Thursday 13 January 2011


The other day, Catdownunder blogged about her distress at being told by a publisher that her age (dunno, don' care),  location (Adelaide), and the fact that for various reasons she would not be able to do much publicity, meant that she should forget the idea of being published. Several of us, myself included, waded in indignantly, although there were one or two commenters agreeing with the publisher.

Now, allowing for the fact that Cat probably paraphrased the guy slightly, so his actual words might have been a little less stark, was he right? Or was I right to say, very rudely, and for which I actually do apologise, that he was talking out of his arse?

The reason I said that was that, without seeing her writing, he is wrong to say that she should forget the idea of ever being published. If Cat really wants to be published and if she is good enough and if she goes about everything the right way and has written a wonderfully publishable (that's to say "sellable") story, there is no reason for her to forget the idea. It is her writing which will be the deciding factor. Not her age or location or her ability to promote. I'm not going to rehash the examples of people getting published at an older age; and promotion can be done from an armchair, or at least a desk, so that's a nonsense.

However, there is a very big however.

I regret to say that there is some truth in what the publisher said, in the sense that there are some reasons why age and inability to do active promotion will make publication harder. Certainly not impossible, and certainly not so much harder that someone should be told to give up, but harder. Statistically. And therefore, perhaps the guy was only trying to protect Cat from statistically more likely disappointment. But, statistically, most people of any age who approach publishers with an MS won't get published. Because most MSS are pure shite. Most MSS are so far from publishable that you'd really need to blindfold the monkeys before you put them in front of the type-writer. I'm not being horrible: I've seen this stuff. So maybe everyone should be told to give up, based on statistics.

So, what about the truth in what the publisher said to Cat? Because it's important and he wasn't talking completely out of his arse.

Part - most - of the problem is prejudice. But it's a prejudice that exists and we have to deal with it. Also, the prejudice is based on some realities:
  • Older people will tend, statistically, to have less of a career ahead of them
  • and be less able to be energetic in self-promotion (though NOT necessarily)
  • and be less marketable. Sorry. (Sometimes, however, they are more marketable, so a good publisher with a sensible marketing dept who really believe in the book will just have to use their imagination and skills. Marketable means sellable, remember, so we need to be able to inspire trust in the reader. Some older writers in some genres can do this even better than younger ones. But some can't. It comes down to many intangibles, chemistry if you like.)
However, no one, even prejudiced people, would say that all older writers are going to be less good at the promotion and have less of a career ahead of them than all younger writers. Therefore, it is not a brick wall that you face, more of an icy slope. It's just harder. So you have to work harder, be nicer, better, cleverer, more savvy. All of these things are possible at any age.

In short, therefore, if you are older, you have to be better. Just as many types of people in many professions have to try harder, be better, in order to overcome prejudice. Be a better writer and more savvy, more willing to be imaginative. And that's why the guy was mainly wrong to say what he said to Cat, because if her book is good enough and if she does all the right things to submit it and if she finds ways around the problems of not being able to do some types of promotion, there is no reason why she can't get her book published at 50, 60 or 70. Or 80. It just gets harder. And remember: most other professions are much harder or impossible to enter when we're older. As writers we're luckier in that sense.

Here are my tips if you're approaching publication on the wrong side of 50 (age pulled out of air):
  • Take extra care to keep up with what's being published in your genre NOW - don't fall back on what you were reading 20 years ago.
  • Don't tell your age until you need to. It does not need to be in your submission. If your style of writing in your letter reveals your age, then there's something dated about your style of writing and it is THAT which will stop you being published.
  • When you do tell your age - when the agent or publisher asks - accompany that information with several reasons why it won't be a barrier to promotion: you have connections with schools (if you're a kids' writer) or libraries and bookshops; you already do public-speaking; you have a platform already and know how to use it. Actually DO something that proves you'll be great at this.
  • Make sure you are digitally very connected. Use blogging, Twitter and/or Facebook. 
  • Make sure you understand everything that's going on in publishing: be an expert and sound like one.
  • If you are writing for children, make sure your writing voice has kept up with the times: I'd actually say that older (by which I mean perhaps 70 plus) writers and children's writing are the toughest combination. Eva Ibbotson is a rare example of someone who continued to stay fresh-voiced until her lamented death last year.
  • Just be better.
Oh, and Cat, you told me that Australian writers aren't known outside their own country. Not so! Two of my favourite children's writers are John Marsden - try Letters from the Inside - and Ian Bone - I adored The Song of an Innocent Bystander. And then there's the fabulously internationally successful Sonya Hartnett. Don't create barriers where there are none. And where they are, or where they are higher, just jump higher.

