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Publishing your thesis

a PORT for Modern Languages tutorial

Site: Postgraduate online research training
Course: a PORT for Modern Languages
Book: Publishing your thesis
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Date: Tuesday, 18 February 2020, 7:02 AM

1 Introduction

You’ve got your PhD. Well done! You should probably begin to consider getting it published. If it’s the original contribution to knowledge a PhD is supposed to be, then the outside world needs to see it! In order to get your thesis published, there are various things that need to be taken into consideration.

Prof. Naomi Segal-Publishing Your Thesis Sound File (14.6 Mb)

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1.1 what the examiners said

Part of the examiners' official role is to determine whether your thesis is a publishable piece of research. They will probably have told you either at the viva or in their written report what their recommendations are regarding publication. Publication in book form is not the only, or even the best route. In some areas, journal articles may be more effective: seek advice from your examiners and supervisor about this. Their recommendations are your first point of call and should provide useful guidelines when deciding what and how much needs to be rewritten.

Your examiners may well be able to suggests publishers with lists in your field. If they don't, ask them (given that they may be operating to a tight timetable, check when is a good time to go through this with them). This is the quickest and perhaps the most reliable route to finding a publisher.

1.2 Differences between a PhD thesis and a published book

  • The PhD is an exam
    The first difference is that you write a PhD thesis to pass an exam and gain a qualification. A published book is not a piece of exam work and it should not read like one.
  • Your readership will be wider and less expert
    The thesis is written in the first instance for 3 people only: your supervisor and two examiners. These are all highly expert readers who know the field to which you are contributing. To them you are proving your own expertise and originality. The readership of a published academic book is, the publisher will hope, greater than three, so you consequently need to alter its style and format, to pitch it so that a wider (albeit probably still academic) readership can easily understand it.
  • Oh yes, a book is a commercial product
    Publishers look at a manuscript in terms of its commercial potential whereas a thesis examiner will be looking at it to judge its scholarly credentials. This is an important aspect which you need to take into account.

1.3 Book versus article

You may decide that rather than rewrite your whole dissertation as a book, it might be more appropriate to publish parts of it in the form of articles. Or, there were sections in your PhD which didn't fit into the whole of your dissertation, but which could make for interesting pieces to be published as separate items. Or, you have just completed your PhD and are following up on a new research project and want to put some of these research results into articles. You may have participated in a conference and the organizers of this conference have invited you to submit an article for the proceedings or a collection of the different papers given. The reasons why it is more likely that you will be publishing articles before turning your thesis into a book are multiple; last but not least, because publications are one of the most important prerequisites for standing a chance on the academic job market. Unless you wrote your PhD dissertation in a style that won't require much rewriting in order to transform it into a publishable product, it is obviously easier and faster to produce an impressive list of articles rather than books. If for now, you decide to opt for publishing an article, this page will suggest a few points to consider.

Awareness of audience
Depending on the journal, collection or newspaper which has offered you to publish your article, ask yourself who is your audience: who are you writing for? Is it scholars, critics or theorists? Are you publishing in a highly specialized journal or within a context that is more cross-disciplinary? How well-versed will the readers of your article be? Or, you might for example have an opportunity to publish a book-review in a non-academic context, a newspapers or a magazine, in which case you must adjust your writing style and the content of your piece to an entirely non-specialized public.

Rewriting material
If, for example, you are rewriting a conference paper, which required a very compact and more dialogical style of presentation, communicating directly and clearly to an audience within a very short time span, your article will now have to be geared towards an audience of readers. Whereas a conference paper can allow for a certain degree of loose ends, an article will need to be far more conclusive and polished. You are likely to have more space to elaborate on your ideas than with a conference paper that is usually limited to 20 minutes, so you now have an opportunity to go into more depth and detail, whilst tying up all your arguments. Finally, you will most likely have to reconsider the ways in which you embedded your quotations, and fill in all your references – footnotes or endnotes.

Rewriting parts of your PhD thesis involves similar processes of rethinking. If you intend to lift a certain section out of your PhD to submit it to a journal as an article, be aware that you might need to recontextualize the piece. Embedded within the overall structure of your thesis, the particular section might have been supported by the larger trajectory of arguments running through the text. So if you decide that a particular section can stand on its own, you might nevertheless still need to guide the reader into your thought process in a different way than you had done in your PhD.

