Wednesday, September 19, 2018

How to Turn Your PhD Into a Book

Image by Sharon McCutheon on Unsplash
Turning your PhD into a book is a mark of success in many disciplines, especially the humanities. Many people pursue this goal immediately upon finishing their PhD as part of an overall academic career strategy. I didn't have to, because I already had a job and I wanted to start building a research reputation in another discipline (and I started blogging).
I feel like a bit of a fraud because I am sort of writing about something I have never done... However, Thom, (the husband of one of my PhD students, Nguyen) pointed out that I have been involved with five published books, with two more in the pipeline. You can thank Thom for convincing me I am experienced enough to give you a useful outline of the academic publishing process, so here we go.
As it turned out, I knew much more than I thought. I couldn't cover everything about academic book publishing in one blog post, so this is part one of three I plan on the topic. I encourage you to write in with more questions. I know many established academics read the blog and I hope some of you will write in with further advice in the comments!
Step one: consider carefully... is it a book, or something else?
First of all, just because doing a book is prestigious CV addition, do you really need to write one? Doing a book is a HUGE time commitment, even if you start with a copy-edited dissertation manuscript. And don't expect to make any money from all this effort; it's a bonus if you do, but if you expect nothing, you won't be disappointed. Don't expect much measurable research impact either. You're likely to end up with an expensive book with a small print run, that won't result in piles of citations.
If you want to get your research out there for people to use, it might make more sense to write a series of blog posts, do a self-published ebook, a documentary film or exhibition. Or just leave the manuscript in your university library where it can be downloaded for free. PhD dissertations are the most downloaded type of document in many university research repositories so ... do nothing. Your work will still have the potential to reach people who are interested.
It's a different matter if you see a non-academic audience for your book. Some disciplines, like history, produce research with commercial potential. I'd encourage anyone who sees this potential to follow it up. A mass market publication has less academic snob value, but trust me: having a book that actually sells enough to give you a hefty royalty cheque is super satisfying!
Step Two: make contact with a potential publisher
Locating an academic publisher is actually a lot simpler than most people think: just look at the spines of the books on yourself and do some Googling. Unlike mass market publishing, where people rely on agents, academic publishing is still a 'cold call' proposition. Have a look on the website for instructions to authors about how to get in touch - and just... do it.
There are 'slightly less cold' approaches, which, I think, increase your chances. One simple (but maybe not obvious) technique is to visit the publishing stand at the next conference you attend and engage the people in the booth in a bit of a chat (it's a good idea to skip a session for this purpose - they will be more willing to talk to you if it's quiet). Don't be shy, they are used to being approached. Generally the person selling books will either have a role as a scout, or be able to call in the person who is there for that purpose. Once they seem willing to talk, ask what kind of works they are interested in publishing. If their general interest seems to align with the work you have in mind, try out a short (I mean two sentence) pitch for your book idea and ask if it sounds interesting. Last year I did this at a conference and got a business card, which I then followed up with an email, very successfully.
Smart publishers are always on the look out for new work, so you might find they approach you. Great! Just make sure it's a real publisher, not a dodgy thesis publishing mill. You can tell if it's a real publisher because they will ask you to write a proper proposal. Anyone who promises to publish your PhD without changes is highly suspect. While some advisors will still tell you not to put your dissertation in the insitution repository, some publishers use this as a place to identify potential books and will approach you. Or, you could start a blog - if you manage to generate enough of a readership to be noticed, they will find you, trust me.
Step Three: sell the idea
The next bit - getting them interested in actually buying your idea- is tricky.
Book publishing, especially academic publishing, is a marginal business. Even boutique academic publishing outfits, who employ three people, are not charities. Publishers are interested in one thing above all others: selling books. It's easy to lose sight of the profit motive when you work in an academic environment, which is essentially a not-for-profit enterprise.
Your mileage may vary, but I always prefer to get the publisher invested in the idea before I go to the trouble of writing a whole proposal. You might get a few knock backs before someone is interested. Doing heaps of work in a proposal template you'll have to change anyway is a waste of time. Write a cover letter to your contact, or the email listed on the site for this purpose, with a short pitch for the book, clearly signalling the intended audience and why you are the best person to write it. If you have already published papers or, better still, blog posts, you can include some circulation numbers to demonstrate people might buy it. For example, here is a short excerpt from the pitch letter I recently wrote to a small, but well known academic publisher:
We cannot keep up with the requests for talks about our research and there is particularly intense interest from the community in the methods. A lot of people are fearful that 'the robots are coming for our social science jobs', but we have a totally different take, which is a 'human in the loop' approach (I wrote about this on the blog a couple of weeks ago: Are the robots coming for our (research) jobs?). I think now would be an ideal time to get something to market and your methods series format is perfect.
My approach here was to leverage the existing interest in our research work to demonstrate there was already a market. Note I use explicit commercial language 'get something to market' to show them I understand the profit motive. I didn't try to tell them the work is intrinsically interesting or important, even though this is my primary motive in writing it. Being an important book doesn't matter if there are not enough people willing to buy it. Of course, academics should publish non-commercial work, but that's why we have journals and conferences.
I now need to convince the publisher that I am the one to get it to market. Having a successful blog is a huge advantage here, but this is a co-authored book. I know the publisher is keen the writing team doesn't fall apart during the writing process. As I understand it, this happens often enough for publishers to be understandably skittish. The best way to prove you can write together is... to already have written together. So I followed with this paragraph to soothe their fears:
... What makes me really confident about the project is it builds on the strengths of our existing collaboration. Hanna could bring her 15 years of experience as a computer scientist working. Will works in science communications and, in addition to being a good writer, is used to working across disciplinary boundaries....
This letter got me an (almost) immediate request to submit a full proposal. The 'almost' is important, which leads me to step four... which will be in part two of this series because I have already reached my (self imposed) word count. Now I'm wondering: are you thinking about publishing your dissertation as a book? What questions are in your mind? Or do you have any experience of the publishing process you would like to share? Love to hear from you in the comments.
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