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 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.

McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: The State of Publishing: Professional Authors.. Wait — is this data? (The article could be better sourced.) According to R. P. Blackmur, in the 1940 U. S. Census “11,806 persons reported themselves as professional authors, and some 44,000 additional reported as editors and researchers.” The population of the United States in 1940 was 123,202,624.

It’s hard to know what to make of these numbers because I don’t know whether the same choices of professions were available in 1940 and in later censuses; probably not. One wonders whether the many novelists and poets who teach full-time today — very few did in 1940, because there were so few creative writing programs — listed themselves as “writers” or “educators.” And it appears that many journalists in 1940 called themselves “reporters” rather than “authors” or even, I guess, “journalists.” And in any event self-descriptions are notoriously unreliable. But these numbers give us something to work with.

Thanks to Evan Kindley on Twitter for the Blackmur link.