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Writing minor lives

April 14th, 2011 | Posted by Steve in Discussion

I specialize in writing the lives of minor figures … principally nineteenth century working men who were politically active as Chartists or who sought to establish themselves as poets/writers. With this sort of work comes the problem of fragmentary primary source material. Sometimes – for example, in the case of the Chartist & peace lecturer Arthur O’Neill – there isn’t a great deal that can be recovered about their early years; and sometimes – for example, in the case of the Chartist insurrectionist Robert Peddie – they just disappear from view. Perhaps the most frustrating part of researching & writing the individual lives of nineteenth century working people is getting publishers interested in bringing out such work. I have written or edited about a dozen books & the best of them – a study of the Chartists Thomas Cooper & Arthur O’Neill who formed a friendship that lasted fifty years after sharing a prison cell – was very difficult to place with a publisher. Eventually, it was published by Peter Lang, who required both camera-ready copy & a subsidy (& who also retain the copyright & pay no royalties). Though the book has had some terrific reviews, I don’t think it has sold very well. In spite of these difficulties, I believe strongly in recovering the stories of working people & shall carry on with this sort of work. A shame, though, that these days, unlike in the 1970s, there aren’t the range of publishers interested in such research. Now if I was offering them a life of Gladstone or Dizzy …

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6 Responses

  • Ray Monk says:

    Steve, is this not an area where self-publication might be the answer. Could you conceive, for example, of making your work available in Kindle format on the Amazon website? I know sales might be fairly small, but costs would almost non-existent. What do you think?

  • Steve says:

    Thanks for that suggestion, Ray. I’ll certainly investigate it, though I tend to be pretty old-fashioned about these things … I like to see my work between hard covers!

    Congratulations on the website … an interesting place for those of us who write & buy biographies to visit.

  • I quite understand the appeal of hard covers; but this suggests to me a potential collaborative online project, bringing together many individual ‘minor lives’ of the Chartists. Individually they would struggle to be published, and presumably pass below the radar of the ODNB. Together they might amount to more than the sum of the individual parts.
    There would of course be no money to be made; but from the sound of Steve’s agreement with Lang, neither is there in the traditional mode of publishing.

  • Steve says:

    You’re starting to persuade me to re-consider the habits of a lifetime, Peter!

  • David E. Martin says:

    You might explore whether publication could be linked to a learned society. Many years ago, the Society for the Study of Labour History published Brian Harrison’s “Dictionary of Temperance Biography”, a collection of mostly minor Victorian activists, as I recall (possibly some of whom – as you’ll know better than me – had Chartist connections). This was in an Aids to Research series that became defunct after, I think, four titles. If you could get one or two grants towards subsidising the cost of publication, as you did for Lang, that might help. There’d be less marketing than with a commercial publisher – not that Lang seemed to do very well in that respect – but you would have access to the society’s membership .

    I go along with your preference for producing something between covers. A printed book is still much more likely to be reviewed than one that only exists electronically, and – much as we might wish it otherwise – has greater prestige with regard to career prospects etc. For this reason, as well as the problems of marketing and distribution, I’d see self-publication as a last resort.

  • Steve says:

    Thank you for that, David. I am a member of SSLH & reviewed W. Hamish Fraser’s short biography of the Ayrshire revolutionary Dr John Taylor for LHR. That was published by Ayrshire Archaeological & Natural History Society. So local history societies may well be a very useful way of getting this sort of research published. Fortunately, I have no career aspirations tied in with all of this – so don’t need to worry about the ‘right’ journal or the ‘right’ publisher.



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