Is there a right or wrong age for success as an author?

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Saturday evening I watched the ACFW awards via a live blog and simultaneous streaming video.  It was next best to attending in person. I stayed glued to my computer for three straight hours.

I held my breath as the finalists were named and winners announced, and smiled when familiar names came up. One thing that surprised me was the noticeable absence of men’s names among them. I can recall only one among the winners. (I’m not talking about agents, of course — Chip MacGregor looked very dashing in his kilt as he accepted an award on behalf of a client.)

What didn’t surprise me was the youthfulness of most finalists and winners – indeed of the various people pictured at the conference. Unless writers age extremely graciously, not many appeared to be in the over-fifty category. I’ve discovered that’s the norm.

When it comes to supportive cyber friends, age is irrelevant, but when I realize that publishing success seems to come more often to those under fifty, I have to question my own ambitions. After all, I’m in my retirement years. Publishing houses are looking for career writers who can be expected to produce for a number of years, and I understand the economics of that. But given the long years it can take to even get an agent, let alone a first book contract, is it reasonable to embark on the process at my age?

Is there discrimination against mature writers? Don’t they have a valuable perspective born of life experience to contribute to their stories? Do their ages have any bearing on the genre they write and the age group of their target market? Why are lists of debut authors populated mostly with young and good-looking people? Is there no place among the successful newcomers for greying hair and a few wrinkles? And where are all the men?

Now there’s a litany of questions for you to consider! Pick one – any one – and offer your opinion. 🙂

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Disclaimer: No, I certainly wouldn’t risk including any photos of people I know. I don’t have a death wish!
Photos by Photostock and Graeme Weatherston. 

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21 thoughts on “Is there a right or wrong age for success as an author?

  1. Judith Robl says:

    Harvest House published my first book, a devotional gift book, in February this year just before I turned 72 in June. It won’t make me a fortune, but I am working on other things as well. We may not be the A-list writers in our dotage, but I believe there is a place for our wisdom and maturity in the mid-list.

    When I speak to agents, I tell them up front, that God willing, I would like their help with a ten-year plan for a writing career. I have some specific things outlined. Oh, and I just talked a friend into collaborating on a new project which may turn into a trilogy — and we have barely started.

    She is my best friend of longest standing, just one month younger than I. We have high hopes and intend to have a great deal of fun in the process.

  2. I do believe there is a natural, human-born discrimination to choose younger, pretty women, but that does not move me to give up my dreams of publishing books and articles. I have something unique and important to say, and I believe God will open doors no man can shut to allow me to say it! So there.

  3. westwood says:

    See, as a rather young writer, I’d always been under the impression of the opposite.

  4. Katt says:

    Our society does tend to make us feel the “winners” are younger, prettier, thinner, no gray hair. But, call me stubborn, I’m not giving up because I’m old, ugly or heavier than I used to be.
    This was a great blog post Carol! One that made me think a minute.
    On the more serious side, I think writers need to be older to gain the wisdom and perspective that comes with experience, and age. 😀

  5. Darlene says:

    I attended Word on the Street in Vancouver yesterday and felt the opposite. I was delighted to see many writers in the over 50 category. It makes sense since most of us just simply didn’t have time to embark on a writing career while raising children, keeping a home and earning a living. One young writer commented that she felt the more life experience one has, the more one has to work with. I also met a number of men writers at the event, including male romance writers. I love this quote:
    The trouble with young writers is that they are all in their sixties –W. Somerset Maugham

  6. Wishing you a wonderful Monday and a great week.

    I started my writing career at age 67. While I trust destiny plays a part in “success”, I believe effort towards getting published and marketing our work is part of the business of writing. Regarding agents and publishing houses, with the advent of self publishing, agents and publishing companies need the most return for their dollar, and that mean longevity in contracts with successful authors. Publishing houses can’t finance support for mid-list authors. Samhain and Wild Rose Press do a combination of epub and print. At the Vancouver Conference, Samhain stated that they do market their authors.

