Friday, January 03, 2014

Question: Will you still read me when I'm 64?

What impact does age have on a writer's quest to publish his first novel?

I'm sure that James Patterson, say, can land a contract when he's ninety or even dead, but does a newbie stand a guppy's chance after he's enrolled in Medicare?

I know the saying, "Good writing trumps all." Does all really mean all

I'm sorry to report the true answer here: a lot.

I'm not sorry to tell you how to avoid this problem: don't mention your age.

The reason it's a problem: I want to sell books that will lead to more books.  In other words, I want you to have a good long career. I'm more likely to achieve that with a writer who clocks in with fewer birthdays.  (We were heartbroken some years back to discover that is not always the case.)

However, I don't ask how old people are before I sign them up, unless they're under 18, and I ask then cause minors can't sign contracts without their Mum signing too.

I always feel a bit bad when a querier trumpets his/her age like it's an achievement (well, ok it is) when if they'd just kept their lip zipped I'd not have a clue.

Let your writing speak for itself. 

And in my defense, my oldest client is now was 93 and I sold his book when he was 87.


Anonymous said...

This is very curious to me. Not only the admission that it happens, but the fact it exists in today's hyper-sensitive world of discrimination. Under normal business policy, this would land many other companies in hot water faster than caged participants scream shark! during shark week.

I get that agents/publishers prefer someone with some longevity left. But..., how do any of us know for sure that someone much, much younger won't keel over from drugs, drinking, or some other poor choice? (Lucy Grealy and David Foster Wallace are great examples) No one knows if someone in their early 40's will drop dead from a heart attack while out on their usual 5 mile morning jog. I know you know all this...and the publisher's all know this...and they simply want to earn out advances...and odds are someone in their eighties is more likely to pass on..., but still strange to hear this happens. After all, our time here is really just a crap shoot in the end, right?

Very interesting post - yet again!

Becky Mushko said...

Even if a writer didn't mention age, wouldn't a bit of Googling by the agent turn up this information? One of the things I blog about, for instance, is how I'm spending retirement.

Les Edgerton said...

Janet is spot-on. But, publishing takes a backseat to Hollywood who openly practice ageism and don't apologize for it. Screenwriters over the age of 35 have a rough time selling anything if they don't have a track record. It's why I try not to let any gatekeepers know that I'm 103...

Cindy C said...

Thanks for your honest answer. Maybe I'll mention Grandma Moses . . .

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

As a reader, unless I find something jarring, it doesn't occur to me to wonder how old the author of a book is. But it makes total sense for an agent to be concerned in this way.

Elissa M said...

I don't worry about my age because my family is generally long lived (my grandmother died at 107, and she was spry and sharp as a tack until her last year). That said, I agree with those who point out there's no way of knowing if you'll see tomorrow no matter what your age today. It's a good idea not to put off finishing that novel whether you're 18 or 88.

Lance said...

Thank you for this interesting post. I agree with Elissa on this. None of us knows whether that old dude with the beard has started the back swing of his scythe. Finish the damn novel.

Anonymous said...

On the other side of the picture, age does matter as far as the patience of an author about Getting The Show On The Road.

I suspect it's easier for someone who's 24 to subscribe to the theory that if her first book doesn't sell, maybe the one five books down the road will.

LynnRodz said...

The big question here that many of us would like answered, or at least I would - what is the cut off age? Is it okay to be 39... 49... but not 59? Not everyone can be 29, jeez!!!

Anonymous said...

@LynnRodz - I think the point Ms. Janet was trying to make is... age shouldn't be mentioned. No need to even discuss this until you are signed on, book sold, and you are making a gazillion dollars. By then, no one will care if you are 25 or 95. That's the way I took it.


Janet Reid said...

donnaeverhart is right--don't mention your age in your query.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

And that can oddly work in reverse. Should someone who wrote a really heavy literary novel taking on all the problems of the world announce they are 19?

I would say the only time your age might play into it is perhaps non-fiction when you are placing yourself on the table as an expert. If your query is about your experiences as a journalist in Vietnam, then it is assumed you are Vietnam-era aged. Hence the wonderful Mr. Gilbert.

Bottom line is dazzle your intended target and then go from there.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Five years ago I asked this exact question of a very well-known women’s fiction agent (on her blog) and her knee-jerk answer was so politically correct it read like an AARP placard from a march on ageism. I didn’t believe her then because business is business, longevity is the thing. Because I can’t hide how old I am, (it’s my shtick, I write about it all the time), I have embraced my somewhat lengthy time on earth. Being a columnist who writes about personal experiences which tap into the generalness (I had no idea that was a real word until I just used it) of life, and recalling specific common incidents, has worked for me.
Because I can actually write what it felt like to be a freshman in high school, sitting alone in my parent’s rec-room in the winter of ’64, watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and bawling my eyes out because I was in love with George...well that makes my age a positive. That I blame my age on the fact that I can’t get an agent to take on my novels (I’ve written two) is also a positive because I know it couldn’t be because they suck.

Martha Reynolds said...

It doesn't surprise me, not really. I began writing full-time two years ago and have (self-)published four novels (including a trilogy).

I knew my age would be a factor, and, even without mentioning it, anyone could find out my age range with a few Google searches (my bio mentions 'ending an accomplished career').

But I published my own books because I wanted them out there! Maybe I have another 40 years, maybe not. I'm living my dream right now, and finally (finally!) doing what I love.

Steve Stubbs said...

You can find the age of almost anyone splattered all over the internet. The exceptions are people with popular names like Janet Reid. This is a tremendous boon to hiring managers, since most corporations do not want anyone much over thirty working for them. Used to be, you had to call a candidate in for an interview to guess his or her age.

That said, I just watched an extraordinary movie on DVD called THE STATEMENT. That is perhaps relevant because actors tell stories by interpreting characters and bringing them to life on the screen. Michael Caine was born in 1933 and THE STATEMENT is arguably the finest performance of his career (unless he has starred in something since then that I have not seen.) Sometimes vintage improves talent. The other actors in this film all gave superb performances as well. I was a strong believer in age discrimination dogma until I saw that. Now I am a convert to the absurd and damnable heresy that Performance Trumps Age. I can hear you gasping for breath at the sheer audacity of that statement. It goes against everything our society believes. But I’ll say it again. After seeing that movie I would rather see a breathtaking performance by a mature actor than some silly crap acted by kids (unless they are already giving breathtaking performances, in which case their ages are irrelevant also,)

Of course somebody had to write the thing, too. Actors, however talented, cannot put lipstick on a pig. The script has to be superb as well. Ronald Harwood, who wrote the screenplay, is one year younger than Michael Caine. Brian Moore, who wrote the novel, is twelve years older. He was born in 1921.

Just remember Reagan, when he was challenged about his advanced age promising that he would not let his opponent’s youth and inexperience be an issue in the campaign.

Judge the work, not the grey hair.