Self-Publishing your Thesis

After a long, hard slog, you’ve finally completed your thesis. Your supervisor has lavished you with praise and suggested you should get it published. Full of naive enthusiasm you send copies of your thesis to publishers, sit back and wait for the royalties to come rolling in.

Except they don’t. What you see instead is rejection after rejection.

“Dear Sir/Madam, We don’t publish dissertations”.

The truth is that publishers don’t publish dissertations – they publish books. And the two are quite different. Your thesis was produced to demonstrate your research capabilities. The harsh reality is that no one really wants to know how good a researcher you are.

Can I self-publish?

Can you? Yes, you can. From a copyright perspective, there is unlikely to be anything preventing you from self-publishing. You will have a rights agreement of some kind with your university, giving them non-exclusive rights to include your dissertation in their database, but all other rights are usually retained by you. Before you start, it is a good idea to check with your department on any rules or guidelines they have in place for publishing your academic work. Requirements vary across departments and schools.

You can upload it for free to lulu or KDP.

But before you rush off and hit the upload button, take a moment to consider why you are publishing it.

It may well be that you want to get a couple of copies for families and friends and relish in the knowledge that your work is available to all, via Amazon. If so, you can probably do so quickly by laying out the book in a suitable word template, creating a cover and uploading it.  If you want something that looks more polished, you may wish to invest in a professional cover design or layout. Take a look at my article here that offers advice on which services you may want to consider splashing out on.

But what if you want more than that? If your goal is to share your work with a wider audience, maybe even make money, then I have some bad news for you: You are almost certainly going to need to re-write it.

Is my thesis a book?

The aim of a thesis or dissertation is to demonstrate your research skills to a committee of examiners. It will be purposefully narrow in scope and cautious in style. It will focus a lot on surveying existing research and describing method in a way that demonstrates your diligence. Oh, and it will not indulge in speculation.

On the surface your work may resemble a book, but the language, format and mode of argument almost certainly do not. But that doesn’t mean your dissertation isn’t valuable. It may well be innovative, fresh or even ground-breaking. But it will need to be re-written if you are going to turn it into a book.

Re-writing your thesis

Your new book will address an educated readership who will want to be engaged, excited and, dare I say, seduced into reading your book. They are not looking for you to prove how thorough you were with your research and they are unlikely to care how many scholarly articles you consulted. Unlike your examination committee, your new audience will want you to speculate and raise questions that provoke them. They will want to know what you found out and what you think about it.

  1. Do your research. No, not more research! But I’m afraid so. Don’t worry – no one is going to ask you to demonstrate your method this time round. Take a look at the books you have found most engaging and work out what made them engaging. Look at how they structured arguments and how they kept your attention. Think about your target audience – who are they? Write yourself a list of potential readers – who they are, what their background knowledge will be like. Don’t make your list too narrow. If your goal is to sell books, you will need to target a wide audience base.
  2. Refocus on the central theme or argument. Whilst it was important to get you your doctorate, much of the material included in your thesis is going to be superfluous to requirement for your book. Unless you are actually writing about academic history, your audience is unlikely to be interested in more than a page or to on previous research – and even then, only if it is relevant.
  3. Restructure your work. Include the intriguing or unusual thought-provoking aspects of your work as early as possible. Your goal is to gain a reader’s interest quickly, then to retain it. When writing a thesis, you structure it like a newscast – setting out what you are going to do, doing it, then explaining again what you did. The book, in contrast, needs to have a narrative flow. Dissertations, by necessity, tend to be more stop-start. Arguments are made, then backed up by evidence. With a book you have more flexibility and should consider reducing the evidence base, or confining it to the back of the book.
  4. Leave the methodology on the cutting room floor. While you may decide to include a page or so for context, your audience cares more about your results and what you think about them than they do about your method. Lengthy repetitive chapters on method are a sure-fire way of turning your readership off.
  5. Edit your work thoroughly. There should be no references to “this thesis”.  Superfluous elements such as “In this section I will argue…” or “In this section I have shown…” should be removed.
  6. Quotes and Copyright. You may have had approval to include quotes in your thesis, but you should seek out further approval to include them in your book. Alternatively you could make them anonymous. You will also need to consider the 3rd party information you have included and decide whether its inclusion meets fair use guidelines (US) and fair-dealing guidelines (UK).

Is now the best time?

Straight after completing your PhD, may not be the best time to write your book. You will need to change your style and look at your work with newly critical eyes. With this in mind, leaving it for a year can be helpful. Not only does it allow you to view your arguments afresh, but it gives you time to find your writing voice. Practice short articles across a variety of formats, from book reviews to short stories, to blog posts. All of this will help make you a better writer in the long run.

Of course there is nothing stopping you from publishing your thesis ‘as-is’ now and starting your book in a year’s time. One of the joys of self-publishing is the ease in which you can publish and the relatively low cost of doing so, so there is nothing stopping you taking both approaches.

Final thoughts

You can simply publish your dissertation. But converting it into a book will be a rewarding process. Start slowly, but do start. Write a little every day and let it mature gradually. Like fine wine, the results will be worth it.