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Final Proposal

4 min read

The 18th century saw the rise of the novel and with it, the rise of a new market. Novel readership was often determined by social class and the financial means of a family; literacy itself already was a relatively reliable litmus test for one’s value as a participant in consumer culture. If someone was well off enough to afford novels, it was likely that they would be well off enough to buy other consumer products as well. The content of the publisher advertisements included in the back matter of 18th century novels led me to question whether publishers transpose their assumptions about the audience into their advertising choices. What does being a consumer of novels mean for general consumerism?

The goal of my project is to study how novels and being a novel reader in the 18th century play into the consumer culture of the time. Although it would be interesting to see if the place of the novel as a material object holds true internationally, I will be limiting the scope of my research to Britain as most published works are centered there geographically pre-1800s. Because I am interested in the novel reader’s relationship with consumer culture, I am specifically looking at publisher advertisements that hawk products other than additional novels and texts. Due to constraints within the END dataset, it will not be possible to draw wide-ranging conclusions about the data. For this reason, I will be using case studies to highlight the nuances within these advertising choices that are most salient to the questions am I trying to answer.

There are several stages that I will be implementing in order to complete this project. The first is to pull all the advertisement related data from the END database to create a tabular dataset. I will be specifically looking at category 656 (“Publishers’ advertisements”), field $a for “Miscellaneous” advertisements. However, since that controlled term has only been implemented recently, I will also be looking at field $x for the transcriptions or descriptions of the advertisement content. Category 989, field $7 would also provide some information about the objects represented in these novels.

The second stage is to build a foundation of secondary sources to draw upon when I am studying the advertisements. I will be mainly considering The Oxford Handbook of the History of Consumption and The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain for my construction of a profile of the average 18th century consumer and for the types of items consumers spend their money on. Raven’s The Book as a Commodity, Blackwell’s The Secret Life of Things, and Brown’s thing theory will help me formulate an argument of how people think about the novel as an object and how consumer space is negotiated around it. These two prongs will combine to articulate what being a consumer of the novel means for general consumerism. Additionally, it might be helpful to look into the bookshop as a space of commerce. Many of the objects advertised in the advertisements I have looked at so far could have been easily sold in a bookshop alongside the books. This frame would be another method to contextualize the consumer culture that surrounds novels, as both objects and facilitators of additional commerce.

The third is to start requesting books to look at their advertisements firsthand. The books called will be from the second, consolidated spreadsheet. I will be taking pictures and notes on the content. I think I may also note the content of the novel itself and the publisher or bookseller. Afterward, I will present this information in either Scalar or Omeka; the ideal presentation is an intuitive and visual representation of the information. I also want to consider if analogies both conceptual and visual can be drawn to Google AdSense ads from my study of 18th century advertisements; both involve targeted marketing of consumers’ wants and needs tailored to a specific environment—the website and the bookshop, respectively. It would be interesting to see if the type of marketing strategies and advertisement prediction algorithms prevalent in Google AdSense could have been similarly used by booksellers and publishers in order to best anticipate what novel consumers want or need.