Academic Writing AdviceAcademic, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

How to Turn Your Dissertation Into a Book: A Step-By-Step Guide for New Authors


Whether you are just starting graduate school, writing your dissertation, or the proud recipient of a recent Ph.D., you may be thinking about turning your dissertation into a published book. There are many reasons why this might be a good idea. In some fields, a published scholarly book is a preferred method for presenting a comprehensive view of pivotal research. A book gives you the space to discuss details, complications, connections, and ramifications in a way that is not possible in a journal article. In these fields, a well-reviewed book gives you instant credibility when applying for faculty positions, tenure, and related positions. A published book also has a much longer shelf life than an unpublished dissertation, and will occupy a respected place on your CV or resume for years to come.

In other fields, good dissertations are expected to produce one or more published journal articles, and many tenured faculty at top research institutions never publish a book. In these fields, publishing a book may still be an asset for those pursuing a traditional academic career, and can be a great way to transition into other careers such as science communication, education, or public policy. So if turning your dissertation into a book is something you are considering, here are some steps to get started.

Step 1: Identify your audience

Publishers are businesses that make money by selling books. This is true of "trade" publishers that sell books for the general public, and "academic" publishers that sell books primarily for students and scholars. Therefore, in order for a publisher to consider publishing your book, there must be a sufficiently large audience to buy your book. This audience will strongly influence how you organize and write your book, and may cause your book to be massively different from your dissertation. After all, the purpose of a dissertation is to show that you are knowledgeable about your field of study, and have made a significant contribution to it. In contrast, the purpose of a book is to serve a need for the reader.

Some dissertation topics may work well as required reading for college and university courses. In that case, you need to identify the types of courses that would be appropriate (e.g. courses in sociology that cover gender identity), and develop an understanding of how many students take such courses. For example, you might find that almost all colleges in the California State system have a sociology department. At California State AnyTown, there are 20,000 undergraduate students, and 400 students a year take a sociology course that focuses on gender identity. Other dissertation topics might appeal to people in specific professions (e.g. people who work with children who suffer concussions), and you might look at the number of people in relevant professional organizations (e.g. associations for coaches or pediatric nurses). At the other end of the spectrum, you might imagine a book that appeals to a fairly wide audience (e.g. a book that addresses recent events linked to gender identity, or a broader discussion of concussion in youth sports). For these books, the intended audience may be harder to define, so you can estimate its size in the next step.

Step 2: Identify competing books

Once you have identified a potential audience, you need to familiarize yourself with the books they are reading. Your book will be competing with these books, so you need to determine how your book will fill a gap for this audience. Here you have the opportunity—and the obligation—to read widely in your intended niche. If this opportunity doesn't excite you, do not try to write a book for this niche. The process of writing a good book is laborious and time consuming, so if you are not interested in exploring similar books for what works and what doesn't, you will not enjoy writing your own book for this category.

As you identify and read competing books, you should pay attention to the topics that they cover, and how the author writes about these topics. Consider whether the text is instructive or narrative, what details are included, how the text is organized, and whether visual aids such as photographs, diagrams, or tables are included. Also find out when the book was published, how long it is, how much it sells for, and how many copies have been sold (or at least what its Amazon sales rank is).

You may find books that are very similar to your book, or that are different in significant ways (such as the specific topic) but that have characteristics you want to emulate (e.g. a good strategy for presenting technically challenging research to a broad audience). As you gain a good understanding of related books, you'll need to develop a list of 3-10 books that will compete with your book. You will use this list to support two points:

  1. Books similar to your book have been successful with your intended audiences; and
  2. Your book fills an unmet need for this audience, so they will buy it.

That unmet need might be a more recent book that incorporates new knowledge, or a book that takes a different approach to a question that has already been addressed.

This survey of related books will also help you plan your book. If you find that multiple books already exist for your intended topic, you may need to shift your emphasis so that your book offers something new. If you find that there are few successful competing books, it may be that your intended audience is too small, and that you need to shift your emphasis to fit into a more productive niche.

Step 3: Create an outline for your book

Once you have an intended audience, an excellent understanding of successful books in the same category, and an idea for how you can fill a need in that category, you can start planning your book in detail. Put together an outline, starting with the major topic for each chapter, and thinking about how the overall theme will progress through the entire book. Even for a purely academic book, there must be an overall arch to your story.

While it may be tempting to slip into the same mindset that you used for planning and writing your dissertation, remember that the purpose of your book is to serve a need for the reader. So rather than focusing on your specific research contributions (which is essential for a dissertation), focus on what the reader needs to know. To facilitate this mindset, it may be useful to put away your dissertation for a bit (assuming that it is already complete) and focus on other projects. Then revisit your dissertation topic when you have fresh eyes and a better understanding of what would be useful for your intended audience.

As you flesh out the details for each chapter, set a target word count and think about any images or tables that should be included. Keep in mind that book publishers must pay for every page, image, and footnote to be edited, prepared, and printed. Books that are only available electronically still have most of these per-page expenses. Therefore, use successful books in your category as a guide for how long your book should be, and how many images should be included. Color images also add significantly to the production costs.

As you are preparing your outline, you will likely reach a point where you are unsure if the details of your plan will work. Then it is time to write.

Step 4: Write a sample chapter

If you want a publisher or agent to consider your book, you will typically need to submit a sample chapter or two. You may be asked to submit your first chapter or your "best" chapter, so I recommend starting with your first chapter and making it excellent.

While there are many different approaches to successful writing, one common theme is that the first draft is usually terrible. So write the first draft of your first chapter and let it be terrible. Then read and revise, and repeat. As you are writing and revising, I recommend regularly taking time to read some of your competing titles. How do they deal with some of the challenges you are facing? Are their approaches successful or can you envision a better way?

As you write your first chapter or two, you may find that you need to revise your outline. Pay attention to what you can effectively cover for your audience in the space available.

Step 5: Identify appropriate publishers or agents

Once you have a strong plan and a sample chapter or two, you need to identify potential publishers. Start by looking at your list of competing titles, and learn about those publishers. Also talk to colleagues who have published books, and ask if they would be willing to put you in contact with their publisher or agent. The process can be quite complicated, and for a comprehensive guide I recommend The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. Many publishers also post guidelines for potential authors on their websites. For most publishers, you will need to show that you understand your audience and competing books, and provide a detailed book outline and convincing sample chapter.

Here is an infographic that breaks down all of these major points:

Dissertation Into a Book Infographic
An overview of how to make a book out of your dissertation in 5 steps.
Get in-depth guidance delivered right to your inbox.