Thesis vs book

13 May 2013

In my previous post, I asserted that ‘a thesis is not a book’ without offering any grounds for this claim. In this post I shall substantiate my claim by describing and commenting on the main differences between a typical thesis and a good scholarly book. Obviously, some theses are more book-like than others while a fair few academic books are not particularly good in their scholarship and/or in their authorship.

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Purpose

Thesis: To test the student’s competence and establish academic credentials.

Book: To communicate ideas/research results.

Comment: The difference in purpose, as in author and readership (below), means that the thesis and monograph are profoundly different.

 Form

Thesis: Often book-like but usually amateur in appearance.

Book: It is a book and normally is produced to professional publishing standards.

Comment: Producing a book-like thesis is risky but may be unavoidable. My previous post explores this issue.

 Length

Thesis: Often a lower limit, but not always an upper limit (sometimes the assumption being that the greater length, the greater the scholarship).

Book: Limited by market forces (printing cost, shipping weight, retail price, reader expectations, etc.)

Comment: The whole issue of book length (and word count) is explored here.

 Author

Thesis: Student (writing to pass scrutiny and assert academic credibility).

Book: Writer (aiming to communicate but with obligations to readers).

Comment: Arguably, the student is an involuntary author whereas the writer has choice (but that is to deny the enduring power of the old adage ‘publish or perish’; teachers have other obligations but researchers especially are chained to a publication treadmill).

Readership

Thesis: Panel of examiners tasked to evaluate the student.

Book: Colleagues and anyone else interested in the subject and in learning.

Comment: The difference in readership (between a group that is known and self-contained and one that is amorphous, undefinable and largely anonymous) is subtle but means that the thesis and monograph are profoundly different.

Focus on

Thesis: Author (the student, who is being examined).

Book: Reader.

Comment: Again, the difference in orientation creates a subtle but profound difference between thesis and book.

Scholarship

Thesis: Exposition required (to demonstrate knowledge).

Book: Absorbed and built on (to frame discourse).

Comment: Theoretical framework is not the only issue here but it is a major one that I explore in greater detail here.

Approach

Thesis: Defensive exposition (to panel of examiners).

Book: Open disclosure (‘selling’ an argument/research results to often unknown and possibly sceptical peers).

Comment: Another reason for the subtle but profound difference between thesis and book.

Treatment of subject

Thesis: Often highly technical and very detailed.

Book: Avoids unnecessary technical detail.

Comment: Many factors are at play here, not only length and approach (as above) but also things like how experienced the author is as a writer. That said, remember that we are comparing the typical thesis and a good scholarly book; there are plenty of experienced authors with an obsession with detail.

Language

Thesis: Often obscure, abstract and heavy on jargon.

Book: Clear with judicious use of technical terms where needed.

Comment: As per treatment of subject (above) but substitute ‘impenetrable prose’ for ‘an obsession with detail’.

Structure

Thesis: Often progressive recitation (along a preordained railway track).

Book: Organic unity, with narrative thread drawing the disparate elements together.

Comment: Arguably, the difference is more about the author’s skills and experience as a writer than any inherent distinction between thesis and book.

Narrative flow

Thesis: Orderly exposition but argument not built; often excessive signposting.

Book: Builds argument, linking chapters with subtlety; has pace and momentum.

Comment: As per structure (above), i.e. more about the writing skills and experience (less likely among new authors).

Ending

Thesis: Often ends quite abruptly.

Book: Wrapped by conclusions.

Comment: Structure and narrative flow (above), hence writing skills and experience, are usually at work here.

Methodology

Thesis: Detailed description required.

Book: Description only if and when relevant.

Comment: Methodology has much the same role as theory – see scholarship (above).

Referencing

Thesis: Often far more than strictly necessary.

Book: Only what is necessary.

Comment: Excessive referencing is typical of the ‘exam bunker’ mentality found in many theses but is not unknown among experienced authors. Unfortunately, every citation is a ‘speed bump’, reducing the readability of a text.

Quotations

Thesis: Necessary, often extensive.

Book: Limited use.

Comment: Also typical of the ‘exam bunker’ mentality is excessive quoting of the work of other scholars (both in length and frequency). Usually, students can get away with this in a thesis but the same excess in a published work (whether a book or article) could provoke accusations of breach of copyright and ‘fair use’.

Evaluation before completion

Thesis: Feedback from supervisor; final assessment by panel of examiners.

Book: Publisher’s commercial assessment, peer-review process and editorial input.