    Bob Mayer, best selling author of over 50 titles, writes a blog about publishing trends today, and his experience over the past two years backs up his claims. He and a partner formed their own publishing company, and he got the rights back for many on his backlist of books, published them himself and has phenomenal success. He teaches, writes, publishes, and keeps his name out there by being helpful to writers. Check out his posts re publishing trends on this blog site:
    http://writeitforward.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/write-it-forward-the-writers-toolkit/

    You may have a new direction to consider.

    Time may not allow me to pursue traditional publishing, and unless destiny intervenes, I will write as many manuscripts as I can and self publish, as well as put the stories in digital formats for the various e-readers. Then the hard work continues as I will market the book. In the meantime I am learning about connecting through social networking through Kristen Lambs book “We Are Not Alone” covering a common sense approach to blogging, facebook and tweets. Her blog is connected to Bob Mayer and the URL is:
    http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/

    I hope these tidbits will help guide writers of all ages to consider a wider range of options.

    • You have a sensible approach to reaching your publishing goals, Marion. With the changing trend towards eBooks, publishers do indeed have to be more discriminating with potential clients, and for many, self-publishing may well be the way to go. However, I think it’s important to thoroughly explore one’s expectations and definition of success first. It’s rare for debut authors to make it big that way, no matter how much personal effort they put into it. Visible authors like Joe Konrath, James Scott Bell, and Bob Mayer all sold (and continue to sell) via traditional publishers, and were multiple NYT bestsellers with millions of readers before they tackled self- and e-publishing. (Bob’s latest book co-written with Jennie is released by St. Martin’s Press.) But of course there are exceptions, and if our motivation for wanting to be published is to get our stories in print and we aren’t put off by the idea of modest sales numbers, AND if time is a major consideration as it is for some of us… there are legitimate reasons to take that route.

      • Bob Mayer teaches that first time indie publishes rarely make it big because they don’t have a following or a back-list, and so on. He also says if one chooses this route, to keep keep writing, keep getting good books out there, and become known via teaching, social networking etc. Once you have five or more books published, and one of them starts to pass along by word of mouth, then is enjoyed, the reader will likely pick up the other five … and so on. But again, destiny rules. The same level of marketing is required by writers even if with Traditional publishers.

  7. Good morning to you. Thanks for adding to the conversation, everyone. Do you suppose the answer to some of my questions lies in the view from one’s current age? You know… the older one gets, the younger everyone else looks. LOL!

    Westwood, I wonder if the many years it can take to get published contribute to that. The photos on bookjackets that show more “distinguished-looking” authors are often of long time successes… the big names. I wonder how old they were when their first novels debuted.

    Darlene, great quote from Somerset Maugham! I didn’t make it to Word on the Street this year. I’m sure there are legitimate reasons for always holding it in downtown Vancouver, but I rarely go into the city anymore. (I’m glad to hear there were men in attendance!)

  8. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time a publisher or agent I queried asked me my age. I’m being cute, of course age matters. They want you young so you’ll make them money for many many years.

    In truth I had this huge reply, then realized I have no idea what I’m talking about. I don’t think age matters. To us authors maybe. But how many readers care who the author is? I’ve asked my children’s friends which books they love, and they can seldom remember the titles. And if they do, they certainly can’t remember the author.

    I don’t actually have an opinion. I’m middle-aged, not yet retired, but loving what I do. I’m going to write until the cows come home.

    Cheers, Carol. Great post.

  9. Tricia says:

    I see a trend in younger authors. But YA is hot right now. YA authors write for younger readers (though adults are reading more YA these days). Not that mature writers can’t write in YA, but the majority, it seems, is young authors.

    The glory of being a mature author is you can do both well. You’ve experienced carefree youth, the middle road, and beyond. I feel I am a much better writer today than twenty years ago.

    Sadly, I could see how an agent might discriminate for YA novels, only because their readers might.

  10. Great post and so relevant to writers of any age. I agree Carol, Bob Mayer talks it up really well (I am a subscriber to both he and Kristen) and he certainly knows how to use all the “buzz” words. Yet Marion, you must realize he has an agenda and that is to capture as many authors as he can for his own publishing efforts. A sad trend started when great editors were let go from the major publishing houses, now a sader trend is that many of those agents are becoming publishers. Also, as Carol pointed out, most of the loudest voices for self-pub are those who have had long and lucrative careers with agents. Mayers was published with Random House. He and Jennie publish through St. Martins. I don’t think he would have been able to convince her to go another route, so why should I??

