Ageism and Publishing in the 21st Century - Katherine Roberts

In some ways, we should be celebrating the rising pension age here in the UK. After all, it's official recognition that people over 65, including women, are still active and healthy enough to be working and earning a living. True, I can't quite imagine myself in my late sixties doing my old job of getting up at 6am, mucking out five stables and riding three racehorses each morning in all weathers, occasionally falling off them, cycling home for lunch and then back again to groom, feed and settle 'my' horses for the night, 13 days every fortnight, with maybe the 14th day spent travelling to some distant racecourse for overnight racing. I was in my thirties when I did that job, and already older than most of the other stable staff at the time.

But writing books, managing various online activities from the comfort of my own sofa/bed/kitchen table, and the occasional excitement of a book signing tour with not too much danger of getting dumped in a hedge on a foggy winter's morning by a runaway horse? Yes, I can imagine doing those things in my 50s and 60s, maybe even into my 70s and 80s, should I live that long. No need for authors to retire at all, really, as long as the words are still flowing and we can still get the words into a computer somehow - writing fewer books is always an option if energy levels drop or our health deteriorates and, as Andrew Crofts observed in his heartfelt post last month, a writer retiring from writing would be rather like retiring from life. And yet, it seems ageism exists in the publishing industry in a way that it would not (or at least would not officially) be permitted in my previous job as an employee.

Penelope Farmer, who was first published in 1960 with her collection of fairy tales for children, The China People, wrote this blog post in 2015 to highlight the problem:

"Old writers may not die; they may even keep on writing. What they don’t get is published any more unless their names come with big sales figures attached..."

There is some truth in what she says.

A view from the other side of the desk comes from a collective of children's books professionals called the Blue Rose Girls:

"If you're an older author and aren't having luck getting a book published, I don't think you should or can blame ageism. Publishing is a difficult, competitive industry no matter what your age..."

Although the same poster - I'm guessing an editor - goes on to say: "I do think that in some cases, older authors might have a disadvantage in writing contemporary YA novels, because it's hard to write authentic teen dialogue, and the farther away you are from your teen years, the more foreign their language may seem."

True enough - although the surest way to date your book is to fill it with current teen slang that will seem old fashioned to readers of that age in three years' time. Also, I think we all have stories of enthusiastic editors raving over our new manuscript and taking it forward, only to see it unceremoniously thrown out at acquisitions stage because the money men don't believe it will make enough profit for their shareholders.

Here's a view from a literary agency, dating back to 2008 (assuming an earlier retirement age):

" 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..."

The encouraging thing is that authors are not screaming 'ageism!' all over the internet, but is this actually the rumble of thunder preceding the storm that will surely soon hit all industries, not just publishing, as a result of the rising state retirement age here in the UK? Maybe those authors who have been 'dropped' by their publishers (the literary equivalent to being dumped in a hedge at the top of the gallop by a runaway horse) merely fade quietly from the public eye, their writing career in tatters and their self-respect at an all time low? Or decide to end it all in a tragic manner, as a much-respected colleague of mine did last year? Or simply become invisible with the peculiar affliction that strikes many women in middle age, authors included, as both Rosalie Warren and Debbie Bennett have observed in previous posts on this blog?

So there are certainly some worrying signs out there, but heartening ones too, at least regarding older debut authors. Here is a post of particular interest to women of a certain age:

"The situation might be very different for a female writer who’s been working at the keyboard all her adult life and sees her prospects and earnings diminishing as she gets older, but for a woman like me embarking on fiction as a second career after early retirement, the benefits are manifold..."

The above includes a link to the following Guardian article about debut authors aged 40+:

tempered by a quote from Martin Amis that seems to suggest you're fine until you reach the age of 70, but it's all downhill from there:

"Octogenarian novelists ‘on the whole [are] no bloody good. You can see them disintegrate before your eyes as they move past 70’."

Ouch! But at least we should be able to claim our state pension by then.

