Starting Later & Starting Over: Launching a Writing Career When You’re No Longer “Young”

Today’s guest post is a literary agent Q&A by Sangeeta Mehta (@sangeeta_editor), a former acquiring editor of children’s books at Little, Brown and Simon & Schuster, who runs her own editorial services company.

Judging from the many organizations that offer awards and financial support to writers under 35 or 40 (The New York Public Library, The National Book Foundation, Granta), and the seven-figure deals that seem to be given to more 20-something debut writers than debut writers in any other age group, it would be tough to deny that book publishing is youth-focused. But if this is the case, what explains the success of Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Proulx, who at last fall’s National Book Awards ceremony shared that she started writing at 58? Or that of Frank McCourt, who didn’t begin writing until he was in his 60s? Were these writers more talented than younger writers trying to break in at the same time? Or has the industry started gravitating more toward younger writers in recent years?

I spoke with literary agents Sarah Davies and Dr. Uwe Stender about their thoughts on the publishing industry’s attitude toward age. As with my previous interviews, neither agent was aware of the other’s identity until after they submitted their answers.

Sangeeta Mehta: One advantage younger authors have is time—time to learn and improve their craft, time to start fresh in a new genre or category if their debut doesn’t meet sales expectations, time to write multiple books during their lifetimes and therefore recoup their publisher’s financial investment in them. Is this one of the reasons there seem to be so many book deals for 20- and 30-something writers?

Sarah Davies: Firstly, I’d like to say that I’m really happy to give my thoughts on this subject. As a “woman of a certain age” myself, it is something I’ve thought about quite a bit. Secondly, I only feel able to give a view on what I see within the children’s books world (from picture books through to YA) since that’s my specialization.

I think that we can to some extent separate out the YA world from that of picture books or middle grade. It’s true that YA is dominated by younger writers (i.e., I see fewer debut manuscripts from those over 50), but much less true of other areas of writing for children. Why is that? I think because teen fiction is seen to be very cool, very “now,” and perhaps also because it is highly networked via social media and other groups, which perhaps means that “like calls to like.” There are lots of younger authors, so other young authors are drawn to that world, which feels very attractive (and also potentially lucrative). It’s seen as an aspirational, even “glamorous” place to be as a writer. Maybe older authors look at this and think, “I just don’t have the confidence to try and break into this, and surely they wouldn’t want me.”

However, if you look at picture books, middle grade or nonfiction, there are lots of older writers around, and I receive submissions from many.

While it’s true that younger authors have time to learn and improve their craft, I’m not sure that has much bearing on the deals that are done. Hopefully middle-aged (and older) authors have time to learn and improve, too! Why not?

Uwe Stender: I honestly don’t know if there are many more deals for 20- to 30-something writers as there are for 40+ writers, as I don’t track that. And since I don’t know the facts, I cannot intelligently comment on that. However, I believe that both groups share the advantage of time, just in a different way. The younger group has a lot of life to experience, while the older group has experienced a lot of life! Both bring something to the table. At Triada US, I am pretty confident that we represent about as many writers that are under 40 as we do those that are over 40—though, admittedly, I don’t ask for their birth certificates when they sign with us! If they don’t volunteer their age, we don’t ask for it.

As for the number of book deals offered, when I look at the last ten or so deals that we made, I don’t see the scale tipping in favor of the under 40 writers; on the contrary, I find it to be rather balanced.

It’s no secret that many hiring managers prefer younger employees because of their (presumed) energy, eagerness to please, and potential to “fit in.” Today’s younger employees also tend to be more comfortable using social media and other digital tools than their older colleagues, a quality all authors should have to promote their work. Do you think younger writers are better able to adapt to today’s publishing climate for these same reasons, or is their ability to acclimate a common misconception?

Sarah Davies: Sorry, I’m not buying it!

There’s absolutely no reason why older people can’t be adept at social media or eager to work hard and fit in. A big reason for appointing younger employees is that they are cheaper hires. And there’s never a shortage of enthusiastic young people wanting to get into publishing.