    The trend for publishers, agents and now a group of previously successful writers is to follow the money. If you are in your 60’s and you get published, given the longevity of people, you can have a twenty or more year career. Then you can sit back in your 80’s and publish your back list. Never follow trends, don’t worry about what the next guy or gal is doing and follow you dream 🙂

  11. With people living well into their 80’s and 90’s, why not embark on a writing career at 50 or 60? How far we go is based more on our attitude, persistence, and conviction that God has called us to write.

  12. davidebright says:

    “And where are all the men?”

    I’m right here.

    And I’m 55, write YA, & worries about agents & publishing houses – & what they might want – has never occupied my thoughts for more than a few minutes ’cause time is something I can’t afford to waste.

  13. Laura Best says:

    I just write. I’ve never thought about age or any other reason why I shouldn’t. Budge Wilson didn’t publish her first book until she was fifty or over and she’s had a long, very lucrative career. She’s now in her eighties. The year I attended the book bash when my book came out, I was told, was the first year she wasn’t there as a presenter. Wow!

    We can make all the excuses we want when fear tries to discourage us, but we only have the present to live and work and write in. In the present we are ageless. We just are and, besides the words we write do not know our true age.

    If we weren’t writing what would we be doing?

    Great post, Carol.

  14. If there are more young authors than old, perhaps it could be that the older authors themselves are hesitant to put forth the effort for the same reasons you just cited. Fear of rejection can be a very big deterrent for some. I have to admit that reading the above comments put a little skip in my step. I’m not quite 50 yet, and if they can continue reaching for the stars, then I certainly can.

  15. Gosh, these are great questions, Carol. I’ve wondered the same thing, just through reading blogs daily. Those bloggers I read who end up being published are mostly younger than 40, it seems to me. So basically, I’m not even attempting to enter that arena – I want to learn to write better, so I’m going to the High Calling retreat this week. But basically, I want to write for my granddaughters (and sons, if they should be interested) so I’d like to do it well. Publication seems absolutely beyond me at this stage, and I think I’m pretty much okay with it for me. BUT I do sense a kind of subliminal discrimination at work big-time and wonder how many talented women (and men) with worthwhile things to say are just passed over before discovery. Seems sad and wasteful somehow. Thanks again for these thought-provoking queries.

  16. Thank you all for weighing in on this. Despite my post and questions, I really do believe success depends on ability, effort and opportunity rather than in what decade we were born. And then there’s determining our own definition of success — I like Diana’s goals. (Is the HC retreat the same one Sandra Heska King is attending at Laity Lodge, Diana? If so, give each other hugs from me.)

  17. Keli Gwyn says:

    I was 51 when I received my first contract and will turn 53 the month my debut novel is released. From what I saw at the conference, there’s a nice mix of ages. However, age really isn’t a factor. Writing is a bond that transcends age and unifies those of us who write.

  18. Jenn Hubbard says:

    Nobody has to know an author’s age, given that the querying and contract process are done by email. I never met my agent until he’d been repping me for almost 3 years; I didn’t meet my editor until after my book was already through editing. I could have been 150 for all they knew (or cared).

    That said, if I had been 150, I could’ve gotten press about that: “150-year-old author publishes first book!” The extremes are considered newsworthy–if you publish your first book at 10 or 110, it’s a story. If you’re in the middle, not so much. But I still think all that stuff takes a back seat to the story itself. If they love a story and think it will sell, they will make an offer for it.

  19. It just seemed like all the published authors I’ve been hearing about lately are under 50, but I’m glad to hear from some of you who have beat those odds. Truthfully, I know age isn’t really a big consideration. Quality is going to be what counts in the end. (I think most agents would check out a prospective client’s website, however, and we all seem to post our smiling faces there so we’re hard pressed to hide our years.)

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