So, you want to write a book?

I’ve been away from this blog for what seems like a very(!) long time. Since my last post at the end of February I have completed my busiest semester of teaching yet (my first full time semester), developed a new module (on Contemporary Political Theory) to teach next year, written a short chapter for an edited book, and been co-writing a chapter for another book. But the main reason why I haven’t blogged in a while is that I’ve been devoting every spare hour I have (which hasn’t been many!) to finishing my book: International Political Theory and the Refugee Problem (snazzy title, right?).

Well, I am pleased to report that the book is now done: I sent the manuscript to my editor at Routledge on Friday. And so this seemed as good a time as any to come back to this blog and write about the experience of writing a book for the first time. I’ll do so in two posts. This one focuses on the ‘mechanics’ (for want of a better word) of moving from PhD thesis to a book contract, for the benefit of other early career academics. The second post will reflect on the experience of actually writing the book itself.

I’ve broken the process of moving from PhD thesis to book contract into 7 key steps, along with my own experience.

Here we go….

1. So you want to turn your thesis into a book?

The first question you should ask yourself is: would my thesis work as a book? Not all do, and that’s fine. Some PhD projects in International Relations/Politics would work better as a series of journal articles, rather than a research monograph. In some ways this is a more effective way to get a number of publications out relatively quickly – and let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that this doesn’t matter in the current job market! But it is something that you should think about, and discuss with your supervisor and examiners (there is often time at the end of the viva to ask your examiners for publishing advice, and if there isn’t then you shouldn’t feel shy about emailing them to ask for their advice.)

2. When should I do it?

There really is no right answer to this question, as there are a number of factors to consider. Is the research time-sensitive – i.e. if you wait for a year or more it may no longer be worth publishing? How thesis-like is your thesis (more on this in point 3) – i.e. how much work is it going to take to turn it into a book? Do you have other potential publications on the go – i.e. do you have other pieces that could be published as articles relatively quickly, taking the pressure off the monograph? And, a familiar feeling to all of us by the time we’re done with the thesis: how sick are you of looking at it?

  • In my case, a combination of topic and my supervisor’s advice meant that I was able to write my thesis as much like a book as a thesis can realistically be, which meant I knew that there was not an awful lot of work I needed to do to it to turn it into a book. In other words, I knew I could get a relatively quick turn-around. My research wasn’t time-sensitive, and so there was no immediate pressure to produce the monograph in that sense, but I also knew that securing a contract was important given how long it would take for me to develop one or two new articles. I also already knew at the time that I submitted my thesis (at the end of September 2015) exactly what I wanted to change and how. I had my viva in mid-November 2015, and by the end of February 2016 I had sent off my book proposal to Routledge.

3. How would I turn my thesis into a book?

The most important thing to remember is that a thesis and a book are NOT the same thing, and the book that you propose to a publisher should not just be a carbon copy of your thesis. A thesis is a piece of work written for a specific purpose: to get your PhD. As such there are certain things that a thesis needs to do – to satisfy your examiners and demonstrate your credentials as a new scholar – that are not needed or not suitable for a book. Your examiners will judge your thesis based upon its scholarly value/credentials. Publishers will judge your book based upon whether they will be able to sell it to a wider (but in all likelihood still academic) audience.

This means that you need to think about what changes you will make to your thesis. Everyone’s project is different, but these changes could include: trimming down the discussion/explanation of methods or theory; adding a new case study; removing a case study; narrowing or expanding the focus – geographically/temporally/etc; re-writing whole chapters; radical or mild re-structuring of individual chapters or of the whole project; and so on.

  • In my case: I narrowed the focus of the book (my thesis had 3 primary objectives, but I focused on just two of them for the book), removed the first chapter of the thesis entirely, split one of my thesis chapters into two chapters for the book, and wrote a new introductory and concluding chapter. Minor changes included reducing lengthy citations (the kind we include to demonstrate to our examiners how widely we’ve read!), restructuring two of the chapters, and writing new introductory and concluding sections for each chapter.

It is really important that you give careful consideration to what changes you will make as many publishers will want to know these specifics if your proposed book began as a PhD thesis.

4. Identify potential publishers.

By the time you’ve finished your thesis you may already know who you would like to publish with: there may be a go-to publisher for your field or sub-field; your bookshelves or bibliography may be filled with books published by the same publisher; the scholars with whom you see yourself in conversation may all have published with one particular publisher; and so on. In which case, the choice of publisher will be relatively simple.

