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.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has nearly 25 years of experience in the media & publishing industry. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a professor with The Great Courses (How to Publish Your Book), she is the author of The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), which received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as Digital Book World and Frankfurt Book Fair, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.