Eight Tips for Turning Your PhD Thesis into a Book

Vector images representing a black graduation hat on the left, and an open book on the right.

By Agata Mrva-Montoya

Congratulations! After years of doing research and writing, you finally joined the ranks of freshly minted PhDs. You even have an endorsement from your examiners – ‘this work is brilliant and should be published’. So, you send it in to a publisher, then another one or two. And your proposal gets knocked back, time after time. Why? 

Publishers rarely consider unrevised PhD theses. (And if they approach you and offer to publish it as is, you should carefully check the publisher’s credentials!) A dissertation in the humanities and social sciences is written with a different intent and structure to a book, and for a different audience. Your thesis may indeed be brilliant – well researched, well referenced and well organised – but what the publisher sees is a manuscript that is too long, with tedious and predictable structure, full of jargon and repetitious announcements of intent, and so many quotes and references that it reads like compilations of facts and regurgitated opinions.

So before you send your dissertation to another publisher, you need to restructure it, revise it and turn it into something that someone, apart from your long-suffering supervisors and briefly accosted examiners, might actually want to read.

Seriously though, your manuscript needs to be capable of reaching a broader audience. Book publishing is a resource-intensive enterprise and the reality is that the book has to be commercially feasible – if not making heaps of money, then at least breaking even. Apart from the sales potential, publishers look for manuscripts that fulfill their mission of disseminating research results and communicating great ideas to readers in a broad range of disciplines, and the general public. Dissertations on obscure topics, with unclear arguments and a bias against readability fail on both accounts.

If the subject matter of your thesis is awfully narrow, there are other ways of making your research available to scholars – you can upload it into your university’s digital repository, make it open access, and publish a handful of journal articles to disseminate your findings and join the discussion in your discipline. And consider writing an entirely new book on a different topic.

If you believe that your PhD thesis has the potential to be a book that would interest readers beyond the circle of your close family and friends, then it’s time to turn it into a publishable manuscript. Here are some ideas you may consider:

  1. Decide what type of audience you want to reach with your book. While you could potentially write a scholarly book with mass-market appeal, the reality is that these two markets are rarely compatible. They require different approaches, different styles of writing and attract different publishers. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to write with a broad readership in mind using straightforward English to produce a scholarly, sophisticated and intellectually challenging work, which is accessible to scholars in other disciplines and the interested general public.
  2. Identify what are the most interesting or important issues or themes. Think of your audience – what aspects of your research would potential readers find intriguing? It is unlikely to be the literature review or methodology (these are best entirely removed or just briefly mentioned in the book). Do you need to broaden the subject area, look at your topic in a wider context or from a new perspective?
  3. Review the structure of the manuscript focusing on the important themes and paying attention to the narrative drive. You need to reorganise the material to make it interesting and accessible, promising readers an intellectual adventure. If you need help, check Developmental editing: a handbook for freelancers, authors, and publishers by Scott Norton (The University of Chicago Press, 2009). Norton offers detailed advice, illustrated by a variety of case studies, on how to identify leading themes and topics, how to restructure the manuscript to reveal its greatest potential and how to come up with a great table of contents and a winning title.
  4. As soon as you have the structure in place and a clear vision for the book, start approaching publishers. Investigate the publisher before you send the proposal off. Most academic publishers and university presses specialise in a specific area of scholarship and particular types of books and audiences, and you should try to find a reasonable match. Check the publisher’s submission requirements, fill in the form, make sure your proposal sounds interesting, is error-free, and send it off. You may need to include a couple of sample chapters with your proposal. Ideally, you will find a publisher that will be as excited about your research and your manuscript as you are, and your published book will be intellectually stimulating and highly readable.
  5. Rewrite the manuscript in your own voice. Readers want to know what you, the book’s author, think about the issue, so there is no need to hide behind authorities, excessive number of footnotes or blocks of quoted material. Rewrite, engage and express your view. Make sure there are no gaps, mistakes and inconsistencies in the text or the argument. Ideally you would secure a contract before you start rewriting the manuscript, but you can start working on it while you are waiting to hear from publishers.
  6. Make sure you follow the publisher’s author guidelines. You may need to follow specific spelling conventions depending on whether the publisher is based in Australia, the UK or the USA. And importantly, format your references consistently, and on brief. Ideally, you should use Endnote or other referencing software to help you wrangle the reference list. It will save you heaps of time.
  7. Revise the writing style. Remove unduly complicated constructions, unnecessary jargon and passive voice. You should aim for clarity of expression and writing in plain English without relinquishing intellectual strength or scholarly authority. There are plenty of books that can help from George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English language to William Strunk’s The elements of style (Pearson, 1999) to Mark Tredinnick’s The little red writing book (UNSW Press, 2006). Make sure that the structure of the book and of each chapter is coherent, that every paragraph flows logically, that every sentence is where it needs to be, and every word is necessary.
  8. Check your facts, grammar, spelling and punctuation before you submit your manuscript. While copy-editors will help you to polish the work, you want to come across as a professional writer. If you need help with grammar or punctuation, Mark Tredinnick’s The little green grammar book (UNSW Press, 2008) is a delight to read (please keep in mind it follows the Australian style). Confirm that all your references are in place. (Your exhaustive bibliography needs to be trimmed to a reasonable size.)

Almost there? Not yet. Submitting the manuscript is a huge step toward getting a book published, but of course this is just the beginning of a long(ish), collaborative process as the manuscript undergoes peer review, copyediting, typesetting and so on. Your responsibilities as an author can differ significantly among publishers, so you need to make sure you understand the expectations particular to your publisher early on to avoid delays and unnecessary stress.  You need to work closely with the publisher, and give the process and your book, your best shot. Good luck!

This is a (heavily) revised version of a post originally published on the PhD2Published blog in 2011. Image by Pixabay.