Is there a book in this thesis?

One of the dreams that is secretly cherished by Ph.D candidates is that perhaps, one day, they might have their thesis or a work arising from their thesis published.  Given my advanced age (!) and shrivelled career prospects (!!) the pressure is not as strong on me as it is for my much-younger doctoral candidate colleagues, but there is certainly strong encouragement to accrue research points for the faculty through publications arising from your thesis and ‘the book’ is the most highly sought trophy of all.   Quite apart from any career benefits, there’s the personal passion for your topic which has had to flicker sufficiently to light your way through the thesis, and the conviction that you have a story worth telling that makes publication such a magnet.

The advice we as PhD candidates receive about writing with an eye to future publication is somewhat contradictory.  Some academics encourage us to write in the way we want to and with an eye to a larger audience than just the examiners who are obliged to read our thesis. One of my fellow-PhD candidates, for example, wrote a very ‘brave’ thesis that has been snapped up for publication largely unaltered.  Others caution that a thesis has its own genre rules that must be obeyed and that a book for publication is a different creature entirely.  I’ve heard a historian I admire, who had a contract for publication before she’d even submitted, admit that she published her thesis too early.  I’ve seen another colleague work really hard for about two years after receiving her doctorate, rewriting her work and actively pursuing a contract- in this case, with success.  I’ve heard publishers and many academics say that you in effect have to throw the whole thesis out and rewrite from scratch for a new audience.

Complicating all this is the requirement that universities now have that theses have to be placed online.  There’s some merit in the argument: after all, taxpayers’ money has gone into supporting your candidature, and a hard copy of the thesis just sits there on the shelf, largely unavailable to a wide audience who are not likely to know of its existence anyway.  I know that I have certainly been deeply grateful for the theses on Upper Canada that I have been able to source electronically that would otherwise be unavailable to me.  On the other hand, though, publishers are wary of- and even refuse- taking on a work that is accessible in the public domain in digital form.  I’ve been interested to compare novels that have been published commercially with the academic product available online in an earlier incarnation as part of a creative writing course through a university (see my posting on I Dream of Magda where I also discuss this) .  I’m also wary and disappointed to see big publishing conglomerates like EBSCO swallowing up theses and putting them behind a paywall with, I assume?- no payment to the author.

It is possible to embargo your thesis for a number of years, and I know several people who have done this.  I was interested to read the American Historical Association Statement on Policies Regarding the Embargoing of Completed History PhD Dissertations (a title almost as long as a thesis!)

It’s all rather fraught with difficulty and still in flux.  Often in pursuing a wide commercial readership, historians are forced to give up much of the academic scaffolding of footnotes and bibliographies that makes their work a history instead of a generalized non-fiction book.  University press publishers are more accommodating, but you wonder how they will survive in such a cut-throat, commercialized environment.  Many are moving to e-texts: I wonder if there’s the same frisson of excitement at seeing a web-page that has your book compared with seeing it physically on a bookshelf and being able to pick it up and sniff its bookishness?  Other histories are published by prestigious overseas academic publishers at an exorbitant price that ensures that only an academic library could afford to purchase them, thus making the work almost as inaccessible as the hard-copy thesis.

Still, I don’t know why I’m thinking about all this.  I have to write the damned thing first.

Others have written about this as well:

The Thesis Whisperer writes about publishing an academic e-book


4 responses to “Is there a book in this thesis?

  1. You stated a number of issues, but here I believe is the biggie: “Some academics encourage us to write in the way we want to and with an eye to a larger audience than just the examiners who are obliged to read our thesis”.

    The reader can tell within 37 nano seconds if the material came from an academic thesis. Writing for examiners is not the same skill AT ALL as writing for the interested public.

    • I agree that you can often see the thesis-y origins in book, but I’m wondering if the advice to write for a larger audience in the thesis is wrong?

  2. There are publishers who will publish ‘academic’ work, ASP produce some beautiful books true print runs are small & their distribution is limited, but consider them. It still gets your work out to a much larger extent than a PHD alone

    • Yes-as I look across to my bookshelf, there’s quite a few there with the ASP logo on the spine. Some are authors who publish quite frequently with other publishers as well- I’m looking at a book of widely published historians edited by Bain Attwood and Tom Griffiths, for example. Thank you for commenting.

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