How I Published a Book… or Another 2 Years of Solitude
At the time that I finished my PhD, I was not really thinking of publications. My situation was odd. I was self-funded so quite keen on finishing within the allotted 3 years, and then in that third year, submission was ultimately driven by the marking cycle that was gifting me over 100 essays to be marked in 3 weeks. Of course, I understood, vaguely, that I had to publish – this was 2010 after all and Research Exercise Framework (REF) fever had taken hold.
For recent doctoral graduates and other early career researchers (ECRs), it is no longer an option to publish or not to publish, the question, rather is what format to publish; indeed, this now the key determinant for entering the employment market. Academia is frankly saturated. While Universities happily accept graduate fees, they are churning out more PhDs than they can hire. Increasingly, the industry is overtly instrumental and top heavy with little room for ECRs. This was the environment I had to break into and one from which you will be graduating and joining if you decide that academia in the UK is for you. For most of my PhD, I was relatively relaxed about publishing as I already had the experience of publishing in journals and books. But the REF agenda was, is and will remain brutal especially for early career researchers. If I had any advice then for doctoral candidates, it would be to give some serious thought to publishing while completing the thesis.
In considering how to publish, here I mean, will the thesis result in a couple or more articles? Or a research monograph? That choice is often dependent on the disciplinary precedents, and the type of research conducted. Supervisors, examiners and mentors can therefore be useful resources to help the ECR make publication decisions post-thesis.
For me, the ultimate outlet from my thesis was a monograph following post-viva discussions with my examiners and supervisors. In that period of profound confusion, joy, and tiredness, I must have thought, this should be easy, I have the thesis already, surely, a replacement of the word PhD with book should be enough, right? Wrong! It took two and a half years after I signed a contract to publish the book based on my PhD. I soon found out in the weeks after my viva that I needed a book proposal.
The proposal is often like writing a new project proposal, albeit one based on mostly completed research. The boundaries between the content of the thesis and the purposed monograph appear indistinct, and they can be, but they exist. One of the first considerations for writing the proposal is the willingness to revisit the ‘manuscript’ to remove all references to the PhD. This is not simply a ‘find and replace’ kind of task, though. I had to read the thesis for the umpteenth time so that I could convey that authority my examiners now say I have on my subject. The monograph is the ultimate graduation to expertise wherein unlike the thesis, it is not the project, but rather, my take on the project. Removing references to the PhD puts one in the mind-set of the author, rather than a PhD candidate. Furthermore, commissioning editors will usually dismiss proposals that refer to the PhD almost outrightly. Moreover, the monograph must appear to stand the test of time, in the sense that the proposal must show how the manuscript intends to the appeal to a wide audience over time.
Knowing the Market
While the intellectual project of continually refining the manuscript is a constant until publication, a few essentials are needed to get to that point. In the weeks before I got my official letter from faculty, I spent time researching recent books written in my field, and making notes on why mine would be better. This is an essential step since most publishers want to know the market they will be competing in. For the most part, since we don’t pay publishers to publish our books, they are taking a huge risk and so would like to make sure that there is no duplication. Consequently, one important question to ask (and answer) in crafting a book proposal is: What’s in it for them?
Knowing what else was out there helped me further refine my manuscript and told me which publishers would be receptive to publishing my work. Of course, another part of our current REF culture in the UK is hierarchical categorisation of publishers based on an idea of prestige where academic presses always trump commercial presses, on the one hand, and certain commercial presses always come out ahead of others on the other. While I’m sure there is an algorithm somewhere that explains why these hierarchies exist, I think the decision of what publisher to choose has to be balanced. While prestige should be a consideration (and here academic presses tend to win), so should timeliness and academic presses typically take longer to publish manuscripts. Further, I think a consideration for cost is also important, as people tend to buy books they can afford. This balance was very important for me in deciding which publisher I worked with to ensure my work reached as wide of an audience as possible.
Having shopped around for publishers, with my 2 full drafts including a synopsis of the proposed monograph, I reached a final decision on who to publish with based on conversations with commissioning editors and series editors. While the commissioning editors work for the publishers, the series editors tend to be other academics in the discipline one is trying to target. In my case, this process was relatively smooth, however, following the positive interest, I now had to translate my preliminary work into the publisher’s proposal template. It is in this format that my proposal was sent to the anonymous peer reviewers. As with journal articles, you can expect that reviewers will require changes to be made, and this was the case for me. The suggested changes required me to write a new chapter and I believe invariably strengthened the appeal of my work beyond my immediate expertise.
Upon favourable reviews and a response to reviewers, which is then adapted into the proposal, the commissioning editor issues a contract. One thing I did, which in hindsight was the right call (although then I thought I was just being cheeky), was negotiate my manuscript delivery date from 1 year to 1.5 years. 12 months seems like a long time to complete a book that is already mostly done, but this time goes by very quickly. Juggling writing on the monograph with developing new research agendas is time-consuming and I would advise anyone I know to overestimate time.
I submitted my manuscript, in addition to several productions forms, and names of suggested endorsers in a little over 18 months after I signed my contract. The process, though not as ‘painful’ as trying to write a thesis was no smooth ride. The submission of the manuscript is not the end of the road. The manuscript returns to the series editor and possibly one of the initial reviewers for the final go-ahead. Then it is sent to copy editors and who always find spelling and citation errors and indecipherable sentences despite seemingly meticulous work. I was very grateful to have other sets of eyes on the manuscript. In total, it was about another three months between first submission, editor queries and resubmission, and another month before first proofs were delivered.
The process of writing my monograph was like writing another thesis. It was just as lonely, perhaps even more time consuming now that I knew more people beyond my supervisors and examiners would be judging me primarily on this work. Yet, unlike the thesis, for me there were little victory moments like the first proofs, choosing cover art, seeing the first mock-up, and of course, getting those first copies. Six years of my life was spent on the same project, with lots of ups and downs, but ultimately, the monograph was my real reward!
- Germano, William (2005) From Dissertation to Book, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
- Harmon, E et al. (2003). The Thesis and the Book: A guide for first time academic authors. 2nd ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press
- Lucy, B. ed. (2004). Revising your dissertation: Advice from leading editors. Berkley: University of California Press