Reflections on How Writers Make a Living

In a cultural moment much focused on the decline of reading, the literary public can afford to elegize the book—hardbound, with creamy stock, dignified font, a book to occupy an entire weekend—as an endangered species, precious in its demise. Writers, however, cannot. It is books, for now at least, that they sell: agents contract books, editors buy books, and books, stacked up, constitute a career. This is the bricks-and-mortar truth of the literary marketplace, in effect since the rise of the commercial printing press, which marked the unofficial end of the millennium-old tradition of literary patronage practiced first by the church and later by noble families. A medieval troubadour had to ensure his duke was pleased, but he didn’t have to win over millions of readers, and certainly not the New York Times; in fact, any self-respecting duke would have frowned on mass popularity. (Such noble airs persist in certain literary circles.)

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