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Josie Dixon – From Planet PhD to Destination Publication: A Traveller’s Guide. Part 5. Features vs Benefits
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This post is the fifth in a series by Josie Dixon, a consultant with 15 years’ experience in academic publishing, as Senior Commissioning Editor at Cambridge University Press and Publishing Director for the Academic Division at Palgrave Macmillan.  She now runs her own business, Lucian Consulting, and gives training workshops on publishing and other forms of research communication for postgraduates, postdocs and staff in over 50 universities internationally, alongside her training and consultancy work in the publishing industry. In this set of blog posts for PhD2Published, Josie examines some of the polarities between Planet PhD and the world of publishing, and offers strategies for how to bridge the gap. 

In the first post of this series, I took as my starting point the importance of recognising that publication is inevitably a commercial activity.  Pitching a book to potential publishers involves a degree of salesmanship, which doesn’t always come naturally.  In the publishing workshops I give for early career researchers, participants do an exercise in pairs, much like the well-known ‘elevator pitch’ in which entrepreneurs must make a concise and compelling case for the value of their enterprise to an investor.  The process of seeking a publisher for a book is, if you like, a kind of Dragon’s Den, in which presses will be looking for projects which will repay their investment.  Doing the exercise in pairs ensures not only that participants produce their own sales pitch, but also that they get to be a consumer of someone else’s, to encourage critical thinking about how the case for publication may look to an outsider.

This commercial turn is not about selling out on your academic values, but encouraging others to buy into the importance of your research.  It’s a difficult transition because most academics dislike the idea of having to market their work.  For some this spills over into disdain for anything so vulgar as promotion, and even a sense of hostility towards commercial values.  In an article in the TLS, addressing the recent controversies in the UK surrounding the introduction of impact as a criterion for funding research, Stefan Collini set out a dystopian future in which academics will have to become ‘accomplished marketing agents’ and ‘door-to-door salesmen for vulgarised versions of their increasingly market-oriented products’.  Collini’s desire to defend the independence of academic research and stand up for the cultural values of the humanities is of course commendable.  But it’s interesting that he sets this in such bitter opposition to a pejoratively framed notion of marketing and commercialisation.  I recognise in this a familiar, deep-rooted cultural cringe, most pervasive in the arts and humanities, based on the sense that scholarship and business are not just different worlds, but mutually hostile value systems.

Working in publishing has increased my respect for what marketing can do, in finding wider audiences – bringing greater recognition and impact – for academic research.  In retrospect, one of the most important lessons came surprisingly late in my publishing career, when as a publishing director I sat in on a copy-writing workshop run for my team of editors by the marketing department.  Our marketing manager spelled out a fundamental law of salesmanship – basic stuff in the shopping mall but a new way of thinking to most ivory-tower types.  This was the difference between features and benefits.   Features describe the characteristics of what you are trying to sell – for a book this might involve the content, coverage and approach, all of which is a good start but could still provoke the ‘so what?’ response in a jaded sales rep, bookseller or customer.  Benefits go further and make a more effective sales pitch, by making explicit how those elements will be useful and beneficial to the reader (whether in scholarly, pedagogical or even non-academic terms).   These might be methodological tools or analytical models with transferrable applications, new resources for further research, insight and guidance for policy-making, information and techniques for professionals and practitioners, and so on.

My experience is that most academics can elaborate for hours on the features of their work, but find it surprisingly difficult to articulate the benefits.   You would not sell a disposable coffee cup on the basis that it was made of cardboard (a mere feature), but rather by pointing out that it was heat-resistant and recyclable (two resulting benefits).  When you put together a book proposal you will likewise need to articulate not only the features but crucially the benefits of your research for your prospective readership.

Here are five tips to help you make this transition effectively:

i) Work out the features of your project – as many as you can think of!

ii) Convert each one into a benefit – explain why and how it will be of use to your readers

iii) Clarify who will benefit– e.g. researchers, teachers, professionals, practitioners, policy makers, or any other stakeholders you can identify.

iv) Concentrate on those benefits which are unique to your research

v) Be concise in communicating this as part of a publishing proposal – can you distill them into bullet points couched in terms that are accessible to non-specialists, rather than burying them in more elaborate, detailed or technical description of your research enterprise?  This will help to highlight your USPs more convincingly (see tips in Blogpost 1 in this series) and make clearer the reasons to publish your work.

