Turning your thesis into a book: what do you need to know?

After years spent researching, writing and defending your thesis, perhaps you’re now considering turning it into a book.

Your motivation may be to raise your profile or increase the reach and impact of your research – or if you have already made the right industry contact you may been approached by a publisher.

But however warmly your thesis may have been received, it’s not yet ready to be repackaged and released in book-form. Taking your thesis and turning it into a viable book will be a complex and time-consuming project.

For that reason, it’s well worth checking your motivation, identifying and evaluating your audience, and planning your approach before you start.

So what do you need to know?

Should you write a book at all?

Before going further, ask yourself some searching questions:

a) What is your motivation – and is it realistic? Publishing a book may be a surefire way to achieve such valuable objectives as shaping policy or boosting your career prospects. But if you are primarily driven by more nebulous desires, such as a long-held dream of being a published author, you may flounder. 

b) Which channels does your chosen discipline most value? Weigh up whether a monograph is preferable to a series of peer-reviewed journal articles, an e-book, blog series or documentary film. Which medium is most likely to bring you the reach you seek?

c) Is taking on this project right for you at the moment? Consider the commitment of time, energy and attention it will require. Can sufficient space be made in your schedule? Do you still have the appetite for it? Would your career goals be better served if you moved on to a fresh, new project?

d) First-time authors rarely make significant earnings (if any) on their debut titles, and publishers often exercise caution in commissioning initial print runs (300 copies or less). It’s common for publishers to commission hardback editions for the first print run, which generate higher profits than paperbacks because they retail at a higher price-point. This can prove less attractive to consumers and negatively impact sales.

Who are you writing for?

Clarifying your purpose and audience from the outset will increase your chance of success.

a) Have you identified a market for your title? What’s selling in your field, and what’s missing? How can your book fit that niche?

b) Which publishers should you target? What are they looking for? Visit relevant publishers’ stalls at a conference for preliminary market research. Then pitch your idea, demonstrating existing interest in the topic and explaining why you are the best person to write about it.

c) Identify your audience. Who is going to buy your book – informed but non-expert members of the public? Academics? Practitioners? Having a clear sense of who you are addressing will help ensure your writing is appropriately and appealingly pitched.

What will you need to ditch?

It’s time to start dismantling the work you have spent years creating. Your thesis has a particular aim and consequent structure. That now needs discarding. You may well need to cut or entirely remove:

a) The abstract

b) Sections explaining what you are going to cover and how you will cover it

c) The literature review, methodology, exploration of arguments for and against, and the evolution of different theories

d) Word count: it’s time to condense, considerably.

e) Footnotes: consider reducing the number and detail, and converting them to endnotes.

What is your USP?

What has been the most compelling, challenging or innovative discovery in your research?  Your reader isn’t looking to be convinced by how watertight your investigation was but captured by something fascinating you’ve discovered.

Isolate this and position it early on in your book. Seize your reader’s interest and keep them hooked as you explain and explore it in greater depth.

How does your unique ‘voice’ sound?

In your thesis it’s likely you adopted an objective, dispassionate tone and suppressed your own authorial voice. Now you need to find and celebrate it.

a) Pique your reader’s curiosity, spark a response, be provocative. You are the engaging expert your reader has chosen, so let that person shine through as you write.

b) Be direct: don’t dilute with careful caveats. You have done the research, now you can showcase the robust detail of your results.

c) Use story-telling and case studies in place of formal data or interview transcripts.

e) Choose concrete evidence over abstract references, and active verbs over passive constructions wherever appropriate.

f) Find plain English alternatives for complex or technical vocabulary.

g) Break up paragraphs and vary their length for interest and cut sentence length back hard.

Working with an editor

Working with an editor will help you to shape your text, and improve the flow, structure and language. They will be invaluable in helping you transform it from a first draft into the finished article. An experienced editor will also help you to develop your distinct author’s voice.

An external eye will help you to produce a polished manuscript, prior to approaching publishers. Publishers provide in-house editing services, but the time they will have to work with you will vary, depending on the publisher, their budget and what the perceived ‘market value’ of your book is.

A balance must be found between investing in professional editing at this stage and approaching publishers who may want to shape the text in a different way to suit their ‘list’ (a collection of books grouped by genre and/or subject area e.g. social psychology).

Ask colleagues for advice and consider collaborating with an experienced expert in your field. A recognisable name will contribute to the publishing prospects of your book, especially if you are a first-time author.

Choosing a publisher

Publishers vary when it comes to accepting proposals from previously unpublished authors. The process can be time-consuming and demoralising, but it is one every author must go through. There is often a ‘contact us about submissions/proposals’ page in their website.

You may have to download a form and fill in the details of your book, e.g. title, synopsis and author bio. Due to the large numbers of submissions, some publishers may not even send a rejection letter – this is bad practice, but it does happen.

Distinguished academic publishers may be more resistant to your book proposal, but they bring with them high levels of expertise, close author relationship management, brand recognition and international distribution capabilities. However, there are hundreds of academic publishers to choose from, so start big then work your way down.

Find a publisher now on the Publishers Global directory here.

Building your profile

Publishers will often ask about ‘audience’ and whether you have an established readership. This helps them to evaluate the risk associated with investing in an unknown author. A common route for academic authors is to start by contributing chapters to anthologies and building a bibliography of published journal articles. Ways to build your author profile include:

  • Become a guest on a podcast or radio show
  • Attend networking events
  • Deliver guest seminars at other universities and industry events
  • Build your professional media network
  • Review articles and books
  • Contribute chapters to anthologies
  • Write for a journal

Working with a knowledgeable agent with experience in academic publishing helps you overcome this barrier to entry. Bear in mind that literary agents usually take 15% of authors’ earnings.

Whichever publishing route you choose, your investment in maximising the reach of your research will strengthen your position when it comes to applying for your next academic post.

Further reading

Pat Thomson’s Thesis to book: you may need to change your writing ‘voice’

How to write a book proposal from Dr Karen Kelsky

More from the Global Academy Jobs blog

Are you ready for the next step? How to transform your thesis into a journal article or three

Understanding ‘desk-rejection’ — an Editor-in-Chief’s inside look

How to increase the reach of your published work

Six academic writing no-nos — and how to avoid them

A beginner’s guide to academic podcasting

Networking — it’s good for your health! How to capitalise on your strengths and opportunities

Publishers Global directory

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Jo Mitchell
Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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