Writing & Money: A Brief Syllabus

The Muse and the Marketplace 2014

For my upcoming keynote talk at The Muse & The Marketplace, I’ve been immersing myself in histories of publishing and the evolution of authorship. While I’m quite well-read on what the future holds (see a separate reading list here), and often speak on the current digital-era disruption, I’ve always wanted a more cohesive understanding of how we’ve arrived at our current model of professional authorship. I’m also reading up on the tension between art and business, and finding that the ability of writers to earn a living through their creative work is a fairly new phenomenon, dating back to the 18th century and the rise of literacy, which largely made professional authorship possible.

We’re a long way from the 18th century, of course. Today writers face a challenging dynamic of supply and demand: you can find writing and publishing in abundance—anybody and everybody can write and publish—but attention is scarce. Thus it’s little surprise that we have writers being paid in exposure, not dollars.

My talk on May 3 will explore these issues in detail, and offer some humor and inspiration along the way. In the meantime, I thought I’d share some of the most illuminating texts I’ve been reading.

Authors & Owners by Mark Rose explores the invention and history of copyright, which has made it possible for writers to make a living from their work. Writers went for more than 250 years after the invention of the printing press without any formal rights to their creations. How did they earn money? Some didn’t—nor did they want to.

The Author, Art, and Market by Martha Woodmansee is an incredible scholarly work that explores what happened as literature became subject to the laws of the market economy, and shows how and when Western culture began to identify art as something that doesn’t sell—and then turned that quality into a virtue.

The Content Machine by Michael Bhaskar is primarily about where publishing is headed, but his theory is grounded in stories of where publishing has been, and traces important historical milestones of the industry.

The Gift by Lewis Hyde came out more than 30 years ago, and is still in print. It’s said that Margaret Atwood gave a copy to every artist she knew when it released. While not focused on publishing, it explores the tension between art and commerce—or how one can or should go about making a living through one’s art.

Make Art Make Money by Elizabeth Hyde Stevens is like a contemporary update to The Gift, using Jim Henson’s career and values to present a framework for creating your art and making a living, but not selling out. Maria Popova writes about it elegantly here.

This is definitely the most exciting presentation I’ve ever had a chance to research and develop, and I’m immensely grateful to Grub Street for inviting me to speak. I hope to see you there.

Note: While my talk is part of the official conference schedule at The Muse, it is also free to the public. Click here to reserve your seat.

Posted in Publishing Industry and tagged , , , , , .

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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The Muse's Town Hall: Jane Friedman on Literary in Digital Times | Publishing PerspectivesTop Picks Thursday 04-24-2014 | The Author ChroniclesBrenda PetersonJane FriedmanJonny Virgo Recent comment authors

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Jonny Virgo

Jane, thank you for your continued insight and the information you bring. It has inspired me greatly over the past year as I have journeyed towards self-publishing an innovative, interactive novel. If we take the idea that the publishing industry is currently experiencing a reinvention analogous to the metamorphosis of the music industry a decade ago, would it not be fair to say that the author’s craft must, one way or another, extend beyond the page? Your e-book posited a number of alternatives for the future of publishing but, in my experience, dealing with these possibilities has had a positive… Read more »

Brenda Peterson

Jane, Your writing blog is invaluable and we authors depend upon your expertise. I’m the author of 18 traditionally published books. My first book was with Judith Jones at Knopf and I spent my editorial apprenticeship five years at The New Yorker magazine. I also blog for The Huffington Post. Your essay on writers and the marketplace is particularly insightful and I’ve sent it around to all of my author friends and students. Thank you for your generosity in helping us all navigate this often arcane and swiftly tilting publishing world. My literary agent, Sarah Jane Freymann, and I have… Read more »


[…] Ever wonder how this weird business of being paid to write came about? Jane Friedman explores how professional authorship evolved. […]


[…] Today, we hear from Scratch Magazine publisher and Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR) web editor Jane Friedman. She is one of the Town Hall panelists and will give Saturday evening’s 7 p.m. Marketplace Keynote Address at the Muse (follow #Muse14 on Twitter), “Writing for Love (and Money).” Her keynote is open, free of charge, to the public (at Boston’s Park Plaza Hotel) and Friedman has an advance look at some of her source material at Writing & Money: A Brief Syllabus. […]