Getting Your Academic Work Published

On 5 June 2014 I attended the “Getting Grants, Getting Published and Staying Sane: Life After the PhD” event at the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London organised by HistoryLab+. Links to the full “series” can be found here.


The bread and butter work of the academic world is undoubtedly the publication of research. Consequently, appreciation of the challenges and opportunities available to PhD students after their graduation is important. Emma Brennan, Barry Doyle and Jane Winters explored this important area in session 3.

Publishing Your Thesis

It is important to recognise that your PhD in itself is not a book ready to be given a neat cover. As Emma Brennan stressed: your thesis is not a book.

Due to the way the book retail market is operated many books which are clearly derived from theses are explicitly not purchased by American universities. This is because theses can be got hold onto with minimal effort and expense by any university library. Thus shelling out for a hardback copy of thesis that can often be gotten online is not really considered.

As a result, most if not all university presses and commercial presses are not interested in publishing a thesis ‘as is’. So what are you to do with your thesis?

Maybe you could turn your thesis into a series of journal articles? This is perhaps the most immediately obvious alternative. However, due to the dominant position books have in the academic hierachy this is not the most ideal solution.

Alternatively, you could figure out a section of your thesis which is calling out for further research and use that as a springboard to develop your book idea. By doing this you could use something like 30 to 60% of your thesis as the foundations of your book. Clearly, by doing this then it would render the book unique enough to be considered a piece of research beyond that offered by your thesis.

Remember to refashion your introduction for publication. Theses and book introductions are incredibly different. Remove the clunky bits of an introduction such as the literature review. Nonetheless, still provide context but this time for non-experts. In other words, broaden out the context.

Always cut down the footnotes.

Consider cutting down the bibliography. Indeed, if it is a particularly lengthy one consider replacing it with a “Select Bibliography”.

Consider adding additional material for the reader. This could include a glossary, a timeline, etc. All these things will help the more general, non-expert reader.

Royal Historical Society’s Studies in History series

Although most commercial and university presses may not consider theses as they are, the RHS’s Studies in History series does.

Not only are they happy to receive PhD theses but they also offer a mentor scheme–if you want it–for those who are offered to publish with them. Thus members of the editorial board offer to support you from start to finish with any of your queries. This is in recognition of the fact that your first publication can often be a daunting experience filled with unfamiliarity.

What is more, if you submit a proposal which is not so glittering but the editorial team feel that the idea is still potentially good they may offer you the chance to resubmit.

What do Publishers Want?

So what exactly are publishers on the look out for?

Firstly, the shorter the book the better. They are cheaper to publish and quicker to turn around. A word length of between 70,000 and 100,000 is ideal.

Do you need illustrations? If not, that is all the better. The need to get permissions for the images and to typeset them adds extra cost both financially and time wise. Do not feel you need pictures if they are not entirely necessary. Obviously, if the work is intended as a more popular work then this may be deemed more appropriate to include images.

How long do you think it will take to get the publishers a draft? Give them a good idea so that they can fashion that into the publication schedule. Be reasonable. Don’t offer a time which is either too long or short to get the project finished.

If this is your first book, be prepared to be asked to send in a sample chapter or a draft manuscript. If you have not published before they will have no way of judging what to expect from you.

Pitching Your Project

In order to get the pitch for your book right go to your library and look at what else is published in or around your field. How do they present their work. What about similar books in the publisher range specifically? How did they sell their project? Why do you think it succeeded?

Have a look for book series. If there is a series in which your work would fit snugly. Definitely consider them very strongly. If you can find one that fits well then the series itself has already provided a hefty appeal to your pitch before you have even written or submitted it. Often the editorial teams for these series will also be more familiar with your field and thus be able to provide far better guidance.

Think about your title very carefully. To help you, think about keywords for your work. What are they? How could you get them into a short, catchy and yet effective description of your work. By doing this you will start to build up the elements of an effective book title. It may be useful to keep thinking about whether or not your title would result in it coming high in search engines.

Remember to write your proposal as if the proposal were the book itself. Make your writing interesting and accurate. The same should be said of the sample chapter. These are the ways in which the publishers will have to decide whether you are worthwhile giving time to getting published. If your proposal or sample chapter is poorly written–even if you see it only as a draft–how are they supposed to know whether you can write the book well?

Journals or Books?

Journals have a number of benefits over books. First, it is easier and usually quicker to get a journal article published. As a result, you are able to populate your CV quicker through articles. At the start of your career this is clearly an important factor.

Furthermore, journal articles often offer a far wider audience than a book. Whereas an academic book may only sell a few hundred copies mostly to university libraries (and thus could just sit passively on shelves for long periods of time) journal articles may reach many thousands and are far more easily available globally.

Remember, you can submit your book to many publishers at the same time but never submit an article to more than one journal at a time.

How to choose your journal

Of course, you also have the difficulty of choosing your journal. Do you want a specialist journal in your field or a more generalist journal? Usually specialist publications have a faster turnaround time than generalist publications (certainly the more popular ones).

Jane Winters advises that just as you should try and strike a balance between books and journals in the publication history so you should have a fine mix of generalist and specialist journal articles.

Do you research into the journal. Ask your supervisors advice. Talk to the editor of the journal as to whether or not your article is appropriate. Maybe even consider their response and turnaround times.*

Also, look into whether the journal encourages postgraduate and early career research papers. As a result, they may be more amiable towards those new to the process and be better able to help you where needed.

How To Structure a Journal Article

Jane Winters also provided a short run down of the important structural elements of an academic article:

  • Introduction
  • Context and background–Often missed out by writers. Why is you work important? How does it add to the field?
  • Methodology (where appropriate)
  • Research findings and examples
  • Conclusion

Also remember again that this is not just a short thesis. Consider your audience. If it is to be published in a generalist journal, add a bit more context and ensure that the ideas are very clearly expressed.

Dealing with Peer Reviews

Never take criticisms from peer reviewers personally. They are trying to help. Books are rarely anonymously peer reviewed. In contrast, journal articles nearly always are.

Emma Brennan advises that you always try and give yourself a week before replying to peer reviews. This ensures that no response is a rush of blood to the head affair which you will be embarrassed about later or may be misconstrued.

*There is a very useful wiki called “History Journal Response Times” which is perfect for getting a feel for how long you should expect to find out whether your article has been accepted or not. More broadly there is also a newer one on the “Humanities Journals Wiki”.

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