Be brave, rip up your life's work

September 16, 2005

If you're convinced there's a bestseller in your PhD thesis, you'll have to be prepared to tear it apart to find the gripping yarn within, says Harriet Swain. And no, readers don't want to see your footnotes

Frankly, you can't understand how anyone could fail to be fascinated by your PhD thesis. It's on a topic no one has dared touch before; it's packed with diagrams - even its footnotes, you feel, make gripping reading.

Well, you can ditch those for a start - and the diagrams while you're at it. Actually, it's probably best if you scrap it altogether and begin again.

"Throw away the PhD and start with a blank piece of paper," advises Andrew Franklin, the founder of publishing company Profile Books. "You cannot keep the title. You cannot keep the footnotes, the bibliography or referencing.

You can maybe keep the structure, but probably not."

Estelle Phillips, an educational consultant and co-author of How to Get a PhD , says: "You cannot publish your Phd as a book and expect people to enjoy it. It has to be redone." Those theses that manage to find a publisher in their pure state often don't do very well, she warns.

She advises asking either a publisher or someone in the publishing field whether turning your work into a book is a realistic expectation. "Don't just decide for yourself, because you could spend years working on it," she says. And once you start on the transformation, get someone else to read it for accessibility.

Franklin says that writing is all about communication between the author and audience and a PhD is written for a very small, specialised audience, while a commercial publisher will hope for an audience of many.

"It has to be written in a language they understand," he says. "It has to go beyond the scope of a PhD because most people's interest is general rather than particular."

He says it is important for academics to think the process through and envisage exactly what their work will look like as a book. "It is always easy for publishers to say no rather than yes, so you need to make it as hard as possible for them to say no," he says.

While a background as an academic commands some respect in the publishing world because it suggests you can communicate, it is your teaching rather than your research skills that are being taken into consideration.

Literary agent Catherine Clarke says you have to make the transition from writing for your peers to writing for someone who will take it for granted that you know what you are talking about.

"You don't need to justify every point," she says. Readers are looking for a confident style and some contextualising. PhDs that are primarily thematic are harder to translate into a general book than those with some narrative - preferably chronological, she says. "Even in books based on the social sciences, readers are looking for something that tells stories."

In addition, Clarke says, readers want a strong authorial voice. They need to know what you think.

She recommends getting an agent if you want to get published. Sometimes agents will advise you to publish first with a university publishing house and then try general publishers once you have the credibility of a book behind you.

Cathia Jenainati, co-ordinator of the academic writing programme at Warwick University, has just had her thesis accepted by a publisher. If you want to land a deal, she stresses, you have to carry out some market research, including studying publishers' lists closely. Listen to colleagues' advice about which publishers will enhance your reputation. Still, it is worth sending your proposal to all publishers because of the reader reports you will receive in return.

Jenainati took the advice of one publisher who said that there was no market for the kind of book about a single author that she was proposing.

Others said they might publish if she took out most of the theory. She kept reshaping her proposal in response to their comments.

Your supervisor's role can be invaluable, she says. Most supervisors will work in the same field as their Phd students and will be well published in that field. They should therefore be able to put you in contact with the people most likely to publish your work.

Rowena Murray, reader in educational and professional studies at Strathclyde University, says that if you know your field you will know where the gaps are and how your book could fill them or provide context for what is there already.

She says you should identify publishers that publish the kind of books you like and suggest to them where you think your proposed book could fit in.

"Keep the word thesis out of any communication with a publisher," she warns.

Jenainati says you need to be patient. It can take up to a year for a publisher to come back with a "maybe". She recommends being pushy. When publishers visited her university, she offered them coffee and took every chance to speak to them about her work. She presented a chapter from her PhD at conferences and then made herself known to the main reviewers in her subject so they would remember her.

When sending proposals to publishers, she enclosed her best chapter, a CV and a printout from the library of all the people who had requested her PhD. She also made sure she knew about people quoting her dissertation in their work.

Murray, on the other hand, argues that it is not necessary to send chapters. She sends papers linked to the topic of the book to prove she can write, complete and be peer reviewed and offers to send in a chapter if needed.

If you do send in a chapter, it is essential to bear in mind Phillips's final advice: "Take out all the boring stuff."

Further Information How to Get a PhD (third edition), by Estelle M. Phillips and Derek S. Pugh, Open University Press, 2000 How to Write a Thesis, by Rowena Murray, Open University Press-McGraw-Hill, 2002.


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