I’m not saying we need a books industry entirely staffed by older people, but I do think a mix of ages is important and right, if we’re to reflect contemporary culture. The truth is, most of us will be looking to make it to retirement in some job or other, but very few are going to make it to that age in the books business (though it’s perhaps easier as an agent than in a highly structured publishing team). How many people of 55+ are still working in publishing offices? Very few, and the ones hanging on in there at 60 will almost always be right at the top.

In any media business (music, comedy, design, etc.) the relentless pressure for “the new, the different, the hot young talent” is always there, and always will be, but I think we should question that mantra and value talent and potential wherever we find it. I consciously try to do that when I read submissions. I simply look for talent, voice, and a potentially great story, whatever the apparent age of the author.

Uwe Stender: Whoa, let’s not sell older writers short! There are many examples of “older” people embracing digital tools and social media. Just turn on the news—lol!

On a serious note, promoting one’s project via social media is part of the publishing climate these days. Most all writers, both young and old, understand this and adapt.

As with the first question, I simply disagree that publishers are more focused on younger writers these days—at least that has not been our experience at Triada. As a matter of fact, I have never had an editor ask me for the age of a client before requesting to see their project! I think that publishers are finding the expression “what’s old is new again”no pun or disrespect intendedjust as relevant in their industry, as do many other outlets.

One advantage older writers have is experience, and for nonfiction writers this can translate into a solid platform. Can experience also give fiction writers an edge? For example, would a former lawyer have a better chance of publishing a legal thriller because of the authenticity she’s able to bring to the table? Would your interest be piqued if a former high school teacher pitched you a young adult novel since he clearly knows the market? Or is experience rarely a factor when it comes to fiction?

Sarah Davies: Your experience of life is vital if you’re writing about any subject where authenticity and knowledge is the bedrock. So yes, if you’re writing a legal thriller, a story about farming, a romance set in the South of France, then you’ve got to know what you’re writing about, and the reader can soon tell if you don’t.

But experience isn’t enough to create a good book. Agents encounter writers all the time who have specialist knowledge, but that doesn’t mean they can necessarily write great fiction. The two elements have to come together so that the “knowledge platform” is recast, via writing craft, into a fabulous work of art.

I receive submissions all the time from teens and teachers who say, “I’m young—I’ve worked with the young—and therefore my book is super-authentic!” Sadly, that’s not enough.

Uwe Stender: Talent, whether natural or experienced, piques my interest! For me, voice defines everything. Obviously, writing what one knows can be an advantage. On the other hand, one could have been a high school teacher for 20 years, but when they write they sound like the 45-year-old person that they really are, and not the 16-year-old student that they are trying to write. So, to me, in this case, experience (unlike in nonfiction) is not a factor.

When I first started out as an agent, I was an outsider coming into the industry. My only agenda was to find quality projects to represent. As a result of that focus, I discovered a lot of talented clients that had slipped through the cracks—writers whom other agents, not publishers, may have considered too old, too young, or simply not experienced enough. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not dismissing the value of experience. I am simply sharing that I am the ultimate proof that it is not an absolute necessity. That is where talent comes in!

According pieces in The Economist and The Washington Post, Hollywood is creating more films about older populations than ever before, but their depictions are clichéd and unrealistic. Is the book industry also falling short in terms of its representations of this demographic? Have you heard of any publishers asking for more submissions by, for, and about older populations? If not, is this because of the (inaccurate?) assumption that readers aren’t demanding such material?

Sarah Davies: This is a tricky one since I work specifically in the children’s and teen book industry, so our readers are necessarily young. However, my observation is that publishers do want stories that deal with family relationships, relationships between generations, and there are many picture books, for example, that deal with the affection between a child and their grandparent. In my experience, and especially in today’s climate, editors are keen to depict life as it is really lived, with stories that add to the real-world understanding of young people.

