How to turn your PhD into a book – part two

A couple of weeks ago I published part one of this series on academic book publishing, where I covered identifying the opportunities, contacting a publisher and pitching the idea. In part two I talk about how to negotiate the deal. In part three I will talk about what to expect in the book writing and editing process. (If you missed the last installment; step one can be found here – I recommend reading this post first).

Step Four: Don’t be an academic asshole about it

It’s highly likely, unless you did the slightly less cold call approach descibed in my previous post, that you won’t get a fast answer to your initial pitch to an academic publisher. Expect weeks, even months, between emails. In my experience, people behind the scenes in scholarly publishing are stretched for time, just like academics. Publishers are probably working on multiple projects or even multiple roles; many are working part-time. Factor the realities of their day to day work situation into your communication strategy. Don’t be pushy. Give people at least a month to respond to your initial pitch before following up to see if they got the letter.

Image by @impatrickt on Unsplash

Respect that publishers know how and what to publish – this might seem obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy to ignore. Good publishers, like good bloggers, know their audience. Publishers target specific markets; they know how to reach, connect and sell to certain bookstores and online distributors that supply these markets. They have past sales figures to guide their future decisions. Just because they have published similar books in the past does not mean they will want to print yours. Sometimes publishers just aren’t interested in your pitch – even if you think they should be.

For example, I was so convinced our book ‘Postgraduate study in Australia: surviving and thriving’, an edited collection of students writing advice for others, would be such an easy sell that I let the whole thing be written before I tried to pitch it. Big mistake (and one I will never make again!). I could not get a single Australian publisher interested, even with the figures about the reach of this blog, an obvious publicity vehicle. As a consequence, the project languished for ages and I was professionally very embarrassed at my overconfidence.

In the end, my colleague Chris cut a deal with a European publisher, with a much bigger price tag than I would like. I’m totally grateful to him for his efforts and admire his ‘never give in, never surrender’ approach because I am glad this book is in the world. I’m still convinced Survive and Thrive could have been a good buy for an Australian publisher. Colleagues have told me how they keep a copy of this book to give to prospective students considering doing a PhD. Other students have written to me to say how much they love the book, but it didn’t work out.

If this kind of bewildering rejection happens to you, don’t be an academic asshole about it. The temptation is to try and persuade the publisher they are wrong… It’s not a great idea. Academics are trained to argue, but outside of academia, people can find our style of arguing annoying. Don’t make the mistake of thinking arguing with a book publisher is the same as arguing with journal editors. It’s worth having a go arguing with a journal editor; my philosophy in that case is “if you don’t ask, you don’t get”. BUT, journal editors are usually academics; publishers are not. Trying to persuade a publisher they should publish (and probably lose money on) your book is probably a waste of time. Worse, if you end up on someone’s shit list for being a pain in the ass about it, you have burned future opportunities too.

I try to keep in mind my father in law Steve’s best piece of child raising advice: “good manners cost nothing and buy a lot”. Thank the publisher for bothering to respond to your email and move on to your next prospect. Shaking off rejection is a skill and you will get better at, I promise.

Step Five: A decent proposal

A publisher might see your dissertation as a good enough starting point and you will skip this next step, but in the conventional academic publishing business, you will need to do some form of proposal. A proposal is basically a long pitch document, guided by a series of questions. The questions will probably include, but not be limited to, the following:

  • Why you think a new book in this area is needed.
  • The value proposition of your book (I like to think of this as: what job does it do for the reader?)
  • An overview or synopsis of each chapter
  • Brief analysis of the market and readership for your book (including the academic courses your book could be used for)
  • Structure and format (this means number of pages, size and types of binding. Some publishers do not include this and will decide for you. Welcome to the pain of arguing about cover art…)
  • Competition / similar books on the market and your points of difference
  • Something about you (this is your opportunity to convince the publisher that YOU are the person to write this book)

I’ve found writing a proposal is similar to doing an ethics approval; the process of writing your ideas makes them more concrete, but it also means you see the holes in your reasoning and gaps in the material. This can make writing the proposal nerve wracking as it’s easy to entirely talk yourself out of doing the book at all (this has happened to me at least once, resulting in disappointment for the publisher).

