Publish or perish!

Turning your PhD into a publishable book is more of a challenge than ever in today’s economic climate. Publishing Consultant Josie Dixon shares the secrets of success.

Does your research belong in the ivory tower or the ‘shopping mall?' A recent provocative article in ‘THE' diagnosed two opposing sets of standards and values at work in academia, and examined what they mean for graduate students today. Peter Barry suggested that the ‘Ivory Tower' standard, based on pure intellectual quality (unsullied by notions of dissemination, usage or application) is what is required for the PhD thesis. On the other hand, when it comes to postdoctoral funding, researchers are expected to undergo a rapid change of worldview in favour of the ‘Shopping Mall' standard. Here priorities are geared to an extended readership, broader relevance or applications, and ultimately some form of market value. While Barry's own concern is the need for changes in postgraduate  supervision to bridge this gap, his sharply etched polarities have a particular resonance when it comes to publishing.

The raw material for an academic publication may well start life in the ivory tower, but it won't make even the most marginal economic sense unless it steps over at least part of the way into the ‘shopping mall'. This is not about selling out, but about selling enough copies of a scholarly book to avoid making a loss. Publishers' editorial decision-making is underpinned by inevitable compromises to intellectual purity, made in the interests of ensuring a sustainable future for a business which is commercially marginal at best. The finest piece of research in the world is unlikely to find a publisher unless someone wants it. So, the first step is always to ask: who are you writing for? As a recent IBM advert put it, ‘Stop selling what you have. Start selling what they need'.

The gap between the two worldviews is by no means unbridgeable: ‘market' may be a dirty word in the ivory tower, but readership is not, and provides the ground on which scholarly and commercial values converge. It is very striking that most postgraduates and postdocs clearly find the change of perspective liberating. Asking fundamental questions of their research - such as ‘why does it matter?' and ‘who needs it?' - may have precipitated the occasional existential crisis (we're not all developing a cure for cancer), but for most it opens the windows onto a new and exciting sense of the ways in which their work may be generative for other scholars and applicable beyond their own specialist niche. Helping to clarify the larger stakes of the project and encouraging researchers to make the bigger claims (and then deliver on them) is a salutary and rewarding process.

Many of the commonest pitfalls in writing that tricky first-book proposal come down to the persistent pull of the ivory tower over the ‘shopping mall'. In the ivory tower we can take the importance of our research for granted; in the ‘shopping mall' the case has to be made and the product sold, in a tough marketplace. In the ivory tower we can communicate unmediated with fellow specialists; in the shopping mall we can only reach them by successfully convincing all the non-specialist intermediaries in the publishing world, the booktrade and the library-supply business. In the ivory tower there is the luxury of a paid readership - your supervisor and examiners - whose attention is guaranteed; in the ‘shopping mall' the reader's attention has to be earned every step of the way, and a paying market is looking for value for money.

In the research community the producers of academic publications are also the consumers, so you can learn a great deal about the ‘shopping mall' from your own viewpoint as a consumer. When you are considering buying a scholarly book, what are the ‘must-haves' (I need to buy this) as opposed to the ‘nice-to-haves' (I'll get it out of the library)? With acquisitions budgets under unprecedented pressure, the same issues are critical to library purchasing decisions: do we need this as part of our core collection, or shall we get it on interlibrary loan? If everyone opts for the latter, the market simply isn't there. The ‘must have'qualities need to be at the fore of a successful book proposal.
While Barry argues for ways to ease the transition between the two worldviews, I think that in the current climate it's impossible to inhabit both at once. So get the PhD under your belt before you enter the shopping mall. Then it will be time to ask yourself: what are the implications, the applications, the benefits of your research (whether empirical, archival, methodological, theoretical)? Where does it lead and what is its value? What are its claims to significance and durability? If at the finishing post of the PhD you're feeling a bit jaded for all this, then wait until you have the necessary distance on your project and can recover the passion that led you to spend years of your life on it. After all, if you aren't still convinced that it matters and excited by what it yields, who else will be?

Josie's top tips for publishing your research:

  1. Never send unrevised thesis material to a publisher. The job you were doing for your PhD examiners is very different from the one you will need to do for a publisher, a paying market and an international readership.
  2. First impressions count. So make sure you have a strong, clearly informative title, accessible to non-specialists.
  3. Make a coherent pitch. Publishers respond best to proposals with a clearly defined readership and market. They tend to be sceptical about claims to straddle several disciplines or different readership levels.
  4. Think macro, not micro. All research can be viewed in two dimensions: the micro (relying on its appeal to fellow-specialists in that niche) and the macro (emphasising the wider implications and applications for the discipline as a whole). Publishers will be looking for the latter, since the former is often too narrow to find a viably sized market in book form.
  5. Don't settle for filling a gap. It's a cliché to claim that your research fills a gap. I have never found this a very compelling claim, since it carries the unfortunate suggestion of a small niche in the margins between all the more important areas already covered.
  6. Be a driver, not a passenger. A common pitfall for first-time authors is to overplay the homage to established figures in their field. This carries the risk of appearing to be a passenger on other people's bandwagons. Concentrate on differentiating yourself from what has gone before.
  7. Have confidence in your claims. Beware the tentative discourse of aims and objectives, hopes and intentions. In the publishing world, your hopes won't make much of a selling point, and your readers will expect something more authoritative.
  8. What's in it for the reader? It's all too easy to get bound up in your own motivations to publish. Make sure you're always thinking about the needs of your prospective readership.
  9. Articulate the pay-off and the benefit. Make clear in your submission to a publisher where your research takes us - what is its contribution, what difference will it make? What will be the applications (scholarly or practical) of your insights and discoveries?
  10. Think international. The UK is only a small part of academic publishers'market. It's essential to consider the international appeal of your research, especially in the US.

Josie Dixon runs publishing workshops for final-year PhD students and postdocs across the UK and internationally. She was formerly Academic Publishing Director at Palgrave Macmillan and Senior Commissioning Editor at CUP.