Does Ageism Exist in Publishing?

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jul 08 2008

I received an interesting note from a reader recently that was spurred on by an interview in the Writer’s Digest Handbook of Making Money Freelance Writing. In the book, the reader came across an essay by another agent who said, basically, that he’s nervous taking on new clients who are older since there’s less opportunity there to build a career, and certainly he would be nervous about revealing the writer’s age to editors.

In the essay the agent states clearly that if you’re older than 50 you’re in trouble and will have a harder time getting published, simply because of your age. I can hear the panicked gasping now. Never fear. Stop, breathe, and let me explain. The agent in question was looking at a writer’s career from a long-term perspective. Without having read the essay I think what he was saying is that most author careers can take years to build and a good agent sees that. When I take on a new client I don’t take on that client for one book. I take on that client because there was so much I loved about the one book I read and I look forward to using that book as a basis for a much bigger career in the future. If you’re 50 and planning to retire at 62, it’s very possible that your career will finally reach its high point the day you are applying for your social security.

Does that mean that if you’re 50 or older you should keep your age a deep dark secret? Or just give up and quit now? No, not at all, but I think you should be aware that some agents and editors might think this way. In the same way that some would think that a 19-year-old is too young to write a book. Which is why I’ve always said, don’t tell anyone your age. You wouldn’t include it on a resume (although it’s easy to figure out), so why include it in a cover letter?

What’s interesting about this concern is that I definitely think it works both ways. I remember being a young editor and trying very hard to appear older as often as possible. Which wasn’t easy for someone who had a baby face. So often I would hear people exclaim about what a baby I was or how young I looked or ask outright my age. I knew this put me at a disadvantage. After all, given the choice between a fresh-faced young thing or a more experienced editor in her 30s, who would you choose? What about an agent? If all things were equal and you had offers from someone who was 25, 45, or 60, who would you likely go with?

Ageism exists, but the book matters the most. Write a good book and no one will even think to ask you your age. And I hope that works both ways too. I’m looking forward to agenting far into my senior years, if you’ll have me, that is.


32 responses to “Does Ageism Exist in Publishing?”

  1. Avatar lj says:

    But seriously, a writer retiring at age 62? Just as the career is hitting a high point? From my perspective as a writer, this is just about unimaginable.

    Unless, of course, I’m suddenly diagnosed with an incurable disease at age 62 and told I have just months to live. In which case, it’s quite possible that I’d write faster than I ever had before, just to get one more story out there.

    It takes so long to become proficient at this craft, and a writer has to work so hard and suffer so much rejection, that anyone who persists to the point of a)getting published, and b)making a comfortable living at it, is hardly likely to quit simply because it’s time to collect Social Security.

    One of the great joys of this work is the knowledge that we can do very good work– perhaps our best ever– as we hit the years when people in other professions are slowing down. The craft is solid, the rejection is substantially less, the way has been paved by previous successes, and what is left is the delight of honing an already sharp instrument, and the joy of telling a rattling good story. Too much fun to give up!

    And even when it’s not so fun (of course every book has its grindingly difficult patches, and the usual hide-the-knives angst), still if one is a writer, one writes. It’s a necessity right up there with food and drink, and doesn’t go away– at least for me.

    But perhaps from your perspective it’s different. Do agents frequently see writers falling off in energy and/or skill at a certain age? Or giving up somehow?

  2. Avatar spyscribbler says:

    Oh, gosh, I hear about the baby-face. I’m cursed with a baby face and a baby voice. Just last week, a father called me to teach his little one lessons, and within seconds he got really aggressive, attacking everything I said. A few seconds later, he burst out with, “Well, how old are you?” Not even a question. It was more a statement of who the **** are you to say anything? I’m pretty sure he asked me if I was teenager.

    Ageism exists everywhere. I just think there should’ve been age where I looked my age AND didn’t have gray hair yet.

  3. Avatar Mark Terry says:

    Interesting that it came up in a book about freelancing. As a freelancer, I don’t even see how it comes up and so much about freelancing–at least getting gigs–depends on having a body of reliable work to build on, that age is practically a requirement.

    On the other hand, from all accounts, breaking into TV writing is a young person’s game. I more or less said so to my brother, whose 17-year-old son wants to be a writer. I told him the how-to of breaking into TV writing was fairly straightforward (doesn’t mean it’s easy, just straightforward): write a spec script or two, get an agent, get lucky. However, I also pointed out that at the age of 44 I wouldn’t bother unless I was totally, totally passionate about it because there’s such a bias in TV Land about youth.

    Seems to me there’s a fair number of good examples of novelists who don’t even get started until their 40s, 50s or even 60s–Michener comes to mind–that this probably doesn’t really apply to novels.

    But to be safe, why mention your age at all?

  4. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I just lie. It’s no one’s business how old you are. And as long as I can lie and get away with it I will.