Good luck!

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Josie Dixon – From Planet PhD to Destination Publication: A Traveller’s Guide. Part 4. Process vs Afterlife
Posted by atarrant

This post is the fourth in a series by Josie Dixon, a consultant with 15 years’ experience in academic publishing, as Senior Commissioning Editor at Cambridge University Press and Publishing Director for the Academic Division at Palgrave Macmillan.  She now runs her own business, Lucian Consulting, and gives training workshops on publishing and other forms of research communication for postgraduates, postdocs and staff in over 50 universities internationally, alongside her training and consultancy work in the publishing industry. In this set of blog posts for PhD2Published, Josie examines some of the polarities between Planet PhD and the world of publishing, and offers strategies for how to bridge the gap. 

When you have lived with your PhD thesis as work in progress for several years, it’s hard to imagine it as a finished product.  Often that sense of perpetual process infects the language in which the project is framed, and I have often been surprised by the extent to which would-be authors are still writing about their aims, hopes and intentions at the point when they are submitting it to a publisher.  Aims and objectives are perfectly proper in a grant proposal at the outset of your research, but when your work is being published for a paying market, there is an expectation of completion, results, and a focus on what your work actually achieves and delivers.  That requires a good deal more confidence, since readers will look for a measure of authority in a publication; in the minds of commissioning editors and the referees involved in the peer-review process, your work will appear less convincing if your claims are watered down in formulations which suggest that you are merely aiming, attempting, intending or hoping to achieve the desired outcomes of your project.  Nobody’s hopes ever made a selling point in a marketplace as tough as the current one for academic publications.

Arriving at destination publication means completing the journey, moving from process to product, and achieving a degree of closure.  On the other hand, we could also see this as an opening out, from the inward focus on the foundations and analytical processes of your own research which is often characteristic of a thesis (documented in literature reviews and chapters on methodology), to look outwards to what it will now offer to your audience or readership.  This change of outlook is also a change in direction: insofar as a thesis is required to document those processes of your research for the benefit of your examiners, it looks backwards, charting its own development; a publication must look onwards, anticipating its afterlife in the hands of your readers.

What your project will do for its readers may be very different from what it has done for you.  In the second blogpost in this series, I looked at the outward movement from micro to macro, particularly relevant to case-study research.  Here the case study material which formed the end point of a thesis may only be the starting point for a publication, if it is to anticipate the ways in which its readers will be interested in transferring your insights or models for application elsewhere.  That afterlife of your project will be less about the research itself and more about its implications and applications – where does it take us, and what does it yield?  What difference will it make?

Here are five tips to help you ensure you make this transition effectively:

i) Use confident and purposeful language in the framing material outlining the rationale for your project– aims, attempts, hopes and intentions won’t do here.  If you really can’t say categorically what it achieves, then at least strengthen the auxiliary verbs and say what it is designed to do, rather than leaving a degree of doubt.

ii) Cut down methodology sections and literature review (see also Blogpost 3 in this series) to move the focus away from process

iii) Highlight your original research findings to emphasise the outcomes of your analysis

iv) Make explicit the implications and applications of your research

v) Look ahead to the afterlife of your project in the Conclusion – this should not merely recapitulate what has gone before, but point outwards and onwards to articulate where your research leads, and what difference it will make.

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Josie Dixon – From Planet PhD to Destination Publication: A Traveller’s Guide. Part 3. Passenger vs Driver
Posted by Charlotte Frost

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This post is the third in a series by Josie Dixon, a consultant with 15 years’ experience in academic publishing, as Senior Commissioning Editor at Cambridge University Press and Publishing Director for the Academic Division at Palgrave Macmillan.  She now runs her own business, Lucian Consulting, and gives training workshops on publishing and other forms of research communication for postgraduates, postdocs and staff in over 50 universities internationally, alongside her training and consultancy work in the publishing industry. In this set of blog posts for PhD2Published, Josie examines some of the polarities between Planet PhD and the world of publishing, and offers strategies for how to bridge the gap. 

