By Juliana Adelman
I should start with some confessions. First, my only qualification for writing this article is that I have turned my own PhD into a book. I am not 100% happy with either the PhD or the resulting monograph. I think probably many first time authors will tell you the same thing. This is just some advice for people doing solid history research who want to convert several years of effort into an object that others might read. I reserve the right to give advice which I should have followed, but failed to. And finally, this is going to be kind of long and probably violate the word limits we’ve set for ourselves. So if you’re looking for light entertainment, skip to something else.
Deciding your PhD topic
Uh oh, too late for that, eh? In an ideal world, you would have chosen a PhD topic which was so exciting and interesting that your enthusiasm is undimmed after 3, 4, 5…however many years you’ve been at it. If you are relatively normal you will be sick of your topic by the time you finish writing the dissertation. However, you will need to refresh your enthusiasm when you start converting the PhD into a book. When you defend your PhD you are basically answering the question ‘Why is this work important?’ To sell the book to publishers and readers you also need to answer ‘Why is this work interesting?’ You will need to think of why you thought your topic was interesting in the first place and how it might be made interesting to more than the three people who it was written for. This sounds simple, but is really quite difficult. To convince a publisher to publish your book you need to offer them a compelling reason and ‘a valuable addition to scholarship’ really isn’t good enough. You also need to think of your prospective readers and consider what is the most important aspect of your research, what you really want people to take away from reading your book. Now you are ready to…
Write a book proposal
I personally think it is a good idea to write a book proposal before you start writing the book. It is one way of thinking concretely about how you are going to convert your academic exercise into something more accessible. I think you can write the proposal before you decide on a publisher, and just adapt it to the publisher you decide on. Others may disagree. I used a very similar proposal for two publishers. The first didn’t want it, cursed be their name, and the second did. The basic components of a book proposal are title, synopsis, outline of chapters, schedule of completion, technical specifications and market/audience. Some publishers may look for more information, but almost all of them want these six aspects covered.
Think seriously about this. It’s not just a throw away and it doesn’t need to be the same as your PhD. It needs to not only tell readers what to expect, but also tell librarians how to catalogue your book. Funny quotes are not necessarily a good idea, as they may give no indication as to the book’s content. Clever titles are nice, but if you can’t think of one just give it a title that people will understand. Make sure not to claim too much territory beyond the contents of the book as the referees will most likely object to this. Don’t make the mistake that I did of giving a title in the book proposal which you do not want to be the title of the book as you may be stuck with it later.
As you probably guessed, this is a summary of your book. Make it sound exciting (see above)! Here is where you tell them what the reader is going to learn by reading your book. Do not give one sentence summaries of each chapter. Instead, give general themes and the central argument. Show how the book is original, but DO NOT give an extended bibliographic essay, that can go elsewhere if the publisher requires it. This should be short, less than a page probably. If you can’t get to the point quickly the publisher will probably start getting worried that this is a problem throughout your book. The synopsis may also be used for advertising your book on the publisher’s website and in their catalogue, so think it through.
3. Outline of chapters
This should be more than a list and it should not be the same as the table of contents for your PhD. Think about the titles you are giving to the chapters, and think if any of your chapters should be left out or moved into a different place or amalgamated. Do you need an additional chapter to give background? Do you need to cut out or cut down that chapter full of statistical tables (yes you do)? Is there one chapter that just doesn’t really fit in and would make a nice article instead? You will probably need to re-read your PhD from cover to cover to do this properly. This will be the first of many times (feeling sorry for your examiners yet?). Once you have decided the chapter titles and where they go, write a paragraph summarising each one. You can do less on the intro and conclusion, but the chapter summaries should be quite clear. This will really help you stay on track later when you are writing/revising.
4. Schedule of completion
Well you’ve done the hard part now. Here is where you need to decide how long this whole business is going to take you. How much of your PhD can be left virtually as is, and how much must be re-written, added to, etc. Be realistic. The publisher is unlikely to refuse your book because it won’t be done by a certain time. To give you an idea, I wrote and researched a new chapter and added substantially to another one. I also revised all of my chapters (5 in total) and wrote a new introduction and conclusion. I did it all part-time (1 day per week and evenings) and it took me over a year.
5. Technical specifications
How many words? Illustrations? Hint: publishers don’t really want to hear about 100 full colour images. But, if the images are necessary better be upfront about it.
Who wants to read your book? Are there other books covering the same topic? If so, how is yours different? Don’t say the ‘general public’ will be interested unless you can back this up. Who is the general public anyway?
If you’re interested in what some Irish publishers specifically request here’s a few sites, in alphabetical order. Irish Academic Press, Lilliput and Wordwell all lack author information on their sites.:
Congratulations! You’ve written a book proposal. Now you can move on to finding a publisher. We’ll save that for the next installment.