This being said, I always laugh when I see a story featuring a young child, their parents—and an incredibly elderly grandparent. When you work it out, the grandparent would probably be about 60, and quite likely these days to be trekking in the Himalayas, online dating, and doing Pilates—not behaving like a true geriatric and wearing “granny shoes.” So perhaps some of the change needs to happen with writers in their 30s and 40s, who still see the “grandparent” as the elderly figure they knew in their youth. People in the 60+ age group are vastly different from how they used to be and it’s time to recognize that. Hey, that ancient lady you’re depicting isn’t Granny, it’s Great-Granny!

Uwe Stender: Since I’ve been told by industry professionals that most book buyers and readers are women ages 40 to 60, I don’t think that this affects the publishing industry. Yes, oftentimes publishers are looking for specific types of projects, to which they may ask for a project about a specific subject. But I have never had one ask me for a project by an older writer, or a project for or about older populations. I could be wrong, but I don’t find that the older population is underserved in the publishing industry.

Many women aren’t able to pursue a career in writing when they’re young because they have demanding day jobs, are raising young children, or both. Others feel that they never had that proverbial room of their own. For British writer Joanna Walsh, age discrimination is a feminist issue, as the valorization of authors under 40 tends to push women (as well as minorities and the disabled) to the margins. Do you agree?

Sarah Davies: Yes, I think people easily and regularly underestimate older women (including other women). But we see that throughout society, amid our pervasive hang-up about youth and beauty (which we associate with energy). However, I also think older people can play a big part in this too. It’s vital to stay current, take on challenging ideas, achieve new things, remain fluent with technology/social media, mix with younger people—and not give anyone a reason to put you in a corner. You’ve got to work harder to prove yourself in a new field as you get older, but it can be done. And we should all question our assumptions and where we’re prepared to plant our flag, especially if we’re making decisions about who we will represent or publish. If the individual deserves to succeed, then let’s be their champion, whatever their age. However, if the writing doesn’t have what it takes, then age can’t be a smoke-screen for that fact.

I’m happy to say I’m seeing far more submissions these days from minorities (and some from those with disabilities of various kinds). There’s been a sea-change in how the industry is investing in lesser-heard voices and while there’s always further to go, it’s great to see the difference in receptivity in the past couple of years. There’s a real groundswell of desire to publish books by hitherto under-represented voices.

Uwe Stender: As to the question of women and age discrimination in publishing, I haven’t found that to be a problem with the projects that I pitch. Sadly, I do believe that minorities and the disabled are marginalized, not just in publishing, but beyond. It shamefully is a reflection of our society. Here at Triada, we have actually seen an uptick of interest in writers whose projects and voices were formerly underrepresented. Do more strides need to be made? Absolutely! But, at least there is some movement in the right direction in the industry.

What can we as an industry do to better support those who begin their writing careers later in life? It’s reassuring to see “5 Over 50” round-ups and profiles of writers over 50 in journals like Poets & Writers and Writer’s Digest. Writer’s Digest also offers workshops specifically for this audience, and the website Bloom focuses exclusively on those who first published “in their own sweet time.” Do we also need more awards for older writers in the vein of SCBWI’s Late Bloomer Award? Grants, mentorships, and other incentives?

Sarah Davies: I’m really ambivalent about this. While I’m always happy to see special listings or grants that highlight authors and books, I can’t personally imagine ever wanting to be selected for special attention because of my age. “Best literary agents over 50”? Please, no! I expect to compete on my professional merits and track record. Do writers feel differently about this? I’d be interested to know.

I’d mainly just like to encourage aspiring authors to start writing and keep growing, whatever their age. Aging can bring a loss of confidence. Don’t let that hold you back. What’s the worst that can happen if you try and don’t get very far? Give it your best shot and you might be amazed at what happens. Also, don’t use age as an “excuse” for inaction (unless there’s a question of poor health, etc.) or to blame people if you don’t get the desired result. It’s easy to do that, but we’ve got to be realistic: this is a very tough business, whatever your age.

