Queries on professional authorship today bring back anecdotes of small advances and the impossibility of being a writer without grants, professorships, or some other means of income. Writing is a financially challenging profession (always has been, always will be) but more and more people are making it work. In 1850, eighty-two people of about 16.5 million free American adults claimed they were professional authors and writers. As of 2005, 185,276 out of 216.3 million American adults claimed those titles.
Professional authorship truly emerged in the late 17th century and early 18th century with the creation of copyright laws. Before that, books were treated as public domain and freely copied by other writers, publishers, and the public at large, making it almost impossible for the original authors to be properly compensated. This limited authorship primarily to those with independent incomes. John Milton, for example, made only £5 on the first edition of Paradise Lost. Only playwrights, who could expect a fraction of ticket sales, could make livings with their pens. Aphra Behn (1640-1689), the first English woman to successfully make her living by writing, did so with income from her plays rather than her four novels.
The change came with the British passage of the Statute of Anne in 1709, the world’s first copyright law. One of the first authors to successfully take advantage of the statute was Alexander Pope, who became the equivalent of a millionaire by writing his own verse translation of The Iliad (between 1715 and 1720) and The Odyssey (in 1726). By 1727 Pope made more than £8000, the equivalent of about $12 million today and the largest sum an English author had ever received for their work. But stories of wealthy 18th century authors are rare. Since few people were literate, and fewer still were at leisure to read literature, there was little monetary incentive for professional authors to write it.
Over time, however, the horizons of authorship have widened, enticing more and more people to pick up the pen. As populations grew, literacy rates rose, and markets expanded, the number of writers, especially novelists, increased. Simon Eliot, a professor of book history at the University of London, points out that “Fiction writing on the whole was not a high-status occupation until the nineteenth century.” By the middle of the 19th century, the demand for novels had grown significantly and more writers began crafting stories. In the mid-19th century, Americans were buying books: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s historic bestseller, was consistently selling 10,000 copies a week when it was published in 1852. By the turn of the century, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau had become national figures through their writing.
In England, a growing middle class created a market for novelists and more writers were able to make livings through serial newspaper publications. Some writer’s works, like those of Charles Dickens, were being published in magnitudes of hundreds of thousands of copies. The Encyclopedia of British Writers lists 430 writers (those significant enough for biographies) from 19th century England.
Professional authorship started to gain serious ground in America in the 20th century. By the mid to late 1900s, professional writing, supported by thriving publishing houses and a large population of literate adults, had taken off. According to the U.S. Census, the number of self-proclaimed authors in the U.S. rose from 45,748 in 1980 to 106,730 in 1990, likely due to the advent of personal computers and the ease of small- and self-publishing. According to Publishers Weekly, between 1990 and 2005, there was a 39 percent increase in the number of authors and writers, to 185,276 in 2005, 96,158 of whom worked full-time as authors. The median yearly income of these full-time authors in 2005 was $50,800, while the median income of the entire civilian labor force was only $38,700.