Checking existing publications on the subject
Before you sit down to investigate a particular topic and write up your findings in an article, do your research! Not just on your primary material, but scan existing secondary publications on the subject, in particular recent ones. If you are publishing in a very specialized journal, you will be in direct communication with colleagues who are experts in the field. You should be aware what they have already said, and what is yet to be said on the subject, so that the production of knowledge can progress and be innovative rather than stagnant and repetitive. Don't rely on being an entirely original genius, but engage in a written discussion with your colleagues, respecting and responding to all the great ideas that are already in circulation. Once you have informed yourself about what is generally known by your particular readership, you will know exactly what to include and what to omit. Moreover, it will be straightforward to mark out your own contributions.

Choosing a journal
When you are first beginning to search for a journal that might possibly publish your article, you can pursue different avenues:

  • Word of mouth: ask around – your supervisor, and if you already have your doctorate, your examiners, and the colleagues in your field who you are friends with.
  • Search engines: there are portals and search engines, which can help you trace journals and collections that might have an interest in including your article. For example, www.papersinvited.com, is a website which allows you to search conferences, but also collections seeking for submissions for a particular topic. You will, however, have to get membership to browse their database.
  • Existing publications: rather than look for new journals which you don't know yet, you are very likely to already have read the kinds of journals which might also want to publish you. If you find yourself returning to reading a specific journal title, this might be an indication that this could be the right place to approach.

Narrowing down
Once you have narrowed down your choice of potential publishers to a specific selection of journals, it is important to read their mission statements and notes for contributors. It will also be useful to take a look at some of the articles in the journal, so that you will be clear as to what exactly the journal expects, and how in fact the submitted articles relate to this mission statement, that is how open to interpretation their thematic spectrum is. In the mission statement you will be able to find out about

  • the thematic focus of the journal
  • whether its editions are theme-based or/and open to a variety of different topics within one issue
  • if the journal is open to newcomers in the field or only representing established scholars
  • what the language/s for contributions is/are
  • deadlines for submission
  • word-length and presentation style of the submission
  • their translation policy
  • reference styles
  • the mode of submission; whether the article is to be sent as a hardcopy, disc, or email

Approaching several journals at once
This is not good practice. Some journals are explicit about this in their mission statement. But even if they are not, avoid sending around one particular article to different journals. Each article you submit will be passed on to a referee who will take the time to take a thorough look at your text. If the referee finds out that your article has been accepted by a different journal when finishing her/his read, she or he will not be happy, nor will the journal editors who have equally invested time and energy in favour of your work. Also, the specialized academic community is not too numerous so you might run the risk of having your submission being sent by different journals to one and the same referee. Again, not a very comfortable scenario – avoid it.

If your article has been accepted
Once your article has been accepted by a journal, it is quite likely that the editors will ask you for some changes. It is in your interests to follow their advice as closely as possible. If you feel your point has been misunderstood, try to be objective and self-critical. It might mean that you will need to make your arguments clearer.

1.4 How to rewrite the thesis for book publication

What to do (in the first instance):

  • Deal with your examiners' recommendations
  • Get rid of all actual references to its PhD status
  • Weed out repetition
  • Embed critical references
  • Make sure it is clear
  • Make sure it is readable


1. Get rid of all actual references to its PhD status (yes it sounds obvious but it's a good start and there are more than you would think), eg. the abstract (put that aside for transformation into a book proposal).

2. Weed out some of that repetitive signposting, eg. 'as I prove in chapter 5', 'as I have just proved' – it is crucial PhD architecture, demonstrating to impressed examiners that you have an argument and are sticking to it, but highly tiresome for the general academic reader. A well-written book will not need to keep proving that it is arguing something, it will just be doing it, and the interested reader will have chapter break-down and index to keep them navigating around your text.

3. Embed the references to critical literature more naturally within your argument: the rather crude form of the critical survey or literature review, so necessary to the PhD, is perhaps the single thing that will need most work. You may, depending on the publisher, be able to retain the chapter order of your thesis with the critical survey (presumably) first: even so, try and make it more appealing. You will make your work more publishable if you are able to integrate the critical references more naturally as you unfold your argument. This may mean that you do not cite all the works you initially surveyed (you can still include them in the bibliography) or that others get relegated to footnotes and spread about the book. Nonetheless, this is an essential first step.

4. Make sure that it is clear: your adopted or developed methodology and theoretical framework may be over-familiar and crystal clear to you, but your readers may not find it so – you will help your book and your readers if you try to express even the most complicated theoretical relationships as clearly as possible (yes, Lacanians, we want to understand as well as admire you!).

5. Try to make the style smoother and more elegant. A PhD is not awarded for style and it is in any case difficult enough to gather, arrange and argue through your research without having to worry about expressing yourself beautifully. However, style can reel in or repel readers (and publishers) in a very immediate way so try to polish your text as much as you can.