Comment: The difference in part relates to readership (above) but never assume that the commercial interests of a publisher and the academic needs of an author are completely aligned (far from it). A detailed description of editorial input begins here.

Evaluation afterwards

Thesis: Formal defence.

Book: Reviews published in journals and other external forums.

Comment: As per evaluation beforehand (above), readership plays a part but ultimately purpose (above) is especially important here.

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Where now?

As you can see, there are differences between a typical thesis and a good scholarly book. However, every thesis is different, likewise every monograph. The question is, then, where does your thesis fit in this matrix and what do you need to do to transform it into a career-building book?

Time to put on your analyst’s hat and start planning. In a subsequent post, I shall follow this process.


Rethinking ‘thesis’ as ‘book’

12 May 2013

I have long argued that ‘a thesis is not a book’ and in my next post I shall outline my reasons why. Because of this, I have warned PhD students against the practice of ‘publication’ of their thesis by the home institution. Here, typically, the thesis is laid out and printed in book form (fancy cover and all) and may even be offered for sale on a limited basis. Recently, some have been appearing as e-books.

Serbo-Croation-kms

Let’s face it, however; I am still against these fake books (or at least their excessive distribution as library exchange copies) but the battle is probably lost here and in any case it may not matter. Time instead to minimise the damage, accentuate the positive.

Why? There are several reasons:

  1. Brutal reality. While you need to publish with a ‘reputable publisher’ to build an academic career, if at its outset the faculty demands publication of the thesis, this cannot be avoided.
  2. Your faculty may be right. Theft of your ideas and research results is a possibility. Online publication of your thesis is a kind of patenting process but that is only the first step; you need to assert your intellectual rights by publishing material from the thesis (see below).
  3. The market. Too much is being published but more than likely publishers are still hungry for fresh, new perspectives in your field. (If they are not, then your thesis topic may be a dead end; that’s another discussion.)

That said, I am certain there are quite a few publishers out there who would violently disagree with me (the same publishers who would not consider publishing a monograph that includes chapters already published in another form as journal articles; I sometimes wonder if a few of my publishing colleagues aren’t living in a parallel universe). The reality of the situation is something else; the old adage ‘publish or perish’ is true and today that means publish now not at a leisurely future date.

(Of course, you may not be required by your department to produce your thesis in book form and instead your may be tempted by an offer for ‘free publication’ of your thesis. Here’s why you should think hard about this.)

As such, if both initial publication of your thesis and its subsequent publication in another form by a ‘real’ publisher are unavoidable, the trick is to ensure that these two actions are not mutually exclusive. Here are a few thoughts about achieving this.

1) I realise that many students write their theses with a future book in mind; only minor tweaking is needed to produce the finished monograph. However, if you think hard about the differences between thesis and book (listed in my next post), you will have an action list for revision. Be warned: this may involve more than minor tweaking.

2) Think strategically about your career and the publication list on your CV. Regardless of whether or not both thesis and book are to be published, make sure that they have quite different titles and that you reserve the ‘sexier’ title for your book. The same applies for any journal articles, book chapters, etc. More about this here.

3) Even if you haven’t yet finished your thesis, start publishing material from your research now – as journal articles, book chapters, working papers, whatever – at the same time that you work on your thesis.

4) But if the thesis is finished (or nearly there), don’t believe the publishers who say you should contemplate your material and publish this as a monograph in five years time. Yes, you may need ‘distance’ from your thesis to complete the monograph but the clock is ticking on your career. The time is now for mining and reworking material from the thesis – again, as journal articles, book chapters, working papers, etc. – at the same time that you work on your monograph.

5) Don’t forget the discards. There may be all sorts of interesting material that you omitted from your thesis or won’t be included in your final monograph. Be a creative scavenger and rework these discards into articles or even future research and book projects.

One last thing: if you have just finished your thesis, well, the clock may be ticking on your career but take time out to savour your achievement. You’ve earned it!


Finalizing the cover

16 February 2010

Ask any young woman and she will tell you it’s not her brain that counts with ‘real’ men but her body. So says the cliche, but there is an uncomfortably big grain of truth in this observation.


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Content matters

Although content ultimately matters – you are unlikely to buy those cornflakes again if they taste lousy – initially, all too often the wrapping counts a lot.

So it is with book covers, as we have discussed earlier. Surface appearances, fripperies.

It is perhaps fitting, then, that this long thread of posts on the design and typesetting process ends on a(n almost) frivolous note. Most posts in this section have dealt with the layout of your text and illustrations – the contents, the serious stuff that your readers are waiting for. And yet, when it comes to the production of your book, chances are that you – like most authors – will show little interest in the page layout but keen interest in every aspect of the cover design.