  5. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    I signed my first NY contract at 55 and I’ve never lied about my age. I honestly don’t think it’s hurt me, but it has given me some good laughs. My favorite was at a very nice lunch in NY when an executive from a large book chain looked over his wine glass at me and said, “You don’t LOOK like you write those books!” “No,” I said. “I look like a 56 year old grandmother of four.” (Which I was at the time.) It’s not age so much as imagination and ability. Some of us have it at nineteen, others take a bit longer to mature. (But did it have to take me THIS long? 🙂 I’m sure ageism exists in the publishing world–it’s everywhere else, so why not. I merely refuse to let it bother me, and to be honest, I enjoy my age and the confidence it’s given me.

  6. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I am old; I recognize it but I don’t realize it. I wonder if a person ever really ceases to feel young–I mean, for a whole day at a time.

    – Mark Twain, Letter to Mr. and Mrs. William Gordon, 1/24/1906

  7. Avatar JES says:

    Thanks for raising the question, Jessica. I don’t know the answer but it IS a — well, let’s just say a concern.

    I’m with LJ on the “retire at 62” issue. OTOH, when I first read that sentence in the post, I was thinking in terms of retiring from my day job, not from writing. Whenever I do retire from the day job, I like to imagine cracking my knuckles and hunching over the keyboard to get some real work done, y’know?

    This is related to another question I have: what if you had one book published years ago — long enough ago that it’s not only out of print, but pretty much off the radar (and online resources for tracking book sales). Is that worth mentioning in queries?

  8. Avatar Heidi says:

    You ask if, all things being equal, would I choose an agent who is 25, 45, or 60?

    In the writer/agent relationship there is so much more than age. Can things really be equal?

    Is the 60 year old just starting as an agent and so has little experience or publishing relationships? Has the 25 year old worked in NY, doing summer interns for Harper Collins since she was 16? Is the 45 year old getting burned out working 80 hours a week and still trying to make it to all her kids’ sporting venues?

    Finding the right agent involves some things that might be attached to age (experience, motivation, track record, reputation, enthusiasm, energy, the possibility that the agent may be looking at retirement soon) but might not be (I know 85 year olds who travel the world and 25 year olds who can barely get out of bed).

    It’s the personality as much as anything, the chemistry between the writer and the agent that matter just as much as those other things.

    When a stock broker friend had an elderly client who wanted long-term investments, he told her, “Lady, you shouldn’t even be buying green bananas!” But he sold her the stocks anyway, and made himself a tidy commission. And she lived long enough to see the profits and use them.

  9. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Interesting discussion. Believe me, I curse how old I am everyday. In YA right now you would not believe how many people who are teens and early twenties getting book contracts.

    Honestly, at 32 there are definitely times I feel as if my ship has already sailed for my genre.

    I can only hope I look younger than I am. ;o)

  10. Avatar Suzan Harden says:

    Thanks for the insight, Jessica. I had a very good laugh and the same time as some serious thoughts.

    Why? I’ve been told repeatedly by members of a writers’ group that my writing and understanding of life will grow as I “mature.” Came to find out that several of these well-intentioned folks thought I was 10-15 younger thn my actual age. (It gave almost as good a feeling as when I get carded.)

    Does ageism exist? Yup, especially in YA.

    Should it be relevant in this profession? No, because creativity is not ageist.

    What is old anyway? Every single one of my grandparents “retired” only to pick up a new career because they were bored! A majority of of both the grandparents and the great-grandparents live into their nineties with their mental abilities intact. I’ve got PLENTY of time to build a career in publishing.

  11. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Thank you for responding to my concerns. The book in question dealt with a lot of freelancers’ concerns (focusing on magazine writing), but there was also a lot dealing with book publishing.

    It’s funny. I had gotten over the usual worries unpublished writers have — manuscript formatting, including SASEs, how to find an agent — but worrying about my age blindsided me, I guess because I’ve been working for so long at it. Maybe I’m feeling my age.

  12. I was feeling pretty depressed until I read Kate Douglas’ comment.

    I will never tell anyone my age (I’m really old, but don’t look it). Not that I’m ashamed of the number. Quite the contrary. But if people knew, they’d say things like, “How’s your pacemaker doing?”

    Your age alters the way people think of you. All I can say is, if you’re old, try not to become hypnotized by the number.

  13. Avatar Anonymous says:

    It’s real. It hurts. I made the mistake of meeting my dream agent face-to-face at a conference. Her shock and disappointment were obvious. Despite all her previous interest and encouragement, a few days later I received a generic “not right for us” letter.

  14. Avatar Robena Grant says:

    I read that Writers digest article and shuddered. Not much hope for me, eh? Grin. But I still persist.
    It’s hard for we writers who are still struggling to get a foot in the door while looking at retirement looming ahead. We suffer ageism on many levels.