As a 'not-yet-old-enough-to-retire-but-several-years-past-my-debut' author, I think that the difficulties of getting published in later life is less about the physical age of the author, and more about how long we have been publishing in the brave new EPOS years of the 21st century... i.e. since 2001, when Nielsen launched Bookscan, enabling books to be counted at point of sale and making the so-called 'midlist' (slower selling books) increasingly unattractive to publishers, with the knock-on effect of slowly but surely strangling their authors' careers. With EPOS watching your every move, about 10 years seems to be the average length of a traditional midlist career these days... I'd hazard that 10 years is good going even for a best-selling career, since greater expectations mean greater disappointments when things go wrong. Authors of whatever list rarely get a second chance when their sales figures drop.

Since it's Sunday, and everyone loves a mathematical puzzle, for a bit of fun here's the Authors Electric Publication Formula, which predicts how likely you are to get your next book accepted for publication by a traditional publisher, assuming that (a) they publish your sort of book, (b) there is a market for your book, and (c) you can write a publishable book... if you can't satisfy these three basic requirements, then age is the least of your worries, believe me!

((16 - C) x 100/16) + (R/A) %

A=age of author
C= length of your career in the 21st century (i.e. since 2001, when Nielsen started counting your sales figures. If you started earlier than this, C=16).
R= average age of your readers

Note: The apparently random 16 in this formula is calculated by subtracting 2001(introduction of epos) from 2017(current year), so if you're reading this post in the future, then you'll need to increase this figure accordingly.

If you're a debut author writing for readers your own age, you have a
((16-0) x 100/16) + 1 = 101% chance of being published. In other words, nothing whatsoever to worry about! All you have to do is write a publishable book for a viable market and send it to the right publisher/agent... good luck!

If you're a younger author (age 20) writing for older readers (average age 40), you're pretty much okay. For example, 5 years into your career:
((16-5) x 100/16) + 40/20 =  70.75%

The odds fall slightly if the author and reader ages are the other way around, but not significantly:
((16-5) x 100/16) + 20/40 = 69.25%

However, if you're approaching 16 years of publication, are aged 50 or over, and write for children, you're pretty much stuffed:
((16-15) x 100/16) + 10/50 = 6.45%

Maybe you could increase your chances by writing for older readers?
((16-15) x 100/16) + 80/50 = 7.85%

Or effectively wipe out those 15 years of your EPOS career to date by relaunching yourself under a pseudonym (and why not write for people your own age while you're at it?)
((16-0) x 100/16) + 1 = 101%
Hooray! Now all you have to do is write a publishable book for a viable market and send it to the right publisher/agent... (see debut author above).

Of course, if you've been steadily published since about 1970, then you're living on borrowed time whatever your age and whoever you write for:
((16-16) x 100/16) + (at most about 2) = at most about 2%
so presumably you're now self-publishing, if at all?

Before you all start panicking, I should point out that this formula is not scientifically proven, only really works for the midlist, and is in fact mathematically incorrect for debut authors - which suggests that R and A actually have nothing to do with it at all. I just felt that authors (like me) with 16+ years experience deserve a tiny bit of hope... and they're better odds than winning the lottery, honest! Celebrity status or friends in high places are obviously special cases, and I doubt any sort of formula applies to JK Rowling, unless it was invented at Hogwarts. I've just tried to illustrate what might be happening to many authors' careers in the 21st century as they get older gain experience. Publishers no doubt factor in all kinds of other sensible things when deciding whether to take on a new project, such as how many sales they will need to turn a profit once the advance is paid, possibility of foreign sales, etc, and I doubt they are transfixed purely on the EPOS figures of your latest epic, because books sold at very high discounts will obviously rack up huge sales at the expense of profit margins. Anyway, there's a difference between fast sellers that tend to go quickly out of print, and classic books that continue to sell steadily for decades. Feel free to tweak the AE formula and add your own variables.

Ageism doesn't stop with authors, of course. My own experience of losing the brilliant publishing team at Templar Fiction just after they published my Pendragon Legacy series would seem to reflect this view from a recruitment professional:

"As someone who assists a lot of people in refocusing their publishing careers after redundancy, I'm more than aware that the jobs being cut are often held by people who are 'of a certain age'..."

