Awhile ago I spoke at a writers conference where one of the attendees asked, “Do older writers have a chance? Especially if agents and publishers are looking for a long-career investment?”
That is a great question. Does it matter how old you are? No, it doesn’t. When your proposal lands on our desk or on an editor’s desk, it is the words on the page that speak to us. I rarely even think about the writer’s age, ethnicity, economic status, or any other nonwriting ability classification while I’m reading the sample chapters. Of course, there are exceptions. A few times I could tell the author was very young by the way they were writing a romance scene; they simply had not yet truly “fallen in love” and couldn’t quite express it authentically and with deep emotion.
We have a number of clients who signed their first contract in their 20s, and we also have a number who were in their 70s. What matters is whether they’ve written a great book and have a platform to sell it from.
Maybe some examples from publishing history will illustrate the range in ages:
Christopher Paolini started writing when he was 15 and published Eragon when he was 18. (Published by his parents. Then, a year later (2003) Knopf, a division of Random House, published it; and it became a New York Times bestseller.)
Mary Shelly published Frankenstein when she was 19 or 20.
Ken Follet published Eye of the Needle at age 25.
Stephen King published Carrie at age 26 (1974).
Frank Peretti was 35 when This Present Darkness was published in 1985.
Laura Ingalls Wilder published Little House in the Big Woods at age 65.
Katherine Anne Porter published her first collection of short stories when she was 40. But she didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize until she was 76.
Myrrha Stanford-Smith signed a three-book deal for her first published novels when she was 82. (Click the link if you don’t believe me.)
Franz Kafka’s first published work, The Trial, was released posthumously. (The fascinating book Franz Kafka’s Last Trial is the story of his loyal friend Max Brod who could not bring himself to fulfill Kafka’s last instructions: burn his manuscripts. Instead, Brod devoted his life to championing Kafka’s work, rescuing his legacy from both obscurity and physical destruction. [from the back-cover copy of the book].)
As you can see, the ages are quite varied. In a great article written for Writers Digest (available online here), Scott Hoffman suggests four things to be careful about if you are “older” and approaching an agent:
1. Avoid references to the word “retirement.”
2. Be energetic in how you present yourself.
3. Make sure it’s clear you are more than a one-trick pony.
4. Don’t date yourself.
Read the whole article for a full discussion of this topic. He presents some good advice. It is similar advice I’ve heard given to those trying to find a job in today’s marketplace when they are 60 years or older.
In the meantime, I return to the title of this post. Age is just a number. You are as young as you feel. (Today I feel old and cranky, so watch out!) But your idea can be timeless. You have time to craft those ideas and make them scintillating.
(A variation of this post ran in January 2013 and was inspired by a comment on our agency’s blog in 2012 by accomplished author Dr. Richard Mabry who stated, “Age is just a number.” Thank you for the inspiration, Doc!)