The proposal process is a great way to solidify and shape your book. My latest book is a joint effort with Shaun Lehmann and Katherine Firth (of the Research Voodoo blog). “Your academic writing trouble and how to fix it” (out on the 23rd of December!), went through 18 months of revised proposal work.

One of the issues with this book was multiple changes of editor. While Inger initially ‘sold’ the idea of the book to an publisher over a coffee in the British Library. The early proposal reflected this in principle agreement and didn’t include very much detail. Here is the first attempt at our ‘value proposition’ statement:

Over our combined ~20 years of teaching and providing assistance to students we have found that there are a number of recurrent issues that students face when dealing with academics’ feedback. We find ourselves giving the same advice repeatedly, both to students and fellow academics alike, and would like to give them a concise and easy to use book that will summarise this advice. Under the current tertiary education model, students are expected to learn proper academic English writing by osmosis, that is copying the writing style of others without really understanding what they are doing and why they are doing it. We want to explain the ‘why’ and give some tips and tricks for fixing prose that has been deemed ‘defective’ in some way, while acknowledging the complexities and diversity of the ‘Englishes’ we are asked to engage with.

Unfortunately, the original publisher moved on after about a year. The project had been provisionally green-lighted, but the next editor did not have the same personal investment in the project. She was skeptical of the book premise, which forced us back to the drawing board. Towards the end of the proposal re-write, which had involved several skype sessions and many coffee meetings, that editor also moved on too! Thankfully, our last editor didn’t ask for us to make changes (thanks Karen!) and allowed us to move on to negotiating the contract itself.

While the planning was agonising, all that work resulted in a book that more or less wrote itself. As a result of this process, our initial pitch expanded a lot and, I think you will agree, the final version is a lot more convincing and clear:

All of us have extensive experience helping academics and graduate students fix their writing. We find ourselves giving the same advice repeatedly, both to students and fellow academics alike, and would like to make concise and easy to use book that will summarise this advice. The marketplace for writing advice books aimed at graduate students is becoming crowded, but there still seems to be an appetite for more – probably because of the multitude of problems graduate students face while trying to write long, original texts. Under the current tertiary education model, students are expected to learn proper academic English writing by osmosis: copying the writing style of others without really understanding what it is and why they are doing it.  This ‘apprenticeship model’ of teaching writing leads to poor understanding of how English works, creating problems that persist between generations of academics, in particular around giving and receiving feedback.

While most writing problems are easy to rectify, academics offering the feedback are often unable to explain exactly what is wrong and fall back on a relatively standard set of complaints which are common to all disciplines. These complaints are so common there are even joke websites to collect them. Poor feedback like “your writing doesn’t flow” or “I can’t hear your voice” can be difficult to action and leave many students confused about what to do next.

In our experience even a fairly basic understanding of why English works the way it does can solve a number of common academic writing difficulties. While many books on writing set out to explain how to write well, this book will work the opposite way by starting with the trouble the student is experiencing. The book will help the student diagnose the problem and provide tricks for fixing prose that has been deemed ‘defective’ in some way, while acknowledging the complexities and diversity of the English language in academic settings.

The advice in this book has been trialled on our blogs and in our classrooms so we know that it works well with the target audience. We will re-shape this content for inclusion in the book, often using feedback from readers to make the advice easier to follow. We will use 2017 to further road test our advice and create a buzz around the book. Readers familiar with our web presences will recognise the quality of contributions to this book and appreciate the convenience of having it packaged together. We are confident the book will have a large audience ready to buy it as soon as it is released.

