Friday, November 27, 2015

How do agents assess viability of writers who are 65+

Last week you featured posts on the glacial pace of publishing and the death of an aspiring writer. While writers generally accept the maxim “write a good book and everything will fall into place,” there must be some calculations made by literary agents when the author seeking representation is a senior citizen. Frank McCourt’s breakthrough with Angela’s Ashes is often held up as proof that success can come to elder writers. I’m sure there are other examples, but aren’t they the exceptions that prove the rule?

Can your share some observations on how literary agents assess the marketing viability (i.e. touring, physical stamina, appeal to book buyers, follow-up titles) and profit potential for prospective clients who happen to be north of, say, sixty-five?

I’ve read a lot of the blog archives, but couldn’t find anything on this exact topic.

Let me just start with an homage to my beloved client, Richard Gilbert. I think he was 83 when I first started working with him on his memoir. Sadly, he has now shaken off this mortal coil, as has his lovely wife, and I miss them both to this day.

I was honored to work with a man like Mr. Gilbert. He ran the agency that created some of the most iconic advertising images of the 60's. Images I remembered when he queried me.

It never crossed my mind that he was too old to sign.
It never crossed my mind that he would die either, but we had a number of lovely years working together before that very sad day.

But, that doesn't really answer your question does it.

I don't know how other agents handle this; it's not something we really talk about.

What I know is that I don't think about a writer's age unless it's mentioned in the query. It's not a factor in assessing whether I want to sign a great writer.

If you're concerned about your work getting short shrift because you're of mature years, don't mention your age.

Don't mention you didn't start writing until you retired.
Don't mention your grandchildren.

In other words, let your work speak about how talented you are, not how old you are.


Unknown said...

There is probably not a more gracious or truer way of answering that question.

I trust that any writer's age, experience, insight, will inform their novel in a positive way if the story is the one they should tell. Any other belief in the writer's mind is just not productive, and can only add unnecessary angst over one more unknown.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Read your homage to Richard Gilbert. Invented a few new query mistakes of his own? Very pioneering of him.

As Susan wrote above, a gracious way to answer that question and it gives any of us hope. Age doesn't have to define or limit who we are or what we do.

Anonymous said...

Well, there goes the excuse that I'm too old to write. I'm running out of excuses.

LynnRodz said...

This question is of interest. I may be south of that destination, but I'm beginning to see signs looming up ahead announcing the exit ramp. We're all traveling in the same direction and some of us will reach our destination sooner than others, but eventually we'll all get there if we're lucky.

As long as I don't catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I still think and act like I'm 19. My husband can attest to that...well, on second thought, he'd probably say more like 12.

Um, I have to run. Hubby got up early and baked brioches this morning for breakfast, now we have to go run around Paris and walk off some of these calories. Well, I do, he has no worries in that department.

Sherry Howard said...

Just an FYI first: I used to show as eparentcoach coach, and I've changed to show my name. I'm one of your regular blog fans who appreciates these sentiments. I've assumed that my writing will speak for itself, regardless of my age. But. . . we white-headed people experience a lot of prejudice in the world, and I expect all agents aren't as open as the shark about this. So, Janet, I appreciate your words of wisdom and honesty here. I'd never mention those things in a query, but I use my current picture on social media. Honestly, I've considered taking down my white-headed pictures before I query. But, hey, who wants an agent who doesn't want them?

BJ Muntain said...

I, too, followed your link to read about Richard Gilbert. He sounds like a wonderful human being to have known.

I've always loved elderly people. Their personalities are so often stronger than young people's. Like they've been simmering so much longer, so the liquid personality of the young has infused them and thickened over the years.

And their stories! They all have so many stories of growing up and living in times far different from ours. If you're patient and actively interested, they'll tell you stories they haven't told others.

I think it would be a very sad state of affairs if publishing were to ignore their stories, simply because they were old and might not be able to pound out a book a year for a decade or so. I think we'd all be poorer for the loss of those stories.

Colin Smith said...