Time, then, to finalize this surface matter. Unfortunately, all too often, the issues raised are not frivolous ones.

A simple matter

In the best of times, the process of producing a cover is straightforward enough for the cover designer (or typesetter) to finalize. S/he has the cover design and, within this framework, it should be a simple matter to arrange the various cover elements – title, author name(s), illustration, blurb, publisher logo, bar code, etc.

Long time coming

Straightforward enough, indeed. The problem is that covers are not always produced in the best of times. Or, rather, that they are produced in all times. This is a job started early in the production process – if not right at the beginning, right when the book is first announced – and yet it is one of the last things to be finalized before printing.

In between, there is ample scope for things to go wrong. Here are a few of the issues that can arise:

  • The cover illustration is unusable. This can easily happen if only a thumbnail cover image was produced at the design stage and the low-resolution illustration supplied by the author was good enough for that but not for the real cover. The catalogue, for instance, may only need a cover image that is about 33 x 50 mm whereas more likely the final cover will be 152 x 228 mm (6″ x 9″) in size.
  • There is a disconnect between cover and contents. A schism between the cover and page design is not really acceptable (e.g., elaborate, ornate script on the outside with severe, clinical type inside) but it happens, and it need not matter. More problematic is if (say) the author’s name is written one way on the cover, another way inside. Or (heaven forbid) misspelt. Likewise, if one of the editors drops out and the cover designer isn’t informed.
  • The spine width is wrong. Another disconnect. The final extent of the book determines the spine width. If the total number of pages change, then the spine width needs adjusting (no problem – just needs to be communicated).
  • The cover illustration isn’t credited. Another disconnect. A cover photo credit perhaps should always go on the cover but this isn’t always possible or appropriate. But if the credit then fails to appear inside (in the list of illustrations) then there may be an unhappy copyright holder to deal with long after the book has been printed.
  • The back-cover text is too long or too short. The blurb written for the catalogue will probably be shorter than that on the back cover. Indeed, new text should really be written but it can easily happen that the catalogue text is recycled. Also, there may be an endorsement to be added (but which hasn’t yet been received from the fine folk in Editorial).
  • The author hates the cover. The cover image used in the catalogue wasn’t to the author’s taste but s/he was pacified with the assurance “Don’t worry, we’ll do something better later”. Later has now arrived and the author is still unhappy.

No, not simple matters at all, and hardly frivolous.

Outputs

Once upon a time, covers were designed and created on huge pasteboards. No more. Everything is digital, everything delivered as a PDF file – in other words, in the same way as the inside pages of the book. Among other advantages, this allows authors to participate in the cover proofing process (if allowed by their publisher). But more about that later.

And that is the design and typesetting section finished. Next post, I move on to the proofing stage.

(Post #22 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Copyright problems

6 February 2010

Remember the picture of Michelle Obama we talked about earlier? I hope that it is your photo, or you have otherwise received permission to use it. Otherwise, you and your production editor (who has not been doing his job properly) could be in deep doggies.

Why?

Because by the time that your text and image files have been delivered to the typesetter, any questions about copyright and permissions should have been resolved long ago. Certainly, your typesetter will not be asking any questions about your right to this image (or, for that matter, your right to quote 15 pages word for word from Dreams of My Father).

No, and the first anyone may realise there is a problem is when a big fat lawsuit lands thud in your publisher’s letterbox. By then it will be too late – and by then you may get to learn that certain clauses in your contract are not just words:

4.1    The Author warrants to the Publisher that the Work is original and previously unpublished; that the Author has the sole right to publish it; and that in no way whatever does it violate any existing copyright.
4.2    If any material is to be reproduced in the Work to which the Author does not have copyright, the Author is responsible for obtaining the permission of the copyright holder for the reproduction of this material. Any expenses incurred in this connection must be borne by the Author.

§ 5 Other Legal Obligations
5.1    The Author warrants to the Publisher that the Author has the full power to enter into this Agreement, that the Work contains nothing that exposes the Publisher to legal action, and that all the statements contained therein purporting to be facts are true to the best of the Author’s knowledge. […]
5.2    If the Author breaches the warranties made in §4.1 and §5.1, the Author shall indemnify the Publisher against any consequential loss, injury or damage occasioned to the Publisher or the Publisher’s business partners, including any legal costs or expenses and any compensation costs and disbursements paid by the Publisher on the advice of their legal counsel to compromise or settle any claim.

