Anybody who has written a thesis or dissertation as part of completing their degree has a strong interest in having that thesis or dissertation published. Doing so provides an essential credential and helps establish authority in the field of study while also demonstrating that the author and their work has influence beyond academia.
Thankfully, many options exist for getting books published that run the gamut from “the big five” traditional publishers to self-publishing. An author is usually best-served by considering the options in that order. Being published by a traditional publisher has numerous benefits including broader distribution and the status that comes from having been vetted by industry experts.
Publishing Your Dissertation or Thesis with a Traditional Publisher
The steps to having your book acquired by a traditional publisher are outlined below.
While being traditionally published is probably preferable, the probability of obtaining an agent who is able to sell your book to a traditional publisher is less than 1%. With this in mind, some of the most common steps to self-publishing your book are also provided.
The first step to getting your book traditionally published is to get the manuscript ready for its intended audience. A thesis or dissertation is written to demonstrate mastery in an area of study—not to provide a few hours of enjoyable reading that help the reader learn important information. Transforming your work into a book helps demonstrate your ability to have an impact beyond academia. Part of the transformation process includes obtaining permission from rights holders for any third party content included that is not in the public domain.
As you work on your manuscript, you should also research the publishers that may be good candidates including trade houses and university presses. One way to identify candidates is to determine the publisher for books similar to yours. A primary determinant for the style of your book and the publishers to consider should be your intended audience. Will a segment of the general market be willing to buy it or will it only interest other scholars in your field?
As you are finishing your manuscript’s transformation, you will need to develop a book proposal that captures the information agents and publishers need to evaluate its commercial viability. Visit each of your publisher candidate’s sites to see what guidelines they have on manuscript submissions. Obtain examples and templates for book proposals that are appropriate based on your topic, audience, and intended publishers. Keep in mind that the publisher’s primary considerations are whether there is a substantial audience interested in the topic and whether that audience can be reached at a reasonable cost.
Once you have your manuscript and book proposal finished, you are ready to try to hire an agent (if you want to be published by a trade publisher) or pitch your book directly to university presses. Just as you identified publishers that would be good candidates by considering similar books, you can also identify prospective agents in a similar manner. Many authors mention their agent in the acknowledgment section.
Again, the probability of hiring an agent is quite low, and the probability of that agent being able to sell your book to a trade publisher is also very low—but it is worth a shot! Give yourself a reasonable deadline for each milestone, such as hiring an agent within 3 months and then securing a publisher within 6 months. Doing so helps you stay focused on your objectives and also provides some perspective as to when it would be prudent to consider other options, such as self-publishing.
Self-Publishing Your Dissertation or Thesis
Self-publishing has become very common and has lost most of its “vanity press” stigma. Academic communities rely on peer review to judge the quality of any work, and most readers rely on recommendations from their friends and associates or on reviews on book retailer sites, so whether you are traditionally published or self-published will have little impact on how your book is judged. The most important elements include a quality manuscript and a professionally produced book (pages and cover). Nearly every book is made available on the online retailer sites and included in industry databases, so it can be ordered by any bookstore. However, very few self-published books are actually sold to bookstores and other accounts in any way close to the intentional and methodical efforts of a traditional publisher’s sales team. Therefore, very few self-published books are found on more than a few bookstore shelves.
At WestBow Press (the self-publishing services division of Thomas Nelson and Zondervan that I manage), we offer an elite publishing package called Premier Reach that overcomes this weakness by using the HarperCollins Christian Publishing sales team to place copies in bookstores in the author’s region, initially. If the title sells well, then we expand distribution.
As you search for an agent and pitch your book to try to have it traditionally published, research the self-publishing companies that might be a good fit for your book and educate yourself on self-publishing in general so that you are ready to execute plan B if it becomes necessary. Traditional publishers must limit their acquisitions to less than 1% of the titles pitched to them, and they tend to choose the titles with the highest probability of commercial success. By doing so, they must pass on many quality manuscripts that just do not have obvious commercial appeal.
I’ve compared and contrasted traditional and self-publishing on my blog at http://www.petenikolai.com/speed-to-market/ if you would like more information. Many self-published authors willingly forego the broader distribution and status offered by traditional publishing in favor of the higher royalty rates, creative control, and other advantages offered by self-publishing.
If the deadlines you’ve set for being traditionally published pass and you decide to pursue self-publishing, then hopefully you’ve done your research and are ready to take the necessary steps. The good news is that you get to turn the tables so that you are now the customer and get to make all the decisions.
Just as there are a variety of traditional publishers, there are also a variety of ways to self-publish your book. Pure self-publishing is an entrepreneurial business, and the writer is the CEO. Handling every aspect of publishing your book is not easy. Handling every aspect well is nearly impossible. Very few people have the time or skills required to write, edit, proofread, design, market, sell, finance, print, distribute—very few people are both creative and managerial.
That said, you may have good ideas as to how you would like to see each aspect handled and want to work with a company or individuals who have the skills required to make your vision a reality—similar perhaps to the way you might work with a general contractor to build your dream home. Or you may decide that the only way it could work for you is to work with a self-publishing service provider (such as WestBow) so that all those other tasks are handled for you (with your approval), and you benefit from the expertise of a team of specialists (editorial, production, marketing, sales, etc.) who have been cranking out quality books for years.
When you’re ready to self-publish your book, it is important to have conversations with several prospective service providers so you can make sure you are getting professional assistance at an appropriate price. Identify what is important to you and ask questions to make sure your expectations can be met. Ask for references. Search for each company name on Amazon, and sort the results by Average Customer Review to see examples of the publisher’s best work—and compare those books (and their Best Sellers Rank numbers) with other publishers.
Keep in mind that if you self-publish, then you are the publisher—and you are responsible for the end result. Choose your service providers carefully and push for quality.
Whether you self-publish your book or have it traditionally published, it can and should be a tool to establish your authority and influence in your chosen field. You’ve put an amazing amount of time and resources into obtaining your degree, and your thesis or dissertation is the capstone that can become a stepping stone on your professional journey—if you publish it well.
Publisher of WestBow Press and
Director of Publishing Services for HarperCollins Christian Publishing