    I tell myself that life experience counts in writing. Maybe it does, or maybe it locks you into a past lifestyle that is passe. I think the key is to stay engaged in life, be active, keep on experiencing.

    I can see both sides of the story, the agent/editor wanting to help build the author’s career, looking for longevity of career. But life happens. I’m sure there are many aspiring youthful authors who get sucked into life’s vortex and write one book. Or never finish their first manuscript until their kids end up in college. An agent/editor could take on someone who is forty and they put out a couple of books and find they have nothing left to give. Or the one book wonder. Or the extremely slow writer who puts out a book every three years.

    Its all about how much passion you have about writing, how determined you are, how tenacious and how much imagination and creativity you can tap into. Writing isn’t just for the young. It’s something you can keep doing until your eyes give out and your fingers stiffen up with arthritis. Hell, then you could hire someone else to type and just dictate.

    The book should be all that counts. Not how you look, how old you are, who you you know in the business. I don’t care if a book is written by someone fifteen or fifty-five, if it’s a good yarn it’s good.

  15. So often I would hear people exclaim about what a baby I was or how young I looked or ask outright my age. I knew this put me at a disadvantage.

    I’m in the same boat appearance-wise, and this is exactly why I don’t plan to reveal my age in my cover letter. (I never really did in the first place, because, as you said, I wouldn’t put it in any cover letter for a job application, as it’s not relevant.) The writing should be what sells, not how long it might be until I kick the bucket.

  16. Avatar Anonymous says:

    In the “good old days,” when someone at a dinner party brought up a novel they were reading, everyone jumped into the fray, talking enthusiastically about that and other books they were reading. Sadly, that hasn’t happened, at least for me, in a very long time.

    With publishers (and some agents) focusing on celebrity memoirs, gossipy tell-alls and putting marketing budgets behind writers deemed worthy by virtue of their youthful good looks, willingness to disrobe for the cover while eschewing books written by writers above a certain age, is it any wonder publishing is in trouble?

  17. Avatar Fawn Neun says:

    I have a good friend who writes and produces plays and runs an acting studio – he’s in his 70’s. He’s retired from the “day job” (teaching), but he’s still going strong in the career he loves best.

    If I were able to make a living writing, I’d hardly consider retiring at 62 – because it’s not really “work” when it’s something you love.

  18. Avatar Karen Duvall says:

    I’ll just use pictures of my youngest daughter, who’s 24. She looks exactly as I did at her age. Ha! 8^)

    I can’t imagine anyone retiring at age 62, but I suppose it happens. What would you do with yourself? I’d be bored silly. I’ll be writing until my fingers stop working, and even then I might start using voice recognition software.

    Anyway, the concept of age is changing. 40 is the new 30, 50 is the new 40, etc. etc.

  19. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Just remember, Charles Darwin was 50 when he wrote the Origin of Species.

  20. Avatar Chumplet says:

    I love telling people my age because they say I look ten to fifteen years younger.

    I certainly hope I don’t have to face ageism in my quest for a good writing career. Maybe we have nothing to worry about anyway since fifty is the new forty.

  21. Avatar Chumplet says:

    Karen, you beat me to it. I thought I was being clever. Okay, we’re both clever…

  22. I pretty much decided I wanted to be a writer straight out of high school. I enrolled in a college writing course that was mostly made up of mature-age students. I remember one day we had a guest speaker who was a published author (of only one book, mind you, but he was so up himself you would have thought he’d written 10 best sellers) who had the very set opinion that anyone under 30 couldn’t write anything WORTH publishing becuase they didn’t have enough life experience. Needless to say since I was only 20 it pissed me off and I was detirmined to prove him wrong and get my work published.
    Well, today I’m a lot closer to 30 than 20, but I’ve still got a bit of time up my sleeve!
    In saying all of that, I’ve seen personally in many different aspects how people have been totally ageist against me becuase I’m so young… or was!
    In terms of an agent’s age, this wouldn’t bother me. I’m more interested in who she’s represented, which houses she works with, what she can do to get my work out there. If she’s doing that at 25, then good luck to her because she’ll probably be very, very successful.

  23. ok, hide my age, don’t tell anyone I have kids in their twenties, and slather anti-age cream in the crease!
    Yikes! I never thought this would matter. Most writers keep writing till they’re old and well, really old, don’t they?
    Think of the experience with older writers. We’ve seen a lot, dealt with all kinds of peeps and probably forgot more then those younger have even seen.

  24. OooooOooo, one more thing…
    How could a writer stop writing no matter what age they reach? The stories don’t stop flowing just because of a number.
    I rejoice in my age! Each new year is an adventure.

    I choose an agent on how many deals they’ve got under their belt and what kind of authors are in their stable. I don’t care how old or young they are.