These clauses are from the standard NIAS Press contract. By no means are they unusual. And essentially they mean that, if you have dropped your publisher in the legal doggies, you can be pretty certain that you’ll be hung out to dry. Bankrupted. Fired. Humiliated.

The long and short of it is that, even if it is your production editor’s job to check that you have cleared any permissions required for the use of copyright material, ultimately it is your responsibility that this has been done. Likewise, if you are to get round the copyright issue by getting (say) a map redrawn, that too should have been done by now.

Better get moving, right now.

(The ins and outs of copyright and permissions will follow in a later post. This is just a wee reminder, warning you not to leave this matter any later.)

(Post #18 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Your role in deciding the cover/page design

20 January 2010

Who knows most about your book? You do. Who decides what it should look like? Someone else. There’s a bit of a disconnect here, I feel.

Publisher territory

Publishers do not expect authors to design their own books, and in fact reserve the right to determine a book’s final appearance. After all, they are the professionals. If you look at your author contract, chances are that you will see a clause something like this one from the standard NIAS author contract:

The Publisher shall have complete control of the production and publication of the Work. Among aspects at the Publisher’s discretion are: the paper, printing, binding, cover (or jacket) and embellishments …

However, being the professionals doesn’t mean that the design of your book is best left to your publisher’s editors, designers, etc. alone. No, you too should be involved, right from the beginning.

Why? I can think of two reasons right off.

  1. With your inside knowledge of your book and its subject, you have a better feeling for what might ‘click’ with your readership and what might be appropriate (even allowed) as discussed in my previous post.
  2. Publishers may be the professionals but they don’t necessarily do a good job if left to themselves. This may be because of the attitude problem mentioned earlier (that the jacket/cover is unimportant) but more important perhaps is the time pressure that book designers work under; the temptation to apply ‘the standard treatment’ to your book will be strong as a consequence.

If you want to achieve a better result, something that brings to life your vision for the book, then it is up to you to work for this – even get a little pushy if need be.

But how much say do you have in the final result? Each publisher is different; some may be flexible in one area but will not budge a millimeter in another. Even so, chances are that your publisher will seize upon any good ideas that you have to make your book stand out in the crowd, shine among its competitors – and sell more copies.

Adding an author perspective to the cover

Chances are that your publisher will welcome suggestions from you for illustrations for your cover, particularly if you have copyright-free material. But your illustrations must be suitable. Keep in mind, for instance, that:

  • The image that you supply should be of a sufficiently high resolution (anything less than one megabyte in size is a waste of time; ideally, the file size should be larger).
  • It should go without saying perhaps but your illustration should be composed nicely, aesthetically pleasing and generally of a good quality (nothing that needs a lot of repair work, for instance).
  • There should be no copyright or other ownership issues with the image. If it needs the permission of someone else for its use, then it is your job to get that permission and pass on to your editor any associated requirements (e.g. that an attribution is given using a specific wording).
  • If the image has to be paid for, then that too is your responsibility (though you can of course raise the issue of compensation with your publisher). It is more than likely that an author is charged less for an image than a publisher.
  • The image must leave enough room for the other cover elements (title, subtitle, author name, etc.) mentioned in my previous post.
  • However, if the illustration is to cover the entire front cover, then it cannot be so ‘busy’ that it fights with the other cover elements. Having a uniform background (like sea or sky) in a suitable part of your image can be useful here.

Inspiration need not come from the world of your research only. Other books can also inspire. What works best for you as a reader? What attracts you aesthetically? Develop a sense of what works and what does not. If you can do this, then you will be able to communicate more knowledgeably and on more equal terms with your publisher on the book design.

However, it is important that you bring any design suggestions to your editor at an early stage. Otherwise, with some publishers, you may not be asked your preference about the cover design but simply be presented with a fait accompli for proofing (after all, you are ‘only the author’). At that point, the design budget will have been spent and any protestations from you are likely to fall on deaf ears.

Adding your perspective on the page design

Getting involved in the cover design is one thing, having a say on the layout of the inside pages is quite another.

Theoretically, you could contribute to the page design brief. Over the years I have had authors taking an active (sometimes too active) interest in the entire book design, but these authors have been few and far between; in practice, most authors show little interest in the page design.

However, perhaps you might like to warm your interest just a little more right now because our thread of posts on design is finished; now we are moving onto the typesetting of your book (first up, what exactly is typesetting, followed by a whole lot of ‘issues’ posts demonstrating why you should care).

(Post #7 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)