Sorting the prose from the cons

January 6, 2006

How do you make the leap from writer of a PhD thesis to award-winning author of a page-turner? Times Higher Young Academic Author of the Year Rana Mitter reveals the possibilities and pitfalls

The pressure on humanities and social science academics to write books is increasing, but luckily so are the opportunities for first-time authors. As well as the traditional university presses and commercial publishers, there are now a number of electronic publishing opportunities.

But as always, the question remains of whether to aim for the specialist market or a wider audience. Having written two books on Chinese history, I've found through trial and error that there are a few basic points worth adhering to.

First, don't try to make the first book do too much. Most first books are developed from a PhD thesis, and while the best look very different from that work, they will share the same basic agenda: a relatively narrow slice of data worked over very intensively with reflections on the wider significance of the project. The primary aim of such a book should be to make an innovative contribution to the field, and this means going beyond graduate-student caution and drawing some bolder conclusions.

For many authors, an equally important aim is to use the book as a calling card in the market. But it is almost certainly not the first book's job to get the author on television or for it to appear in huge piles in Waterstone's next to Trinny and Susannah's.

As I finished my own PhD, I was tormented by exciting rumours about my contemporaries who had also just completed. One had a two-book deal negotiated by a literary agent; another's thesis was being featured on a radio documentary; a third's work was to become a three-part mini-series on Channel 4. But such cases are rare. Fairly quickly, I realised that this wasn't going to happen to me. I thought that my revisionist views on how the Manchurian crisis had reshaped Chinese nationalism had some mileage.

But realistically, other professional historians were going to be my audience. However, that turned out to be a good thing.J All academics should think about the possibility of making their work known to a wider audience. But one's credibility with that wider audience can depend in part on having made your case with your own scholarly community first. And the people who nurture the ecology of an academic career - the colleagues who appoint us, who review our books and who act as anonymous reviewers for grant applications - are far less concerned with sales figures than with content and argument.

On the other hand, don't be trapped by the opposite mindset: the conviction that your thesis is so specialist and dull that you should be profoundly grateful for anyone publishing it at all. It's always worth trying for the best publisher possible for your type of book. Many authors will turn to a major university press or one of the most prominent commercial academic publishers, but it's worth remembering that in some cases, smaller and more specialist publishers can have more impact in your field. If a publisher, large or small, expresses interest in your book, that is always great, but before accepting an offer, it's definitely worth doing a full survey of the options as well as taking advice from colleagues about whether your prospective publisher is a good bet. My first book, The Manchurian Myth , was taken on by a publisher that had a specialist list in East Asian history. If I had been doing Italian history or Russian literature, I would probably have gone to another press entirely.

Then, there's the question of whether it's worth a long wait for a decision from the editorial board. Presses that have an intensive peer-review system may take a frustratingly long time to say "yes" or "no" to your book, but the books that come out the other end of the process are generally taken seriously, and a certain investment of time at the start of your book's life may be reflected in a much longer shelf life in libraries and on reading lists for courses.J Quick publication is by no means always the enemy of good work, though, and we should all spread the word about publishers who take unreasonably long periods to get back to authors, whose careers depend on timely publication.

But I don't think I've ever taken down a great work of history, still on the shelf after 20 or 30 years, and thought, "You know, the author really rushed this out."

Be careful - particularly with a first book - of the trend among some publishers to offer publication of manuscripts in e-book form only: after several years, the case for it is still, as the Scottish legal verdict goes, not proven.

Finally, a first book that gains attention from specialists can pave the way for the author to experiment a bit more or seek a wider audience next time.

My second book, A Bitter Revolution , emerged from a question that had puzzled me for years: why do China's cities today feel so profoundly different from how they were in the recent past under Mao, but so reminiscent of a much earlier period, the 1920s? Trying to find an answer to that question enabled me to encompass a century of Chinese history and to examine seemingly unrelated events such as the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square in 1989.

This approach deliberately took a much wider view than a "PhD book" could, although it was written for a university press. I got lucky, in that the book came out just as general interest in China began to rise. The massive growth in China's economy and upcoming events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics have fuelled a wider interest in Chinese history, and as a result, the book has received attention from scholars outside the China field, as well as from non-specialist readers.

But there are perils in publishing a book that has a wider audience: in particular, I now receive a regular stream of e-mails from sixth-formers convinced that I can do their A-level coursework for them.

Overall, however, I feel fortunate that my two books have given me equally happy, but quite different, experiences of writing and publishing.

Rana Mitter teaches modern Chinese history and politics at Oxford University and was Young Academic Author of the Year in the 2005 Times Higher Awards. A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World is published by Oxford University Press.

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