  25. Avatar Anonymous says:

    The big question I have is: How does anyone know your age? I guess if you go to a conference, and they see you in person, they can guess. Or if you’re already published with some success–there would be publicity photos and interviews where your age would be at least estimated.

    But for me, I finished my first novel ms at age 30, sent it out to agents, got some partials and one full request, but never sold it–nor did my age ever come into play (never asked, never told).

    Now I’m 40 and currently shopping a 3rd ms (never sent #2 out), getting considerably more action on this one–but once again–age has never come into play–never asked, never told.

    So, for me, anyway, I can’t see how age is a factor whatsoever when I’ve never been asked how old I am, nor volunteered the info. All professional discussions I’ve had this far have centered exclusively on the work itself, nothing else.

  26. Avatar Chirstina Lee says:

    When you said something about a 19-year-old I had a moment of panic. I never thought about my age being an issue, but I understand that some people will see it as one. Being 19 can help me and it can hurt me. I haven’t “seen the world”, but I know how teenagers think, talk, and interact. Writing a book at my age is hard work, it is at any age, but I’m at the point where there are a thousand things I want to do with my time, and yet, I put those things aside to write.

  27. Avatar Elissa M says:

    Growing old is always better than the alternative. It saddens me that anyone would judge a person by something as arbitrary as the number of years they’ve lived. How very shallow.

    If a person should feel my age is somehow an impediment to my career, I don’t want to work with said person anyway.

    And, as many have pointed out, why would I want to “retire” from writing at any age?

  28. Avatar Flick says:

    Now it’s become the norm to put photos of authors on the back inside covers of many books, it’s not easy to hide your age – unless you use a gorgeous stand in! I always wondered why we need a photo. The book is all that matters.

  29. “It’s real. It hurts. I made the mistake of meeting my dream agent face-to-face at a conference. Her shock and disappointment were obvious. Despite all her previous interest and encouragement, a few days later I received a generic “not right for us” letter.”

    This is a little scary. I’m planning on going to the Surrey conference and now I wonder if that is wise. Of course, I really had no expectations of interesting an agent there, but it worries me now.

    Ah, well. I can’t change my age. I have to live with it and make sure my work is compelling enough.

    I’m in my fifties and getting ready to start taking sword fighting lessons. I guess someone forgot to tell me to act my age. Or, maybe I’m going through my second childhood.

  30. Avatar Anonymous says:

    “Anonymous said…
    In the “good old days,” when someone at a dinner party brought up a novel they were reading, everyone jumped into the fray, talking enthusiastically about that and other books they were reading. Sadly, that hasn’t happened, at least for me, in a very long time.

    With publishers (and some agents) focusing on celebrity memoirs, gossipy tell-alls and putting marketing budgets behind writers deemed worthy by virtue of their youthful good looks, willingness to disrobe for the cover while eschewing books written by writers above a certain age, is it any wonder publishing is in trouble?”

    I couldn’t agree more with you. And that’s why, this year, I started my own little experiment. I’m only reading fiction that I decide is right for me, and I’m going after it. I’ve been seeing so many self-published writers for so many years pushing their books, I decided it was time I started to choose my own reading material, suited to my own tastes, and not the tastes of an agent or editor. And so far, twenty self-published novels into the experiment, I’m pleased with most. But more than that, I’m seriously confused as to why these writers have not been published and why they don’t have agents.

    I have worked as an editor and writer in the publishing industry for a long time, and I’ve never self-published anything of my own. I’m looking at the self-published material I read strictly as entertainment. So for anyone who IS interested in reading fiction and not being disappointed completely each time you spend money, start going after your own books (you can start by clicking on the names of commentors on blogs) instead of trusting the subjective tastes of so-called publishing professionals. You will be very surprised at the good material out there that has been ignored.

    It’s also empowering to know that we have choices now, and that we are not at the mercy of what a handful of people think we should be reading. There are some really good books out there you don’t want to miss.

  31. Avatar Anonymous says:

    It’s hard for me to imagine my world without having read, then listened to, Angela’s Ashes. I guess Frank McCourt didn’t get the memo about being too old.

    Then, again, Mary Higgins Clark is how old?

    What the younger than I am folks should keep in mind
    is when you get to be my age, you won’t think you are old at all … but the younger than you are, will.

    How you treat us now, will come back to you then.

    Be smart!

  32. Avatar Steve Stubbs says:

    Thanks for raising an important issue. If age discrimination were really a bad thing, it would not be so popular everywhere in the business world. We get so hung up on quality and performance we forget age is really the important thing. Age discrimination needs to be rehabilitated. We need to recognize age for the outstanding screening tool that it is. Age. Focus on it. Use it.

    If I were an agent I would not sign anyone younger than 50.

    Sorry, kids. Maybe when you’re older.