Publish or Perish: Welcome to the Wonderful World of Academic Publishing

If you’re reading this, it’s because you’re a PhD student and you’re starting to think about making steps towards publishing – congratulations! You’ll be up to your armpits in thesis and at the moment that’s great. I apologise for what I’m about to say next: you need to publish this beast. It’s taken you too long to write to abandon it. There are a number of questions to think about before you do, of course.

Let’s leap forward: the viva is done (praise be!) and any corrections are submitted. You are a Doctor – now you have to make your mark. Here are the questions:

  • Publish? Okay, this isn’t a question. Yes, publish! Yes, get it out there!
  • How publish – monograph or articles? This is only for you to answer (possibly with some input from your supervisors). Does your thesis lend itself better to a series of articles in carefully-selected journals or would it make a bigger splash as a monograph? In the Humanities, the answer is usually “MONOGRAPH!”
  • Where publish? Ah, there’s the thing. Think about your field and the books you read in the same field. Does one publisher stand out as being ‘the one’ for your topic? For me, it had to be the University Press of Mississippi.[*] They publish a lot of great stuff in Comics Studies and have a brilliant reputation. It was a no-brainer. Take a look at the publishers you’re considering – do they have a series you could contribute to? Do they have a lot of titles in a similar area? Ask around – see if you can gather testimonies about different publishers – not just what they publish but also what it’s like to work with them. This will be very important soon enough.
  • Why publish? Didn’t I just tell you you should? Well, yes, but you also need to know why you’re doing it. It’s not just ‘Because I wrote this thing and now need to get it out there’. Writing a monograph means taking a leap into the academy. You’re making a contribution to an international conversation that is bigger than all of us. This is not small feat. You need to be prepared to make this contribution and to receive all that may come your way because of it. I’m not talking internet hate – academia is not Twitter – but I do mean that you will receive reviews and you will have to, to some extent, let go.

You’re braced. You’re publishing – you’re on your way! The publisher is selected. And here the work begins.

  1.  Write the proposal. Some publishers have a set form you can download from their website. Others have some guidelines. Others still have basically nothing. The proposal is for someone who is not an expert in your field to understand the point of your book and (more importantly) to view your book as a worthwhile addition to their publishing catalogue. Why should they publish you? Tell them! In addition to a strong overview of the whole book (and chapter synopses too) you’ll need to consider things like who is going to buy the book, what texts/authors are your competitors, if this is designed to fit with certain courses and how this book adds to existing scholarship. You will also need to include a sample chapter or two.
  2.  You wait. This bit is not easy.

NB: What follows is based on my experiences – different publishers have different ways of doing things but it’ll be mostly like this…

  1.  The commissioning editor will get back to you. They’ll maybe have some questions. They will hopefully want to send your manuscript for review – some ask for suggestions of reviewers, others do not – and so will ask for the complete thing. Don’t pick people to review you know very well (nepotism is not a good thing). If you really can’t think of anyone, look at your bookcase and suggest other academics in the field.
  2.  Send off the MS and a list of names and then wait again. All this waiting is good for the soul, according to my mother.
  3.  The review. Brace yourself. You’ll get a document that outlines suggestions for the MS. Some reviewers write very little. Mine wrote 11 pages. 11! I nearly fainted. You must read this through carefully at look at what they’ve written. A good reviewer will want to make the MS stronger and will be looking at the weak points with a view to strengthening them. Read the review several times through and then write your response. Think about how you will address each concern in the review and outline your plan for improvement. If your reviewer questions your use of a certain text, say you’ll add a section to explain and defend your choice of texts. Address each point in turn. If there’s anything you don’t want to do – for whatever reason – say so… but say why. Why is it beneficial to the text NOT to do this? Send off your response to the editor.
  4.  More waiting… *musical interlude*
  5.  If your response is accepted, you may be offered a contract. If not, you may be asked to make the proposed changes first. Do it – honestly. It’ll feel like you’re tearing your thesis to bits but it’s not a thesis anymore – it’s almost a book and they are different beasts. It has to move away from being a thesis before it can be published. Trust me. It’ll be worth it.
  6.  If you got the contract, make the changes and send it back. Do it quickly. If you were asked to make the changes, make the changes and send it back. Do it quickly. Don’t lag. This is important. Get it done and get it out there.
Cover design by Todd Lape at the University Press of Mississippi, featuring art from C. Tyler's 'You'll Never Know'

Cover design by Todd Lape at the University Press of Mississippi, featuring art from C. Tyler’s ‘You’ll Never Know’

There’s a lot of other stuff to deal with (Marketing questionnaires! Cover designs! Woo!) but that’ll come and you’ll handle it. Just know that, by the time you get there, your book is becoming a thing. I recently saw my cover design for the first time and my dad said it was looking at an ultrasound – something you created that’s on its way but not here yet. Writing a monograph takes an awful lot of work – even after you’ve already written the thesis and you think you’re done – but it is absolutely worth it. I sound like a parent trying to convince you to do something horrific to reap the rewards later… no matter. I can’t guarantee it will be easy – I learned some new and innovative swear words during the revisions and am probably still keeping Hendricks and Schweppes in business – but surely nothing easy is worth it. Publish! Get your book out there and then thank me later.

[*] Shameless comment: UPM are, hands down, BRILLIANT. The editorial team are endlessly supportive and all the staff I’ve had dealings with have been professional, friendly, incredibly knowledgeable and also very calming. I can’t speak of them highly enough.

Written by Dr. Harriet Earle, Birkbeck College, University of London.

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