But this isn’t always the case. If it isn’t, then you need to devote some time to researching potential publishers. Spending some time on publisher’s websites and looking for potentially relevant series is one way of identifying a potential publisher. Publisher’s websites also include catalogues that you can look through to see what they’ve been publishing over the past few years, and they will also have lists of commissioning editors with descriptions of the kinds of work they seek to publish. Just like picking a journal to publish an article with, your chances of securing a contract for your book will increase if a publisher already publishes work in your field. There is always the chance, of course, that your book could be the one with which a publisher decides to break new ground, but given that you may well be a first-time author, a publisher may not be willing to take that chance. So do your research.

Once you’ve identified two or three potential publishers – and figured out who the relevant editors are – you need to familiarise yourself with their proposal guidelines as each publisher wants something different. Some want a proposal and one or two sample chapters; others want a complete manuscript before they’ll make a decision on a contract. It’s worth sending a quick email to the relevant editor, introducing yourself and your project (keep it concise, editors are busy people), and to ask if there are any materials in addition to a formal proposal that they would require from you. This can be helpful if a publisher is likely to want a complete manuscript before making a decision, as the last thing you want to do is prepare an entire manuscript for a publisher to consider only to have them turn around and say “sorry, we don’t think that will fit with our list.” Some editors may not respond. Some may take an age to respond. Some (like my lovely editor at Routledge) will respond quickly and provide helpful advice, or will respond quickly and let you know that they don’t think your book would fit in their list. If the latter response lands in your inbox, try not to be disheartened. Just move on to the next name on the list.

There seems to be some debate over whether or not it’s “better” to publish with a University press, rather than a commercial (academic) publisher – i.e. that it’s “better” to publish with CUP than with Palgrave. Personally, I’ve always found these debates to be tinted with a considerable dose of academic snobbery, but different people have different views, and I don’t think that there’s a “right” answer. University presses and commercial (academic) publishers like Palgrave, Routledge, and the like, all engage in blind peer review, and frankly, your work should be able to stand on its own two feet and not be reliant upon the “brand” of your publisher in order to bolster its claim to import or interest. And I think we’ve all read enough to know that just because a book has been published with OUP or CUP does not mean automatically mean that it’s going to be a great book! But these opinions are out there and it can be difficult as an early career academic to make these choices. So speak to your supervisor, to your examiners, and to other colleagues in your department. Ultimately, however, the choice is yours.

  • In my case, I had identified Routledge as a potential publisher quite early on as they have published a number of the key names in my field(s) – I straddle two fields, really. Nevertheless, on advice I contacted OUP about the book. Luckily, I heard back from the editor relatively quickly that he wasn’t sure it would be a good fit. So I swiftly moved on to Routledge. I sent a brief email with one or two short paragraphs describing the project, asking if the editor might be interested in seeing a full proposal. I received a very enthusiastic email within one day, with lots of helpful attachments about how to write the proposal, their advice on turning a PhD thesis into a book, and telling me what additional materials to send (they wanted two sample chapters – these could be thesis chapters, but I would need to indicate how they would be changed for the book). Knowing that the commissioning editor thought it might fit with her list, and armed with concrete guidelines, I could then turn my attention to writing the proposal.

5. Writing the proposal.

The book proposal is, essentially, your detailed ‘pitch’ to the publisher and, as such, is a vitally important document.

The first piece of advice I have about writing the proposal is this: write it with care!! I know that you will probably have very little spare time, consumed as you will likely be with job applications – which itself can feel like a full-time job – and working to keep a roof over your head – such is the life of the early career academic! But you do need to devote time, effort and considerable thought to your book proposal, as this is what the publisher will use to decide whether or not your book is publishable. So don’t rush it. The last thing you want to do is produce a proposal that is poorly written, ill-thought through, and doesn’t follow the instructions (i.e. doesn’t provide the publisher with everything that they ask for).

The second piece of advice that I have is: publishing is a business, and you need to recognise this. Publishers are in the business of publishing books that will sell. This means that you need to show the publisher why your book is more than just academically interesting. You need to show that your book does something which similar books don’t do. Somewhere in the book proposal you will be asked to list key selling-points of your book, and to list the main ‘competitor’ titles and how your book differs from them. These are vitally important sections of your proposal!!

The third piece of advice is related to the second one: you may be asked to indicate what the main market for your book will be (I was). If you are, don’t pitch your book to the publisher as of interest to ‘the general public’. Unless you are writing another “The Shock Doctrine”, the general public are unlikely to buy your book (and most members of the general public would, rightly, balk at the price of an academic monograph – around £100 Hardback). This means that, in all likelihood, the main market for your book is going to be the library market, and will be targeted at advanced undergraduates and postgraduate students, and scholars working in your specific field.