I don't have any answers, other than to suggest trying what many experienced authors here at Authors Electric and elsewhere are already doing, and indie-publish any material you've written that doesn't fit the 21st century publishing model. But the possibility of ageism (or career ageism, if you prefer) in publishing throws up a lot of questions that we probably should at least acknowledge before the perfect storm created by the rising retirement age hits us all:

Is it more difficult for an experienced author to work with a less experienced editor?
What about the other way around - experienced editor, less experienced author?
Do authors lose their natural storytelling talent as they age?
Do authors become more difficult to work with as they get wiser to the practices of the publishing industry?
Do publishers need to pay older authors more than younger authors? (I'd say no, since we're self-employed and royalties are not age-related, but maybe that's not the perception?)
Does experience count at all, or is being media-savvy and having a glamorous publicity photo more important in the 21st century?
Does EPOS kill midlist careers - or would those authors' careers have died, anyway?
Should older authors retire from writing to make space on the shelves for younger authors?
And what are we all supposed to do next, if we are not yet ready to retire from writing/life?

self-publish our books with Amazon?


Katherine Roberts won the inaugural Branford Boase Award in 2000 for her debut novel Song Quest (just as EPOS started to count everyone's sales figures, so perfect timing!). She writes fantasy and historical fiction with a dose of magic for young readers, and has recently launched a signature list under the name 'Katherine A Roberts' to publish some of her historical fiction for older readers.

This year, she has been republishing some of her best-loved out of print titles as print on demand editions with Createspace - see her website for more details.


AliB said…
Hi Katharine - shocking but of course not entirely surprising. I'm in my sixties - one of those 'second career' people, and have 'debuted'I suppose without having 'broken out'. Over the past few years I've been struck by how all the agents and other publishing professionals I bump into or see giving opinions online look to be in their twenties. I don't see myself writing for any age group other than adult, but inevitably wonder wonder just how attuned these people can be to the writing enjoyed by my peers. Nor do I think it was always like this - at a writing conference ten years or so ago there was much more of a mix as I recall. Ali
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you for critically analyzing the lamentably ageist, but liberating publishing trends we've all been observing in one way or another for quite some time. I concur completely. I'll save this post to review if I ever doubt that publishing independently is the only way to go for those of us who wish to keep writing as long as our fingers can work the keys.
Ann Turnbull said…
This chimes with everything I've experienced and heard, Katherine. The only difference I have noticed, though, having reached real old age, is not a loss of ability but a slight loss of drive and the desire to be 'successful'. This is actually quite liberating. And I feel lucky to have grown old at the same time as self-publishing has become a possibility.
Very interesting! It was partly a feeling I had that I was too old to succeed in being traditionally published that made me look at self-publishing in the first place, and luckily KDP came along at almost the same moment. I think it isn't so much just being older that is the problem, but perhaps the fact that publishers want to market authors as well as books, and looking younger and (possibly) more glamorous helps with this. I suppose it's 'worse' for a female writer not to be glamorous than it would be for a man, so there may be elements of sexism about this too.
Elizabeth Kay said…
My agent of thirty years, and one of my best friends, died last July. No other agent wants to know, despite my books having been translated into ten languages and - just for a brief time - reached bestseller status. At least one of the agents to whom I applied was decent enough to give me an honest reply. This was, effectively, to 'relaunch' an author who only had a few books left in them because of their age didn't appeal to accountants. The exception would be for a debut author with another, quite separate, reason for attracting publicity. I'm finding it very hard to get motivated. I'm fortunate in that I do have a regular short story spot in a magazine four times a year, which keeps me feeling that perhaps I still am a writer. But most of the time I feel that it's pointless, and as I'm also a reviewer I'm somewhat jaundiced by the content of bestsellers these days.
Dianne Hofmeyr said…
Fascinating and of course so true. I no longer write YA because I don't feel in tune. By the way I don't think that equation quite works for picture books because of the age discrepancy. My percentage was so low as to be abysmal... I shall discount it for my own preservation! :)
Hmm yes, I think we might need another formula for very young readers, or maybe just delete the R/A part for children's fiction where you don't expect your readers to be old enough to publish books themselves? I'm sure there is a good mathematical way to do this (and also to stop the formula coming out with more than 100% for debuts), but since it's all speculation anyway...

This post seems to have sparked off discussion, however, so clearly there is some truth lurking in it somewhere!
glitter noir said…
Thanks of tackling the subject that nobody wants to discuss. It is real. All to real. And one of the saddest things about it is that many many writer grow convinced by lying and spineless rejections that their powers are slipping...when they may be in their prime.

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