This is a quasi-follow-up to this post–at least the part about the American literary canon. I’ve been thinking about my books’ American-ness and wanted to put that into a historical context. But I’m going to start with a digression about publishing history.
It has always been difficult to make a living as a writer. Prior to the nineteenth-century, it was all but impossible with the notable exception of Shakespeare and a handful of others who managed to obtain patrons. But these guys proved the rule: most writers were wealthy folks, almost exclusively men, who pursued writing as a hobby. They didn’t need to make money and for the most part, they didn’t.
Books themselves were expensive until new printing processes and paper manufacturing developments lowered the price in the late 19th century. The circulation figures for 17th and 18th century texts are generally small. Additionally, difficulty transporting goods meant that book markets were largely regional. But even for a given local printer, it didn’t make sense to invest a lot of money to obtain a manuscript.