Every year during the Oscars, they run a montage of "People We Lost" that year. The audience applauds as pictures of the famous and the not-so-famous, A-list actors and sound technicians, fade in and out. Some are household names, some are people we're meeting for the first time. Some had been in the business for many years, some only a handful. Some, like Mickey Rooney, had lived long, full lives, most of that time doing the job they loved. Some like Skye McCole Bartusiak, had a film career spanning barely 15 years, and died at age 21.

The fact is, young or old, you never know when it's your time. We are all mortal, and we will all one day breathe our last. Yes, we should be prepared for that day (remember the post about making wills?). But that doesn't mean we give up on our dreams because we're collecting a pension, or, for that matter, put off pursuing our dreams until "later", "when I'm older", or "when I have more time." Indeed, that sense of mortality--both our own and that of others--should drive us to make the most of every day, whether we're writers or agents. I can't imagine an agent meeting an elderly client for the first time and deciding not to take on their amazing book because they might pop off in a few months. Indeed, I hope that thought would light a fire under the agent to sell the book. And shouldn't the agent treat every client this way--as if this might be their last book, selling that book with the same sense of urgency? An 80-year-old client may live to 100. And a 20-year-old client might not make it to 21.

Okay, I'll stop preaching to myself. I need to get on with that novel... :)

And there's my 3-comments worth. ;)

Anonymous said...

My dragon ate my comment. sigh Bad dragon.

Thank you, Miss Janet, for starting my day out with a tear. He sounds like a wonderful man and I'm glad you got a chance to know him.

This conversation has come up with the writers in my inner sanctum as we are all north of fifty and all have epic books under our belts which took a while to write. We're well familiar with how truly glacial publishing is, so this is a concern.

Will agents be prejudiced based on age? Some will. Laurie McLean addressed this in her query workshop and it came up again in the query panel. Don't mention your age in your query. You don't want to taint the pool even if it's subconsciously. Sell the agent on what a fabulous writer you are. Deal with the other stuff after they fall in love with you.

The idea that I might die before I get anything published came home to roost two years ago when my kidneys crashed and I spent two weeks in the hospital as one system crashed and then another like dominoes. It gives a person some major thinking time.

At any rate, I realized I needed to get serious about getting my writing out there.

I'm not going to give any reason to say no that I don't have to. I've even thought about taking out how many years I was a journalist, but the good outweighs the bad, I think.

Lance said...

It seems like the answer to this question as well as most of the other what-ifs is to write an excrutiatingly great story, convey that well through a query, and they all go away. Mostly. Thank you for this wonderful encouragement.

Jed Cullan said...

The day after I sign with an agent, I'll get squashed and killed by a hippo in a tragic parashuting accident.

Anonymous said...


I want to be there. Not to see you get killed, but I want to see parachuting hippos. Don't you know that would be a sight to see?

On another note, I love your name. I'm going to steal it.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Over the years Janet and I have a couple of go-rounds regarding age and career length. She is absolutely right, it's about your work not your numbers.
I'm less north of sixty-five than I am south of seventy (huh) and now I don't care who knows. For me, my age is like my ass, I've got more behind than what's ahead.

If an agent is more concerned about career longevity, rather than your project, maybe that is not the agent for you.

Hey, wait a minute, if writers can change their names, why not change age.

Actually, I just turned thirty and my name is Anna Monk Kidd Tartt with 2Ns, 2Ds and 2Ts. That will certainly get an agents attention.

Colin Smith said...

2Ns: I'm East of 95 and South of the Mason-Dixon line. And I'm renaming you N2D2. See you in a galaxy far, far away... :)

Whatever your age, write that novel and query! Don't think you can't and be filled with regret. :)

Barbara Etlin said...

Colin's mention of the Academy Awards reminds me of David Seidler's excellent acceptance speech for The King's Speech. He waited 30 years to write the script, until the Queen Mother had died. He was 73. He said he hoped to start a trend of late bloomers.

AJ Blythe said...

