Small print. No sales.”

  1. Good tips, especially since I’m coming from a creative wiritng background to an acacdemic one. I didn’t even know what signposting was until recently, and even then I had to raise an eyebrow at my professor and second guess her qualifications.

    • Glad you found this post useful! And I know what you mean: it takes some getting used to stating what you will state, then stating it, then recapping what you’ve stated. All the best with your writing – Sofia

  2. Another great post. Recently read your “Getting your thesis published” piece.
    At what point would you say, one should start actively thinking about getting their thesis published into a book? I started my PhD this year in Education, and was wondering what things to consider if this was my desired outcome.

    • Thanks for the message! Based on Felicity’s advice on this post, you should really consider that your thesis will eventually become a book from the moment you start writing it so that it can save you a bit of time once you’re already in the process of publishing it as a book. However, the paperwork and tasks required to get your thesis published as a book will likely take some time to get done, so I would wait and start that process once you’re well underway your thesis which will take a different amount of writing and admin time. Each faculty and department is a bit different, so I would recommend asking this question directly to your supervisor. Later this year, one of our new bloggers will focus more on writing for book publication so keep an eye on that. All the best – Sofia

  3. Great article, thanks! I have recently finished my PhD and am working on a book proposal now so this was really useful. The publisher I’m aiming for first states that they are happy to look at proposals based on PhD theses as long as one includes a timetable for completion of the monograph with the proposal. I have two questions about this process and I don’t seem to be able to find the answers online: If proposing a monograph-in-progress (from a thesis), should I include a chapter sample with my proposal (the guidelines don’t specify)? And if I do, is it okay to submit a chapter from the thesis instead of an already-re-worked version of the chapter? Thanks–Liz

    • Hi Liz. Firstly, congratulations on completing your PhD! The publishing experience can be daunting and it’s definitely normal to have these sorts of questions. For the most part, getting your thesis (or anything!) published is an extremely individual process, which is why it is unlikely that search engines can answer your questions. My advice would be to directly contact the publishers with your specific questions. They’re more than likely happy to answer them, especially as they know that you’re new to the world of publishing. Beyond this, your supervisor(s) might also be able to help with your queries — they’ll be accustomed to your field of study and therefore have useful insights into the process. Finally, it’s also worth reaching out to other students and staff in your faculty who have undergone the same process or have experience with the publishers you’re in contact with. I’m sorry I couldn’t answer your questions more directly, unfortunately the specifics of publishing vary greatly among disciplines and publishers. I highly encourage you to reach out and gather as much advice as possible from the publishers and people in your faculty — their insights could really help you through this journey. Best of luck! – Jessica

  4. Good advice, to contact the publisher with questions if not answered in the information provided. I found the editors help to be really useful going through the process, as well as a member of staff in my department. My book: Young people, learning & storytelling was accepted by Macmillan. Completing an application was a gruelling process involving many redrafts. And it helped to put the thesis aside for a while and then think about what book I wanted to write and not what a thesis was! With the editor’s suggestions I made further changes before submitting the final book proposal. A few words on the next part of the process: expect the editor to come back, if they are interested, with reviewer comments. I received three lots of feedback and responded to each one, agreeing where I agreed (which for the most part I did), and stating my reasons why this did not fit with my speciality where they suggested additions, and basically giving them a short indication of how I would address each point. Then the proposal, reviews and my reply was taken to the board and accepted. Very happy about that, and writing away on it now!

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