By Emile Chabal |
Turning a thesis into a book can seem like a daunting task. It’s bad enough scrambling to get all your ideas on paper once, but imagine having to go through that process again. And again. And again. All in the name of producing something that a mysterious audience is supposed to buy and read. But there are some things you can do to make your life a little easier.
A thesis is essentially private. Vivas are closed-door affairs in the UK and you’re unlikely to have more than a handful of people in the audience for a dissertation defence in North America and many parts of Europe. In most cases, not more than four people have actually read your thesis and you won’t have much idea of how your ideas are going to be received. It’s a good idea therefore to sit down, in the year after you’ve been awarded your PhD, and reflect on what you were really trying to say when you were doing your research. What were the big ideas? Which bits did you want to improve? How would you have done things differently? Which bits of your thesis do you want to keep? Answering these questions will help you to be more ambitious and clearer in the development of your ideas. And this, in turn, will make for a much better book.
2. The proposal matters
The book proposal is a window on to your work and the crucial first step in publishing. You need it to be the distillation of your ideas and a proper showcase. There are usually small differences in how exactly publishers want book proposals to look, but they always include at least a title, summary of the book (1000 words max.), a chapter plan, and an analysis of the competition. Most importantly, you need to remember that publishers are not usually academics and they are looking for something that will be interesting to readers. In particular, they will want to know ‘why now?’, a question you have probably never really had to think about. Try to reflect on why your book makes sense at this particular moment – it could be because the field is moving in that direction, because your ideas are part of a broader civic debate or simply because your work relates to a recent newsworthy event. It goes without saying that you should start writing drafts of the proposal as soon as you can and keep sharing those drafts with friends, colleagues and former supervisors. If you have a mediocre proposal that lacks urgency and ambition, no publisher is going to bother moving to the next step, so get it right!
3. Pick a range of publishers
A good way to start looking for where to publish is to see which publishers have strong lists in your field. You can also investigate publishers with which your supervisor(s) and/or your academic institution have a connection. Once you’ve identified a shortlist, send the relevant editor a short introductory e-mail and attach your proposal. You should – eventually – get a response, but it can take a long time. Don’t hesitate to prompt again after one month. It’s considered acceptable to send your proposal to multiple publishers at any one time and this has the benefit of getting things moving.
4. Academic publishing is slow
Depending on how much you have written and how excited the publisher is, you may be offered a contract based on the proposal alone or you may be asked to submit some (or all) of the manuscript before a contract is offered. Either way, you should start working on your revisions immediately. Academic publishing is slow, often painfully so. Peer reviews of chapters can take months. You’re better off beginning to think about how you’re going to change your thesis while the process of getting a contract is in train. You can then make further revisions once you get feedback from peer reviewers. Don’t get tunnel-vision, though: it’s a very good idea to be working on a new project while you’re waiting for the publishing process to run its course. It’ll help distract you and make the endless wait seem more bearable.
5. Double-check everything
Publishers are increasingly short of money and increasingly unwilling to provide the logistical help needed to produce a high-quality academic book. You may well need to identify a front cover for the book or correct poor copy-editing in the final stages. Always keep lines of communication open with your editor or production manager and don’t hesitate to check, double-check and triple check everything from formatting and layout, to footnote style and indexes. It’s your book; be proud of it!
Emile Chabal is a Chancellor’s Fellow in History at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of A Divided Republic: nation, state and citizenship in contemporary France (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and the editor of France since the 1970s: history, politics and memory in an age of uncertainty (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014) and Britain and France in Two World Wars: truth, myth and memory (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013). Further details can be found on his website.
(Cover image (c) https://www.flickr.com/photos/cowlet/; Image 1 (c) pixabay.com; Images 2 and 3 (c) wikimedia.org; Image 3 (c) www.ed.ac.uk)