A publishing proposal needs to make clear the project’s contribution to work in the field, and define its originality with reference to what has gone before.  You aren’t working in a scholarly vacuum, so you will need to contextualise your research in the discipline, but in a very different mode from that of a PhD literature review.  Coverage of secondary sources is no longer of interest for its own sake: your mastery of the field can now be assumed, rather than requiring demonstration at every turn for the benefit of your examiners.  As an editorial colleague once put it, ‘A publisher is interested in what you think, not what you think other people have thought’.   The journey from PhD to publication involves rethinking not just the quantity, but also the quality and manner of your citations.

In the first blogpost in this series, I referred to an article by Peter Barry which offers equally useful observations in this context.  Barry complains, rightly, that ‘much academic writing seems to hamper its own flow by footnoting, quoting or citing in almost every sentence. Its own argument never gathers any proper momentum or direction, like a car being driven with the brakes half on’. He pinpoints in particular the problem of ‘constant self-interruption (“as X has argued”, “as Y points out” and so on)’.  Barry’s stylistic point is a good one, but I would go further, since I have additional reservations about ‘as X has argued’ as a critical manoeuvre, in terms of what it suggests about the author’s confidence in their own independent contribution to the field.

A PhD has been traditionally viewed as an apprenticeship for an academic career, and that sense of being an academic underling working in the shadow of the established authorities often betrays itself in formulaic citations of this kind, in which you can risk overplaying the homage to senior figures in the field (X and Y are typically gurus like Foucault or Habermas).  The ‘as’ in ‘as X has argued’ suggests an alignment of your own point with one that has already been expressed by someone else, and this formula usually introduces a main clause which recycles their point (likewise ‘According to X’) in the attempt to bolster your own argument.  Too much of this kind of ‘straight’ citation in order to agree suggests a dependent or derivative relationship, and insufficiently novel or critical thinking on your part.  Turn that around with a different formulation – ‘whereas X has argued…’  – and you automatically make space for your own new and different contribution to take centre stage in the sentence – a much stronger form of argumentation.

A similar principle applies to framing material outlining the relationship of your work to predecessors, models, or sources of methodological and theoretical inspiration.  Too many would-be authors characterise their project as ‘drawing on’ or ‘following’ the work of existing authorities in the field, suggesting a position that is derivative or lags behind.  Editors want to publish the leaders in their field, not the followers!  So a stronger pitch would be to characterise your project as ‘building on’ its predecessors, making clear that their work is only the starting point for yours, which pushes further forward and achieves something more.

So have the courage of your own convictions here – Foucault, Habermas & co have enough disciples, and you won’t distinguish yourself by adding to their number.  Rather than joining the chorus, make sure you are singing solo.  Don’t be a passenger on other people’s bandwagons: be the driver of your own!

Here are five writing tips, to help you manage your relationship to secondary sources in ways that foreground your originality to best effect:

i) Avoid ‘as’ and ‘according to’ when introducing citations – concentrate on differentiating your viewpoint, rather than aligning it with others’

ii) Beware ‘c.f.’ and referencing sources without making explicit the relationship of your viewpoint to the ones being cited – the risk is that you will appear to be recycling others’ views uncritically

iii) Avoid too much summary of critical debate without your own intervention – this can make you look like a bystander or commentator rather than an active participant, and at worst turns into a bibliographical laundry list

iv) Use dynamic rather than passive verbs – you will make a more compelling case for your contribution if you make clear how your project challenges or overturns previous work, rather than simply complementing it (too neutral), filling the gaps (too humble) or drawing on your predecessors (derivative rather than critical)

v) From problem to solution: while you will of course need to give credit where it’s due, you will make a stronger and more positive case for what you bring to the scholarly party by explaining the deficiencies in existing scholarship which your research aims to remedy, and making clear the pay-off for your distinctive approach

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Josie Dixon – From Planet PhD to Destination Publication: A Traveller’s Guide. Part 2. Micro vs Macro
Posted by Charlotte Frost

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This post is the second in a series by Josie Dixon, a consultant with 15 years’ experience in academic publishing, as Senior Commissioning Editor at Cambridge University Press and Publishing Director for the Academic Division at Palgrave Macmillan.  She now runs her own business, Lucian Consulting, and gives training workshops on publishing and other forms of research communication for postgraduates, postdocs and staff in over 50 universities internationally, alongside her training and consultancy work in the publishing industry. In this set of blog posts for PhD2Published, Josie examines some of the polarities between Planet PhD and the world of publishing, and offers strategies for how to bridge the gap. 

