This week a book I co-wrote with Tim Hitchcock was published. London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800, published in print and as an eBook, is intended to have an original argument which stresses the agency of ordinary, plebeian Londoners against the power of the state. In parallel, we aimed to publish the eBook in an innovative format which enables the agency of the reader in spite of our presumed authority as academic authors, but we came up against the unwillingness of the publishing industry to innovate.
The historical argument of the book stresses the role which the lowest status Londoners, the poor and the criminal, played in shaping modern social policy. We argue that the significant innovations in social policy, both in criminal justice and poor relief, which occurred during the eighteenth century resulted from the pressures, the agency, of plebeian Londoners.
Likewise, the eBook is meant to give power to its readers. Our research made extensive use of the extensive array of primary and secondary sources now available on the internet, and our publication plan involved the creation of an eBook edition with extensive online links to the evidence we cite.
We wanted readers to be able to click through from the manuscript and printed sources we quote in the text to online editions of these original sources, such as the London Lives and Old Bailey websites we helped create, and to click through from a table or graph to the underlying spreadsheets containing the data.
The reader would then be given the evidence to question our interpretations, come to different conclusions, or simply follow their own interests through the linked sources. The book we wanted to create would be so extensively interlinked that we would cede control of the narrative and our authority as authors could be challenged by readers following their own agendas.
We took the book to a major academic publisher, thinking that, like us, they would want to experiment with the new affordances of electronic publishing. Faced with the twin threats of open access and online self-publishing, we thought that any publisher would embrace this opportunity to innovate.
But our publisher had other ideas. They agreed to publish an eBook alongside the print editions, but their idea of an eBook was little more than a photographic edition of the printed text. Like most current eBooks, it would essentially have the appearance of a pdf file, with a limited number of external links to trusted sources. And their production methods prioritised the printed book, with the eBook expected to follow obediently behind. Because this publication method failed to allow for our ambitious plans for hyperlinks, the book’s production schedule was delayed, ultimately by more than a year.
Despite numerous compromises, the end result is readable, mostly in the way that we intended, and we look forward to hearing how readers engage with it — and to their challenges to our arguments. But ultimately our attempt to reshape the future of the book, to convince our publisher to embrace the technical possibilities afforded by electronic publication, was unsuccessful. It will take more than a couple of uppity academics to convince the publishing industry to exploit the full potential of the eBook.
Bob Shoemaker is Professor of Eighteenth-Century British History and Faculty Director of Research (Arts and Humanities) at the University of Sheffield. With Tim Hitchcock, he is co-director of the Old Bailey Online, London Lives, and related projects. He is currently co-investigator on the The Digital Panopticon project, which is linking together dispersed datasets to trace the lives of Old Bailey convicts, 1780-1875. Bob and Tim’s new book, London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800 (CUP), launches on the 1st of December 2015.
Image: The Old Bailey, from London in Miniature, 1808 [Wikicommons].