What else should a proposal include? This will depend on the publisher, as each publisher has specific guidelines for a proposal. In my case, Routledge wanted the proposal to address the following:

  • Title – be sensible with your title rather than clever. Think “will my book come up in a google search of terms in my field?” If not, you need to rethink your title.
  • Statement of aims – what is the book about and what is its contribution
  • Detailed synopsis – a summary of each chapter (including structure, titles and section titles) (this took up about 5.5 pages in my proposal)
  • Definition of the market
  • Review of main competitive books 
  • Format – they want to know roughly how long the book will be
  • Timing – be realistic with yourself about how you work and about what your other commitments are.
  • Description of sample work included
  • Is there any third-party material – this is material for which you will need to get permission to reproduce (as the author of the book, the cost for securing these permissions will likely fall to you rather than the publisher).
    • You will need to indicate if any work that you have previously published will also be included in the book. Even though this is also your work, you will still need to get permission from the original publisher to reproduce it in the book. Luckily, however, since it’s your work, it should be free to you to reproduce.
  • Marketing leads:
    • key selling points
    • any key conferences at which they could display and sell your book
    • journals that might be interested in reviewing the book
    • any societies which might be interested in your book and recommending it to their members
    • any funding bodies whose funding has helped you produce the work and who might therefore be interested in ‘promoting’ it.
  • Suggestions for how the thesis will be transformed (I took just over 1 page explaining this)
  • Details of academic referees to review the proposal and sample material.

As you will see from this list, there are a lot of things that you will need to think about beyond the intrinsic academic merits of your book! My book proposal was about 12 pages long (font-size 11, single spaced), of which roughly 7 were actually about the content of the book and how it related to competitor titles. The rest were devoted to these other aspects of the proposal. I therefore reiterate my first piece of advice: devote sufficient time and effort to preparing your proposal!

6. What happens after you send in your proposal?

After the commissioning editor receives your proposal and your sample materials, (s)he will send them out for blind peer review. It is impossible to say how long this will take. Just like with journal publishing, it can take time for the editor to find reviewers – the people you suggested might be too busy to review the materials. So be patient!

  • In my case it was much quicker than I thought it would be: I received the first report after about 7 weeks, and the second report 1 week after that.

Once the editor has received the reviews, (s)he will send you the reports that the reviewers wrote (anonymised, of course), and will indicate to you whether or not they want to proceed. It may be that the editor decides, on the basis of the reports from the reviewers, not to proceed any further with the project. Hopefully, however, this doesn’t happen, and the editor will either decide to recommend to the editorial board that they issue a contract (if there are no specific suggestions raised by the reviewers), or will ask you to respond (in the form of a memo) to the comments of the reviewers, and then (s)he will make a decision about whether or not to recommend a contract. In my case, the reviewers had made some suggestions and raised some issues that they felt I needed to address, and the editor asked me to consider these points, and write a brief “response memo” (roughly two pages) indicating how I would incorporate their suggestions. At this point she was very positive about the project, and wanted to recommend that the board issue a contract, but wanted me to produce a response memo to take to the board.

What on earth is a Response Memo?

  • Generally speaking, a response memo should not be a bullet-point list of all the reviewers comments (I’d be happy to share mine with anyone who would like to see what one looks like. Just send me a message). Instead, summarise the main suggestions made by the reviewers, (for example, thematically) and then set out a plan for revisions.
  • If you think that a reviewer has made an unhelpful suggestion, or a suggestion that indicates a misunderstanding, you shouldn’t be afraid to correct this, just make sure you do so diplomatically.
  • If you think that these revisions will require more time (I did) then you can also indicate this in the memo and include a revised manuscript delivery date.

After sending the response memo back to the editor (s)he will either decide not to proceed any further with the project (unlikely at this point but not, as I understand it, unheard of), or will decide to recommend to the full editorial board that they issue a contract for the book.

My timeline, from sending in the original proposal to being told I had secured a contract, was:

  • 29 February: submitted book proposal and draft materials to editor.
  • 19 April: first review received
  • 25 April: second review received
  • 25 April: asked to produce a response memo to be presented to the editorial board with original proposal materials
  • 5 May: submitted response memo
  • 6 May: offered a contract, and sent the legal materials to review and sign.

I was surprised at how quick the whole process was. But it can take much longer. So be patient, and address the comments of the reviewers thoughtfully and diplomatically. Remember, you and your editors will be working together to shepherd your project through, should you be offered a contract, and good working relationships are important.

7. CELEBRATE! You just got a book contract!

8. Now you actually have to write the thing – but I’ll deal with that in post number 2!


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