It’s well known that PhD stands for ‘piled high and deep’.  What’s sometimes harder to admit is that depth is usually achieved at the expense of breadth.  Burrowing down that scholarly rabbit hole inevitably limits the audience for a PhD, so when you’re thinking about publication, it’s vital to come up for air and look around at the larger field in which your burrow is located.  Managing the relationship between the ‘micro’ dimension (where the project is most specifically defined) and the ‘macro’ (where its broader applications may lie) will be key to maximising your chances of getting published.  Commissioning editors’ instinctive reaction to most thesis topics is that they’re too narrow to find a viable market in book form.  So unless you’re happy to publish in specialist journals, developing the macro dimension will be essential to making the transition from PhD to publication.

It’s worth recognising that the distance between the two has grown over the last couple of decades.  Universities have been under pressure to improve PhD completion rates, and one major instrument in a successful crackdown on this problem has been tighter control over the choice of thesis topics.  Today’s PhDs are better focused, but narrower than the more ambitious projects which waylaid academic career development in previous generations.  Meanwhile, in the publishing world, monograph sales have been falling year on year, and publishers’ efforts to shore up the viability of this form of publishing have focused on filtering out over-specialised titles and concentrating on broader topics.

The narrower focus of today’s PhDs is often exemplified in case studies.  Social scientists are generally taught to recognise, make explicit and theorise case-study research, to understand its value and also its limitations.  It’s not always readily acknowledged that this applies to the humanities too.  The study of a particular figure or theme or work (of art, literature, music, philosophy or theology) will be a limited exercise unless we explore its relationship with broader phenomena – the development of the genre, the culture of the period, wider intellectual movements or philosophical ideas.   To that extent, our chosen works or examples become case studies for these broader phenomena which are otherwise too large and diffuse to give meaningful boundaries to a project.  Without some version of the case-study principle, we’d all be embarking on that archetypally impossible search for the key to all mythologies.

When it comes to publishing, there’s a bigger imperative to develop and make explicit what your research yields beyond the terms of your case-study material.  If you are studying a topic which has received little attention to date, the very factor which helps to secure the originality of your research will also limit its audience (and the market for a publication), unless you can show what difference it makes to the mainstream of your discipline.  How will a new study of Charlotte Lennox change our view of eighteenth-century fiction or the development of women’s writing?  What impact will a study of Guicciardini have on our understanding of early modern political thought?  It’s easy to forget the need to elaborate on these larger implications when you have spent years burrowing down your own scholarly rabbit hole, but this factor will make a vital difference to the size of your audience and the level of interest you will be able to raise outside the circle of paid-up, card-carrying fellow-specialists in your sub-field.

The same is true when it comes to applications.  A typical linguistics PhD, offering a grammar and morphology of an endangered language with a tiny number of native speakers, would have an impossibly small market if pitched only to fellow specialists in that language.  But if the analytical framework developed can be applied to the study of other languages, then that macro dimension – in this case methodological – will open up a far wider potential readership with clear benefits for other scholars’ research.

Here are five key questions, to help you to take the macro perspective on your research:

i) Understand the limits of your PhD – first define your thesis topic at its most micro, according to all the relevant parameters such as region, time period, language, genre, approach, and the specific examples you have chosen to study in detail.  Then you will be better able to work outwards towards the macro.

ii) What is the larger significance of your research? Think about ways to locate your chosen topic in a broader context.   What is the contribution made by your research in relation to its own and related sub-fields, the larger discipline, methodological school, etc?

iii) How can you do justice to that breadth?  Think about ways to widen your coverage and bring those connections to the fore.

iv) What do you see as its larger implications? These can often be explored more freely in a publication than a PhD.

v) What will be its applications, in the hands of your readers?   Remember, the PhD was for you (and written for a couple of examiners), but publishers will want to know more about what value a publication offers to the reader, and what broader purposes your research will serve for them.

