So we have met our editor, at least according to Roberts' Earlier History. At the beginning of the modern age, he is the sober scholar who stands between the incapacitated printer and the public, making sure that what comes off the press is both legible and, in the case of difficult works like Shakespeare, the faithful reproduction of what Genius had long ago set down. We have also brushed against a changing circumstance that eventually helped ensure the editor a permanent place in publishing, long after (one hopes) the printer's drunkenness was no longer a constant problem. At some point, perhaps around the time Jane Austen was being asked to pay for the publication of her third novel even though her first two had been well-received, reputable publishing houses stopped helping writers self-publish. "No" didn't mean no, you will have to pony up; no meant No. Oblivion.
But not yet. Before Jane Austen, the editor is not yet rejecting neophytes' submissions on the grounds that, in his opinion, they are unsellable to the public via the publishing firm he represents, the firm which bears all costs and whose financial health he helps guard. He does not yet stand, squarely and unpleased, between the neophyte and money and fame (however slight).
Before Jane Austen, Harrison Steeves noted: "when issues of 500 copies were expected to show a profit, almost anybody could get almost anything published." When John Dryden needed money to print that translation of Virgil in 1695, he arranged for interested and wealthy parties to pay five guineas a head to have their arms printed at the base of the 102 illustration plates. He and the printer, Jacob Tonson, thus were able to cover costs and bring the book out themselves without using the services of a bookseller at all. Later, a printer, or an author, coped with printing costs via the selling of "subscriptions," variously defined. Readers could subscribe to a printer for a soon-to-be-released book. In short, they pre-ordered, paying half the price up front and half at delivery. By Samuel Johnson's day, a subscription could be something different and very nebulous, something a writer sold to his friends himself. All it amounted to was a man asking his friends for a loan, which he lived upon while he wrote. Eventually, he delivered them the book he had finished by way of repayment. One of Johnson's contemporaries wrote a scurrilous poem about it, criticizing Johnson himself for engaging in this practice. Apparently he was late on delivery.
There was money to be made from the demand of the fee-charging circulating libraries -- we recall that printers themselves had once provided this service to a public that did not want to buy -- and naturally, the spread of literacy increased the demand for books, albeit (with time) books of "lower taste." So, Sir or Madam Author wrote, anything, without the imp on their shoulder who sits there now, whispering or stating as plain fact, "this won't fly...." Sir or Madame Author knew, it seems, that they could reach the public at will. And thus, the crazy idea of the Alcotts and the Disraelis, that the cash strapped could "decide" to write for pay. Tracing the disappearance of that extraordinary circumstance is like watching a lizard-tail disappear into its hole.