As you get older there are situations where you need to square your shoulders and hold your head up, especially when walking into new environments where everyone is a lot younger. One day I want to go back to university, which will be exactly like that, and it may take a bit of courage. Don’t spend time agonizing—just do it and remember all you have to offer!

Uwe Stender: That is a hard question for me to answer, as I am open to writers in every stage of their writing career. I think that the most honest and insightful answers to that question can be answered by those who have begun (or are thinking about beginning) their writing careers later in life. And since I believe that older writers have the same opportunities as younger writers, and in many cases more financial security, I can only say that from a personal point of view.

It is always good to hear about support in the form of awards, grants, etc. for writers. I have been on panels about this topic at many conferences, and have had many in-depth conversations with mature writers. While some do ask where they may find additional support outside of the event, I have not talked to anyone who felt that there were not enough awards, grants, and mentor programs for them. As an industry, the most important thing that we can do for those who are beginning their writing career later in life is approach every query with an open mind, not an age limit or requirement.  

Should writers at the query stage mention their age in their query letters, whether they’re on the younger side or on the older side? Do you have any other advice for writers looking to secure representation, regardless of their age? 

Sarah Davies: I’m only interested in knowing someone’s age if there’s some out-of-the-ordinary reason for that. I do prefer to know if writers are still in high school, because representing a child or teen would bring some issues. Other than that, I’d rather authors just gave me their short bio (which we require from everyone who queries) and let their writing speak for itself. I don’t want to be thinking about age; I want to assess what story you’re trying to tell and whether you are succeeding.

In terms of securing representation, always focus on your writing. The two most important words are “concept” and “craft.” In other words, you need a great idea, and the mastery of writing to carry that onto the page. Everything else (social media, education, background, age) is an optional extra. So read widely, write madly, stay vibrantly engaged with the world around you, and go for it!

Uwe Stender: Again, talent piques my interest, not one’s age. I have never rejected a writer because of their age. I personally don’t care if you are 17 or 71. If you write a great book, I will want to represent you. Publishing is a tough and extremely competitive industry. My advice is to work hard to hone your craft and be open to advice and guidance. Understand that rejection is not personal—I get rejections too; it just comes with the territory.

If you do receive a rejection from an agent, move on to the next one, and if that strategy does not get you an agent, then write a better book, and try again. Attend conferences where you can meet agents and other industry professionals and ask them what they are looking for. Be smart and think about what you want to know and learn. Lastly, do take full advantage of all of the resources online and in stores available to writers, there are a lot out there. The publishing world is always on the hunt for next New York Times bestseller. Get to work on it!

Sarah Davies (@SarahGreenhouse) was a London publisher for 25 years before moving to the USA and launching Greenhouse Literary, a transatlantic agency, in 2008. While she mainly represents fiction for children and teens (from young chapter-book series through middle grade to YA), she represents authors’ careers in their entirety, so also sells picture books, nonfiction and even adult fiction by existing clients and has helped many debut authors into careers as writers. Among Greenhouse’s clients are NYT bestsellers Megan Miranda and Brenna Yovanoff, and Morris Award winner Blythe Woolston. Sarah is open to all genres within MG and YA, so long as a unique premise is complemented by fresh, compelling writing with a voice. Sarah now divides her time between London and New York. She is a member of AAR and has addressed writers’ events all over the USA and Europe.

Literary agent and Triada US founder Dr. Uwe Stender (‪@UweStenderPhD) is a full member of the AAR. He is interested in all kinds of nonfiction and fiction. In nonfiction, he is completely open to any project, from memoir, pop culture, and health to how-to, gardening, history and everything in between, including nonfiction for children. In children’s fiction, he is looking for YA and MG. In adult fiction, his tastes trend towards women’s fiction, psychological suspense, and mysteries. As an immigrant to the US, he is always eager to bring projects from underrepresented voices into the world. His favorite five novels right now are: Caraval, The Underground RailroadDer Nasse Fisch, Kafka On The Shore, The Young Elites, and Wonder.

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