Ask The Lit Coach: "Will A Publisher Take A Master Thesis Seriously?"

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When I was a literary agent, I would often read queries from writers fresh out of undergrad or MFA programs. I was always happy to consider their thesis projects and frankly, it didn't matter to me where they went to school - I just cared about the work itself and whether or not the writer had any previous publishing success. Not all agents are the same, though.

This week, we're discussing how to pitch thesis work. 

Question from Amanda L.

After completing my master thesis (a creative project) and receiving praise for it from my advisors I am considering publishing it. Would any publisher take it seriously? Or should I not reveal it was a thesis?

It depends on the work and how you see your career unfolding in the publishing world. Academic and a select group of small to mid-size publishers are used to receiving thesis project pitches - and letters of endorsement or praise from your advisors are great. What's equally important, though, is your writing portfolio - where you've published before: lit mags; eZines; academic journals (if applicable); magazines, etc. Your writing portfolio is nearly as important as the work itself - it shows you're serious about building your career as a writer. If you have yet to publish any shorter work, I would urge you to wait on approaching a publisher with your book until you've found some success placing a few short pieces - some success is better than none.

When it comes to pitching a thesis project to agents and any major commercial publisher who accepts queries from unagented writers, be careful. There is a fair amount of eye rolling when an agent reads a query letter reflecting anything academic in nature, unless there is something totally unique about the project, title or you the author - that is to say, your project needs to have a hook. Letters from your advisors are nice, but unless those letters are from Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Tobias Wolff, or someone else nationally recognizable, don't bother. Also, a thesis project from Brown may be considered more impressive than a thesis project from a much lesser university. So, bottom line: unless your thesis has a unique hook and/or letters of recommendation or blurbs from high profile authors, keep the thesis bit under your hat and pitch it as a novel under the appropriate genre heading.

That all said, thesis work from students who have completed MFA programs often find their way to publication. The higher profile the writing program, the better chance you'll have getting the attention of an agent and/or publisher. I work with a writer who graduated from the most prestigious writing program in the country whose thesis work became the base for her short story collection. Even with advance praise from nationally recognized and well-respected figures in the literary community, even though she received her MFA from the best writing program ever, she still had to fight like hell to see her short story collection published. And was it worth it? Yes!

So, continue to pad your portfolio, choose the agent/publisher submissions wisely and prepare two versions of your query letter - one that you'll send to academic or academic leaning publishers and one to send to agents/ commercial publishers, if applicable (don't forget your hook!)

Good luck, Amanda!

For those of you looking for small publishers accepting submissions, check out Poets and Writers awesome publishing database.

That wraps up this week's Q&A with The Lit Coach. Thanks, Amanda, for your question. Now go do something worth writing about!

Erin Reel

Column by Erin Reel

Erin Reel is a Los Angeles based publishing and editorial consultant, writing coach, columnist, blog host of The Lit Coach's Guide to The Writer's Life and outspoken advocate for writers. A former literary agent with nearly 10 years in the industry, Erin has worked with a wide array of writers worldwide. She has contributed to Making The Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye (Sands, Watson-Guptil, 2004); and Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents (Frishman & Spizman, Adams Media, 2005).

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Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies March 5, 2012 - 1:14pm

Great stuff, Erin. 

Another approach, just send out your thesis stories to individual publications. I'm actually in the process of doing that right now. I wrote about seven stories in my MFA program (plus half a novel) but only four stories made it into the thesis. I'm shopping them right now. It's not enough to warrant a collection, maybe 14,000 words, but I hope that I'll find a good journal for them sometime soon.

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Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies January 8, 2015 - 8:50pm

i'm actually reading a REALLY good master's thesis at dark house press right now. so, there's ONE yes for you.

pr3st0's picture
pr3st0 January 29, 2015 - 7:13pm

When it comes to pitching a thesis project to agents and any major commercial publisher who accepts queries from unagented writers, be careful.

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