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Josie Dixon – From Planet PhD to Destination Publication: A Traveller’s Guide. Part 1. Ivory Tower vs Shopping Mall
Posted by Charlotte Frost

This post is the first in a series by Josie Dixon, a consultant with 15 years’ experience in academic publishing, as Senior Commissioning Editor at Cambridge University Press and Publishing Director for the Academic Division at Palgrave Macmillan.  She now runs her own business, Lucian Consulting, and gives training workshops on publishing and other forms of research communication for postgraduates, postdocs and staff in over 50 universities internationally, alongside her training and consultancy work in the publishing industry. In this new set of blog posts for PhD2Published, Josie examines some of the polarities between Planet PhD and the world of publishing, and offers strategies for how to bridge the gap. 

In this series:

  1. Ivory Tower vs Shopping Mall
  2. Micro vs Macro
  3. Passenger vs Driver
  4. Process vs Afterlife
  5. Features vs Benefits

There’s a great article by Peter Barry which appeared in the Times Higher Education under the headline ‘Footnotes and Fancy Free’.  Among many useful insights, Barry caricatures very effectively two opposing worldviews or value systems in academic research.  For residents of the Ivory Tower, it’s all about pure intellectual excellence, never mind who (or what) it’s for.  For those who inhabit the Shopping Mall, there needs to be a clear benefit to an identifiable audience, and ultimately some form of commercial value for a paying market.  Barry diagnoses a fundamental problem in the fact that all too often PhDs (particularly in the arts and humanities) are supervised and examined by Ivory Tower standards, yet at the postdoctoral stage, researchers are suddenly pitched headlong into the Shopping Mall.  This is of necessity where publishers live, since their business is dependent on realising a commercial return on the investment that is made in every new publication.

Profitability – at whatever level – is key to a sustainable publishing business, and even university presses (whose non-profit model is the least commercially driven in the industry) can’t avoid this fundamental pillar of the Shopping Mall.  The sources of subsidy which have long shored up large sectors of university press publishing (particularly in the US) are running dry, and editors are looking ever harder at the commercial factors which position a prospective publication on the right or wrong side of the margins of viability.  At the other end of the scale, many major players in the academic publishing industry are fully commercial businesses accountable to shareholders with steep demands when it comes to the return on their investment.  It’s a fine balancing act to reconcile editorial values based on intellectual quality (those ivory tower sympathies which bring graduates into publishing in the first place) with tough financial imperatives, but that’s the daily challenge for commissioning editors at commercial academic presses like Palgrave Macmillan, Routledge, Blackwell, Ashgate or Continuum, to name only a few.

So the first stage in your journey from PhD to publication has to involve stepping out of the Ivory Tower and into the Shopping Mall, in order to see your project from the publisher’s point of view.  Here are five key questions to ask yourself, to help you to take this more commercial perspective on your research:

  1. What’s your USP (unique selling point)?  Can you sum up the original contribution of your research in a few accessible sentences, and make it into a selling point?  Imagine a blurb in a publisher’s catalogue – your sales pitch needs to be aimed at non-specialists in the book trade and the library supply business, not your end-user academic readers.
  2. Who are you writing for?  Publishers respond best to projects pitched at a well-defined readership.  Beware losing focus by trying to be all things to all people, either in terms of level (a research monograph is not a textbook or a trade book) or subject (interdisciplinary projects run the risk of being peripheral to several markets and central to none).
  3. Why do they need it (and will they pay)?  In tough market conditions like the present, there is very little room for discretionary, nice-to-have purchases.  Even libraries are having to prioritise very carefully after severe budget cuts, so there must be a clear demand for your research before they will consider buying it.  This is closely related to the next question:
  4. What benefit does your research provide?  (not to you, but to the reader!) Think about the applications of your research – how will it be used, and where will it make a difference?  Is there a problem (intellectual or otherwise) to which your research offers a solution?  Are there methodological tools or reference features which your readers will find helpful?  Publishers are looking for something more tangible than ‘another new interpretation’ of the subject, or research that ‘fills a gap’.
  5. How international is its focus and appeal?  The UK is a small market, and these days even the US is insufficient to carry the commercial viability of an academic publication.  Publishers will be thinking about the appeal to international markets, so you need to, too.

For more detailed guidance on these and other factors essential to maximising your chances of success in a competitive publishing climate, come to one of Josie’s publishing workshops or contact her direct. 

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