It’s taken you longer and has involved more heartache than you ever imagined possible. You have successfully navigated your viva, made any final corrections, and your Ph. D. is bound ready for a place in the library.
But if you’re intent on an academic career, this is only the beginning. The next stage is to get the Ph. D. published, which for those of us working in the humanities ideally means a book.
The first step towards publication is to take a long, hard look at your thesis and decide what kind of book it might make. It’s possible that one or both of your examiners will have commented on its potential for publication during the viva, but if they haven’t a good place to start is publishers’ websites. These will give you important information about the work they are interested in and the types of books they produce. There is simply no point offering a press specialising in contemporary literature a book on Medieval English, or suggesting a monograph to an editor who is primarily responsible for commissioning textbooks.
Your next port of call should be the section on publishers’ websites addressed to new authors. Any instructions here should be read and adhered to carefully.
All academic publishers will want a proposal from you, setting out what your book does, what its intended readership is, and a clear indication of where and how it differs from any existing work in the field. The particular ingredients and order will vary, but listed below are a few general points your approach should include:
Title. This is important. It should signal the terrain of the book as clearly as possible. Remember that the title will often have to stand alone – in a catalogue or library index for instance. It’s a good idea to think of the title in two stages. First, ensure that it signals what your book covers. Once this is done, try to rephrase so it is as arresting as possible.
Covering email or letter. Think of this an introduction – to yourself and to your book. Outline what your book does, why you believe it is important, and your credentials for writing it. You will elaborate on all these points in your accompanying proposal so keep it short. Remember commissioning editors are busy! Try to sound professional without appearing boastful.
Rationale. In an ideal world, this would be no more than one size of A4, explaining why this book needs to be written, together with an outline of the topics/materials/ideas etc it will draw on and develop.
Chapter breakdown. This should comprise a list of chapter titles together with the details of what each chapter will include. This is your chance to ‘pitch’ your book, so make sure the descriptions sound intellectually compelling and lively.
Competition. Publishers will want to know how your book differs from any other publications in the area, so always include a list of titles that could be seen to compete with your own. It is permissible to list the relative strengths and weaknesses of any potentially competing titles here and to indicate where your book contradicts, compliments or moves beyond them.
Type of book. Is your book a scholarly monograph intended primarily for your academic peers, or is it more an introduction for undergraduates? For publishers, this is a crucial distinction, and you should think carefully about who your intended readership is and signal this clearly. If you hope your book will be used by undergraduates, list the type of courses you think it might appear on. If, on the other hand, your book is addressed to established scholars in the field say so – but never be tempted to confuse the two. While we all hope our work will be read widely, publishers need to be clear about which ‘audience’ the book is primarily addressed to.
Scope. How long, in words, will your book be? Will it involve any illustrations? (The latter might make your book more expensive to produce so this decision needs to be factored in early.) When do you anticipate being able to deliver the completed book? This deadline should be realistic because it will form the basis of any contract the publisher offers you.
Permission. Have you secured the necessary permission to print any quote you use? This should be done via the copyright-holder and, where appropriate, the document owner.
The author. Publishers need to feel confident in you as a potential author, so always include a brief paragraph about yourself listing your credentials. These should include your academic qualifications as well as any relevant publications.
Once a proposal is received, the commissioning editor will read it through and make an initial judgment about whether or not it is right for their list. If it demonstrates potential, they may contact you asking to see the completed book (it is unusual for a first-time author to be taken on without the publisher seeing a full draft). They will then send it out for peer review, asking their reviewers to comment not only on the book’s intellectual merits but also on its usefulness. You may need to try more than one publisher before you find the right place for your book, but if a rejection comes with feedback take this on board before you contact the next publisher on your list.