The life so short, the craft so long to learn, mourned Chaucer about the trials of being a writer. But perhaps none of the vexations of a literary life matches the intensity of the love-hate relationship between author and publisher. In this engrossing historical study of the business of authorship - the first of two volumes - Victor Bonham-Carter focuses on the dread subjects of money, copyright and contracts. Anyone who aspires to be a freelance writer should quickly acquire the book for its invaluable overview of Grub Street, an avenue on which all writers, no matter how ethereal, must dwell if they wish to live by their pens or typewriters.

In the early days, poets and dramatists lived by the grace of God, king or patron, but by the 18th century they had begun to look after their own interests. Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson, respectively the wittiest poet and sharpest critic of the age, were among the first English men of letters to support themselves by their literary expertions and shrewd business arrangements. "Is not a Patron," proclaimed a newly-independent Johnson to his lukewarm supporter Lord Chesterfield, "one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling forn life in the water, and, when he reaches ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but is has been delayed until I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it."

With the 19th century, writers, like other working people, began to organize. The last third of this history follows the development of the British Soceity of Authors - under the guidance of Walter Basant and Bernard Shaw - from its inception in 1884 until 1911 when a new copyright law was passed, crowing a 30-years' effort to protect an author's right to his "literary property."

While tracing the gradual recognition of authorship as profession (distinct from its past status as mere avocation), Bonham - Carter tells us how much Scott earned of The Lady of the Lake , what Dickens was paid for his lectures in America, the annual earning of George Eliot, and the business arrangments of Thackeray with his magazine publishers. Perhaps the only drawback to this book - which deftly balances abstract principles with down-to-earth case histories - is that all payment is given in British pounds. A conversion table to dollars or some indication of the pound's buying power at various times would have made the book more accesible to the American reader. (William Kaufamann, $11.95)