Age is just perspective. Ask a 10 year old what old is and they will say 20. Ask a 60 year old what old is and they will say 90.

All that matters is how you act. 2Ns might think she'sgot more behind than what's ahead but she certainly doesn't act it (and I mean that in a *you rock* kinda way).

After all, as awful as it is to acknowledge, there are those who don't live to see older age.

My grandparents are the perfect example - Grandad lived to 62, Nana to 96. Nana wrote a whole lot of poetry in those 34 years she was on her own. She even had a pen name which we didn't discover until after she'd passed. She wanted to be published but felt she was too old. But she'd actually had many years to be a successful poet.

Forget your chronological age. In the circle of life it doesn't mean anything. Go for what you want. Doesn't mean you'll get there but at least you'll have lived the life you wanted to!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Colin, hahahahaha !

AJ thank you.

I attribute my obnoxious attempts at (often-failed) humor to the lifelong need to embarrass my children.

Panda in Chief said...

Slightly off topic, I wish we had "like buttons" or at least a way to add little panda faces when we like a comment. I know! I know! This is the kind of thing that gets you sent to Carkoon!

Back on topic, because this is one near and dear to me since I crossed the meridian into "over 60" this year.
Having been deep in the artworld for over 35 years, the one thing that is constant is change. When I graduated with my shiny MFA in '81, it was all about the mid career artist. So I put my nose to the grindstone, started showing my work, getting into galleries and was finally feeling like I was accomplishing something. I made enough to pay taxes! Get a mortgage! Huzzah!

Then the economy crashed, and when it came back, the art world was all about the next hot new edgy wet behind the ears artists. Sigh.

To bring the topic back to the lit world, particularly in kid lit and illustration, it seems like many of the people getting notice and multiple book contracts are young. But when I applied to got into a mentorship program, I was happy to see that at least half, and probably more, or the accepted writers were north of 50, and several others of us were past 60.

So you might ask "but how old will I be when my first book is published, if the process takes at the very least several years?" The answer is, you'll be the same age you would be if you never wrote that book and tried to get it published.

Jed Cullan said...

Julie, you can steal my name, will be interesting to see the character you have in mind for it. And if I have to go, then getting squashed by parachuting hippos is the perfect way. Very memorable.

Joan Kane Nichols said...

As others have said, Janet, you've answered the question graciously. But here are my practical concerns.

I've been published, have won awards, teach a writing class, so I'm no old newbie (there's an oxymoron for you). I don't mention my age in queries, but as you've often pointed out, agents google writers whose queries they like. A surf through the web will find enough to figure out my age. So that worries me.

Also--conferences. I've several times seen an agent's expression subtly shift as I approach to make my pitch, making me feel I'm written off before I get a chance to dazzle.

So I wonder--should I slip on my cloak of invisibility, scrub myself from the web (if I can), shun conferences?

It bugs me to think I have to.

BJ Muntain said...

Joan, I know Janet is going to answer you. But I just had a few things to say.

If an agent were to google you, it means that you've already caught their interest. I don't think that age is going to matter a lot at that point. They already know you can write.

There are more seniors alive today than there have ever been in the past. Thanks to medical advances, people are living longer - on average - than ever before. That, plus the baby boom at a time when infant mortality rate was decreasing... there are a lot of people north of 60 these days. That's a lot of readers. An agent who refuses to rep an author because of age is awfully short-sighted in this decade.

As for the pitch sessions - when you see "an agent's expression subtly shift as I approach to make my pitch"... take it from me. It's not your age. They don't get a lot of time between pitches to really take a break. That 'shifting expression' is more likely a preparation for the next hopeful author on their list. They know they're going to wind up declining most of the authors they talk to, whether during the session or after they see the requested material. Don't take it personally, although I know it's hard not to, when you're keyed up to speak to someone who might be instrumental to your future career.

Don't erase all that important experience and knowledge from your life. Don't mention your age in your query, because why would anyone do that? Even young authors shouldn't do that. Your age isn't important. Your ability to write is. And you've got experience that shows you're able to write. Use it.