Turning your PhD into a successful book

Requests regularly arrive in the Author Services inbox asking for advice about turning PhD research into journal articles or books. In this guide, first posted on the LSE Impact Blog, Terry Clague, a Senior Publisher at Routledge gives his advice and insight into what publishers are looking for when they receive new book proposals.  

Research conducted as part of a PhD is valuable. It is valuable for the researcher, who has spent countless hours carrying out the work and it is valuable to those deciding whether the research should result in the award of a PhD qualification. But can the research be valuable to broader audiences? The simple answer is yes – at the heart of many successful academic books lies research conducted as part of a PhD. 

What options to consider when turning your PhD into a book

In the majority of cases, PhD research is published in the form of journal articles. In some cases, the research is published in a book. Between either end of that publishing spectrum there is an array of options to consider when it comes to disseminating PhD research: 

  • Converting the entire PhD thesis into a book requires that your thesis covers a topic of interest to a large enough audience of scholars. Whereas a thesis starts with a question, a book begins with an answer and communicates its importance in the wider research landscape, tracing its evolution and impact. 

  • Using parts of a PhD thesis in a book requires that ongoing and/or collaborative research is being conducted. A book (perhaps co-authored) should be greater than the sum of its constituent parts. 

  • Using an aspect of a PhD thesis in an edited book on a broader topic ensures that the research fits with related research on a similar theme. A good edited book addresses the need to broaden the scope of PhD-based research via collaborating with a team of contributors. 

  • Splitting a PhD thesis into several articles for journals hedges a PhD’s bets by staking smaller amounts of the work in different locations. What is gained by this hedging may be lost in the overall narrative of the PhD research as it is unbundled. 

What publishers look for when deciding whether to take you on

The role of the book publisher is to connect authors with readers. When it comes to disseminating research originating from a PhD, this relationship is essential. It is therefore useful to consider the perspective of the publisher when considering what publication route to take. In assessing a proposal for a research-level book, a good publisher will initially ask themselves three questions: 

  • Is the scope of the research broad enough to be of interest to our readers (scholars globally)? Example

  • Is the quality sufficiently high? 

  • Can the work be developed via feedback from experts as part of the book review process to address any weaknesses? 

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Beyond those core questions, potential authors should also consider significant and ongoing changes to the market for academic books, notably in reader behavior. Evolution in digital technology combined with a significant increase in the amounts of available research has led to changes in the way that books are produced, published and propagated. In this environment, the key word is “discoverability”. Connecting authors to readers requires that publishers facilitate discoverability of research via various routes to ensure that potential readers are able to find books with ease. Authors can aid this process by following a few basic rules of thumb: 

  • The main title of the book should position it clearly without reference to other bibliographic information, and should be as short as feasible 

  • Chapter titles should likewise, where possible, position themselves clearly 

  • Chapter synopses or abstracts can be used to enhance the metadata around books

Submitting a book proposal

It is useful to start a conversation with an acquisitions/commissioning editor at an early stage toward the end or shortly after the completion of a PhD. Discussions with supervisors and other colleagues are also very useful at this stage. The next natural step is to submit a book proposal which will be considered by the publisher, often involving a peer review process. Research-level books are often published as part of an established series – an awareness of existing books in such series can be useful when it comes to framing and developing a book proposal. 

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Preparing your final manuscript for book publication 

Following a review process, the publisher’s editorial board would give final approval to proceed, following which a book contract would be issued. Armed with publisher and review feedback, the author can then proceed to produce a full manuscript based on their PhD research. Each book is different, but there are numerous key aspects to consider when preparing a final manuscript for book publication. Above all, never lose sight of the audience:

  • A thesis is written for examiners, a book for scholars in general. Anything that is useful only for examiners (e.g. literature review, methodology discussion) should be cut or heavily amended/digested. 

  • Examiners will work through text regardless of the writing style, book readers will not. Therefore, it is likely that extensive re-writing will be required to retain and engage readers. 

  • Take a step back. Think about the overall narrative of the book and be prepared to rethink the structure – this can be liberating! 

  • Value the reader’s time. Streamline where possible – theses by their nature contain much repetition. Keep in mind the agreed length of the book. 

  • Contextualize. If research is of a narrow scope, add international or inter-disciplinary context, particularly within the introductory and concluding chapters.

Sharing your research  

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Finally, talking about your research and the process of working it into a book can be an essential ingredient to its success. This can be done with your immediate colleagues, at conferences and with a publisher. It can also be done online – with social media a useful tool to tap into wider networks as well as to test ideas out. 

Further Reading

European University Institute (Undated) – From PhD to Book 
Germano, W. (2005) – From Dissertation to Book 
Thomson, P. (2011) – Can I Get a Book From My Thesis 
Thomson, P. (2013) – Turning Your PhD Into a Book 
Veletsianos, G. (2016) – Social Media in Academia, Routledge 

Where to next?

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