1.5 Finding the right publisher

The right publisher for your book is the publisher who wants it and can do most for it. Homing in on that publisher is not always a straightforward process and you may have to go through one or more rejections before getting accepted. The more accurately you target the publisher, the less likely you are to get rejected, so when selecting one consider the following points:

  • Did your supervisor or examiners suggest a publisher? Did they provide a named contact? Follow it up.
  • Does your department or university have links to a publisher or even run a university press itself? Check whether they might be appropriate.
  • When reading recent literature on your subject, did you find you were reading more than one book from a particular publisher or more specifically from a particular list (a list is a series of books by different authors edited by one or more people on a particular topic, eg Medicine and Culture edited by Sander Gilman at The Johns Hopkins University Press)? Perhaps this list would welcome your research: find out as much as you can, from the books themselves and from general statements on dedicated webpages, about the list editor's publication policy. Perhaps approach the series editor directly via email or letter.
  • Think about what YOU want for your book, what sort of readership, circulation, prestige and price you want for it. A small academic press may be unknown by the general public, rarely place its works for sale in bookshops, yet still be stocked by all research libraries in the world (eg The Voltaire Foundation in Oxford which publishes monographs on the Eighteenth Century - SVEC). Alternatively, it may not enjoy much prestige or do much promotion, so that their books receive little attention: they would really be a last resort. On the other hand, presses which are highly visible and sell cheaply (at least compared to SVEC) in bookshops may rarely get to a non-anglophone readership (Routledge may be one such). You need to decide what is important.
  • Scour printed publishers' catalogues and websites for description of publication policy and interests. Here are a selection, necessarily incomplete (we welcome suggestions: contact us!) of anglophone publishers that include lists in the humanities and in modern languages.

    Ashgate (UK)
    Blackwell (UK)
    Brepols (Belgium)
    Cambridge University Press (UK)
    Chicago University Press (US)
    Columbia University Press (US)
    Cornell University Press (US)
    Droz (Switzerland)
    Duke University Press (US)
    Edinburgh University Press (UK)
    Edwin Mellen Press (US, UK)
    Olschki (Italy)
    Johns Hopkins University Press (US)
    Legenda (UK)
    Macmillan (UK)
    Manchester University Press (UK)
    Oxford University Press (UK)
    Palgrave Macmillan (UK)
    Peter Lang (Germany, Switzerland, UK, US)
    Rodopi (Netherlands)
    Routledge (UK, US)
    Stanford University Press (US)
    University of Toronto Press (Canada)
    Voltaire Foundation (UK – dedicated to Eighteenth Century studies)
    Yale University Press (US)
  • Check the journals you most commonly read: what press are they affiliated to?
  • Check their review section: who is publishing what?

1.6 The correct procedure

Initial approach

If you have in mind a particular publisher's list, get the contact details for the person in charge of the list you want your book to be included in. Ring them or send a brief courteous email asking if they still run the list and whether they would welcome a proposal. Otherwise, contact the publisher's commissioning editor for the appropriate area (you may be able to find their name and contact details on the website). Check what they expect you to send (commonly a covering letter, a book proposal and a sample chapter or two) and whether they prefer it in hard copy or electronic format.

Approaching more than one publisher at a time

Don't do it! You may think you are speeding up what can be a very lengthy procedure (see 'How long will it take?') and also doubling your chances of acceptance as you sharpen the competitive edge between publishers, but the reality is that they will probably be annoyed and both drop you. There is not much point hiding the fact: either the publishers will know each other or the readers will know each other, or your material might even be sent to the same reader! In all events, it tends to be very much discouraged by the industry, so if you are going to do it, tell them. This is even more important with articles since journal editors and academic reviewers do not get paid for the time they devote to refereeing your article.

Sending the proposal:

  • Covering letter
  • Book proposal
  • Sample chapter or two

The covering letter

This should be brief, direct and clear, introducing yourself and the work you are sending. All main points will be covered in the book proposal.

The cook proposal

This document should not be longer than 2 or 3 pages and should include the following information (courtesy of The Nordic Institute of Asian Studies website):

  • The book's working title
  • Your name and contact details
  • A table of contents or similar overview
  • A short description
  • Details of the subject area and specific discourse(s) addressed
  • Readership level (indeed, is it suitable for course use)
  • An explanation of what is fresh and different
  • Your qualifications to write on this subject
  • An indication of the state of the manuscript and your estimated date of completion
  • An estimated length of the manuscript (a word count is especially useful)
  • The number and type of tables (if any)
  • The number and type of illustrations (if any)
  • A sample of your work. Sometimes the publisher may ask for one or more chapters–which will be used by the publisher to assess the author's command of both subject and style (essentially, to judge how much work will be required to make the manuscript publishable); other publishers will only look at completed manuscripts. Find out in advance what they require.