I hope our faith in your interest in the book will prove true! Stay tuned for part three, where I talk about some of the practicalities of working with publishers to prepare and market the resulting manuscript. But I’m interested – how many of you have had experience of writing proposals? I’d be interested to hear your views in the comments as well as, of course, any questions.

Related posts

How to turn your PhD into a book – part one

How to make an index for your book or dissertation

About one of my books: “How to be an academic”

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7 thoughts on “How to turn your PhD into a book – part two

  1. David Lissenden says:

    Good blog most helpful, but you don’t cover the factor that looking sideways at the market could provide an avenue that may be worth following, thinking like a publisher when making the ‘ pitch’ can sometimes get the old foot firmly wedged in the door.

  2. Lynne Kelly says:

    I have enjoyed both the blogs on this topic so far and look forward to the next. I have published my PhD both as an academic monograph with Cambridge University Press and a popular trade book with Allen & Unwin. The latter has since been published in the US, UK, Chinese and Czech. The ‘hefty royalty checks’ you mention haven’t appeared even though ‘The Memory Code is doing well. Although, that depends on what you mean by hefty – compared with the academic book, they are hugely hefty!

    Everything you have written is spot on. Cambridge repackaged my thesis into a more marketable product which took a major rewrite. The big issue for me is that my work is interdisciplinary. Wonderful in theory, dreadful to market.

    Rewriting for a general audience is massive. You cannot edit from the academic book. The voice is entirely different. You have to start again. And you have to assure the publisher that is what you will do. Mainstream publishers will not look at a book which they think is just an edited PhD thesis. It’s too passive and uses too many jargonistic words. That is why what you said, Inger, about knowing your intended audience, is really critical. You have to convince the publisher that you are well aware of that.

    Your list of themes above for the proposal is excellent. If you are pitching to a trade publisher, then that marketing section is essential. Without it, your proposal is unlikely to get past the slush pile.

    So I had a high status academic book, then a less prestigious mass market book, but still literary and academically respectable. Now I have written a mass-market book which really is for the masses. A self-help (oh dear, did I really say that?) on all my experiments with the best memory methods in the world from indigenous cultures, ancient Greeks, Asian cultures and memory champions. I have tried them all – including competing. You have to get your hands dirty in mass-market publishing. It has to have a personal narrative in the current market. So different from academic books. No job for me in academia from this book, but it is my best chance of making some money out of the doctorate.

    I am still fascinated by my research even years after graduating with the doctorate and will keep researching for ever.

    P.S. My publisher at Allen & Unwin rang today. They want to brand me as – ready for it – The Memory Whisperer. You trend setter, Inger!

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Oh Lynne! Go for it! I think the Memory Code is an amazing book. Truly eye opening. Thanks for the long comment and it means a lot that you back up what I say here as your experience is vast!

    • Nat says:

      Thanks Inger for your helpful posts!

      Hi Lynne, first of all I want to say congrats on your amazing work! I would also just like to know did you work on both simultaneously? Which one took longer? I have just finished my PhD and my intention was to start with a trade book first. I have made a start on the complete new write, as you say, I can’t just rewrite the thesis for this. I contacted an agent…and then last week an academic book publisher wants to see a proposal. I did want to pursue an academic book too so I cannot refuse it. I may get knocked back by both but best case, say they both are interested, I’m afraid of having bitten off more than I can chew!

      • Lynne Kelly says:

        What a huge question, Nat! Basically, my trade publisher, Allen & Unwin, said that the academic book gave me authority, so they were keen to see that published first. They are very different audiences and different voices, so I don’t think that I could have written them together. My new book, “Memory Craft”, is lighter again.

        The difference is the level of chattiness and the personal anecdotes – essential in a trade book and not common in academic, unless hugely relevant to your thesis. But as I wrote the academic book, I noted any little quirky asides that would suit the trade version.

        This really requires a much longer answer! Each of the three books which have now come from the thesis took well over a year. I added more research to the trade ones arising from considering the very different audiences.

        All the very best with it!


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