Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Making Liberal history sell

I have just finished Ian Packer’s excellent book Liberal Government and Politics, 1905-15, which offers an original and thought-provoking reassessment of the Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith administrations.

The book deals with a fascinating period of British politics. Written in lucid and engaging prose, it deserves a wider readership than just academic specialists. Yet, I suspect, few general readers are likely to get hold of it. For it retails at £49 and if it is typical of academic monographs will have had a print run of just a few hundred. It will end up only being obtainable through university rather than public libraries.

Dr Packer’s problem is that he is not already famous in some other field. Well-known politicians, be they William Hague, Douglas Hurd or Mark Oaten seem to manage to get books on historical subjects published in popular editions at reasonable prices. This is so even if they carry out little or no original research and merely piggy-back on the work of others. It’s less a case of ‘A Life of William Wilberforce by William Hague’ and more ‘Hague On Wilberforce’.

Further down the intellectual food chain, publishers fall over themselves to bring out books by assorted celebrities who seem to ‘write’ more books than they are ever likely to read.

Perhaps the answer is for academics to give up publishing books in their own names that are doomed to remain in obscurity. Instead they should act as ghost-writers for celebs who have no time between hairdos and buying clothes to do any writing, but whose names will certainly sell books.

That way, perhaps Dr Packer’s little volume could yet reach a wider audience as Victoria Beckham’s Book of Edwardian Liberalism.

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