Sample material (see also The writing process)

If they ask for a sample chapter or chapters, these 'will be used by the publisher to assess the author's command of both subject and style (essentially, to judge how much work will be required to make the manuscript publishable)' (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies). Your material may not be sent at this point to a reader or readers, but is more likely to be looked at by the publishers themselves as they decide whether it is publishable and whether it will fit their profile. Spend some time considering which chapter will be the best to send – an introductory one tends to be the best as it is most approachable, but you may feel you prefer to send a particular study, which shows in detail the kind of work you are doing. You may be able to send more than one. Consult with your supervisor about this.

Even at this stage, the publisher may ask for the opinion of expert readers; this is all the more likely if they asked you to submit a whole MS. Make sure that the work you send is properly proofed, well-presented and preferably also formatted in accordance with the publisher's style (Chicago, MLA etc).

1.7 What happens once your manuscript has been accepted

The publisher says no: bad luck! But don't be disheartened: have they explained their reasons? Perhaps they don't take that kind of study any more – perhaps they know someone who does: ask! Did they feel it wasn't publishable in its current state: what where their precise criticisms? Do you agree with their assessment? Is there anything you can do to address their points? Set yourself a list of tasks and give yourself a deadline: work on the chapter, bring it up to scratch and send it off again, either to the same publisher if they encouraged you to do so, or to another one if their no was definitive. NEVER GIVE UP! We all know the sob stories of the literary greats who couldn't find a publisher and once they did were slammed by the press. This is a heroic task of rejection and exaltation, and it may take a while (think of it in epic terms!).

The publisher says yes: well done and phewee! But the job is not finished. You now need to agree with the publisher a date to deliver the whole manuscript. (At this stage, you may receive a contract, although some small academic publishing operations do not issue these.) It is vital that you agree a feasible delivery date, and that you stick to it once it is agreed. Late delivery jeopardises the chances of publication. At this stage, take every possible care to revise your MS. in accordance with the publisher's house style and other instructions to authors. This can save a lot of trouble later on.

Once submitted, the manuscript will then go to one or two expert readers; their reports will be weighed by the commissioning editor or by an editorial committee; publication will be recommended (or not – anything can happen!) either in its current state of preparation (rare!) or with revisions. Revisions can be fairly minor or entail large chunks of rewriting or even fundamental rethinking: take the criticism on the chin, gear yourself up, and start work (see The writing process). Once the revised manuscript is delivered the publisher may or may not send it again to a reader or readers, to see whether the revisions have been satisfactorily carried out. When they are satisfied with the manuscript, they may issue a contract, if they have not done so already, and the book will go into production. The manuscript may first go to a copy-editor, who will examine it carefully for any typographical or other presentational errors, and make sure it is in accordance with house style. You will then have to check the copy-edited manuscript, before it goes for typesetting. The earlier mistakes are detected, the easier it is to remedy them. Do not wait until proof stage to make corrections: if the error is yours, rather than the typesetter's, you may be required to pay correction costs. When the proofs are produced, you need to examine them very carefully for any errors that have crept in or that have survived earlier examinations. You will probably also be asked to compile an index. So there is still a lot of work to do once the manuscript is submitted, but it feels much less onerous when you know you are on the road to publication. Very occasionally, a publisher may have a late change of heart, owing to a take-over or some other reason, and no longer be able to publish your book. If this does happen, ask if you can take your readers' reports to another publisher to smoothen the way - they will probably be happy to let you do this in the circumstances.

How long will it take?

The whole process, from first approach to publication, can easily take a couple of years. Each stage of the decision-making process, except for a swift no at the very first hurdle, is likely to take about a month (not less), particularly when a long manuscript has to be dispatched to a probably already very busy expert reader – the time scale here is more likely to be three months. A polite email will elicit the state of progress. Yet however long the publisher seems to be taking, once you have agreed on a date for manuscript delivery with your publisher, KEEP TO IT!

1.8 Further references and reading

The publishers' websites themselves should always be consulted and their own preferences followed.

There are surprisingly few websites dedicated to information about publishing your thesis – this may be the only one as yet.

Good books on the topic are:

  • Anthony Haynes, Writing Successful Academic Books (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
  • William Germano, Getting it Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Books(Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2001)
  • Eleanor Harman and Ian Montagnes, eds., The Thesis and the Book (Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1976)
  • Beth Luey, Handbook for Academic Authors, 4th ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)