Anyway, the bottom line is: writers write. Keep writing until you don't want to or you can't. Regard that publisher's comment not as a barrier but a challenge.


    Dan Holloway said...

    OK, I will comment a second time once I've read the whole thing. Talking out of his arse is polite, Nicola.
    There's also a confusion of issues. If someone is not available (for many very good reasons in many cases) for publicity, how can their age *possibly* have anything to do with anything, even if it ever did, which it didn't.

    For a large publisher, I don't get it.

    For a small publisher (or one that needs an electron microscope to see it like me - at least three of my writers are avowed recluses who will never be able to do publicity for a variety of reasons. So what?), there are so many inventive ways of getting the word out. And if readers "want a piece of" an author, there are ways around that too, from podcasting readings using an actor, to discreetly conducting some insightful but non-invasive online interviews, to teasing with extracts, to actually creating a website with genuinely knock em dead material yourself rather than relying on your writers to do it.

    Worst of all, this kind of answer is disingenuous. If what they mean is "but for your age and unavaillability your writing would be publishable" that's, certainly in the UK, plain borderline illegal. If what they mean is "I'm not sure about your writing, oh and there's this other thing", then FFS just focus on the writing

    Vanessa Gebbie said...

    Spot on. It's a spur to show him he is wrong. Maybe it was meant kindly - to stop Cat the sadness of harbouring unfeasible dreams - but as you say, it CAN be done. And your advice, Nicola is absolutely spot on as always. Blogging, facebooking, networking, are all so important - and one's efforts, if a manuscript is deemed OK - are noticed by publishers, believe me.
    Speaking from experience. (Aged 58 and a half, grandchild due in Feb...wheee!)

    Sarah Callejo said...

    I hadn't thought about maximum age limits.
    At a talk last year, the speaker said something like you have to be older than 35 to be a proper writer. I think she meant you have to have lived lots of experiences to be able to enrich your writing, but I think it all depends on the subject and tone of your book.

    So in any case, Cat has the experience in life younger writers won't have.

    Kate Morton is Australian too and she's well known. I loved her book The Forgotten Garden.

    Dan Holloway said...

    "it's a prejudice that exists and we have to deal with it."
    I disagree. The "we're only reflecting our customers" argument has been used too many times in too many spurious ways. Yes, you have to give customers what they want, but we don't live in a 100% free market economy, and some wants are "considered" wrong by society or the state. It is not the business of businesses to serve those.
    btw, where did my last comment go? Is it harder to get a comment approved on blogger if you have a beard?

    Fiona Joseph said...

    Great post Nicola. I think you nailed the issue when you talk about not being able to do "some types of promotion". Yonks ago when I was setting up a business I read a terrific book which advised choosing the form of marketing best suited to you, your personality and circumstances. Some people are happiest communicating via the written word - in which case they should concentrate on writing press articles, blogging, building relationships through online social networking, etc - but other people love speaking. They can do all the book signings, speaking engagements and so on.
    It certainly doesn't have to be a barrier if someone is unable or unwilling to get around physically. Good luck to Cat. It'll be a sweet moment when she proves her Mr Doomsayer wrong!

    Caroline said...

    How old is Cat for goodness sake? This post makes it sound as if she's 90!
    50 is the new middle age and 'mature' writers abound with lots of life experience and wisdom to feed their work. I don't believe many publishers/agents will be as biased, and yes, who includes their age in their covering letter (unless it's autobiography - then it's relevant)

    Carole Blake said...

    Good points well made. I have sold first novels by writers ranging in age from 16 to 72 at the time of the sale. It's not easy - but selling first novels isn't easy whatever the age of the writer. And I have Australian clients. Writers shouldn't be discouraged by generalisations thrown out at random: I believe generalisation is often the enemy of truth.

    none said...

    Another antipodean writer known well outside his home--Garth Nix.

    There are problems with getting published in Australia. I hear about them from Australian friends. It's hard to get the books needed to keep up with your genre. No amazon.Aus. Not many home-grown publishers. Few literary agents.

    The problems are real. They're not insurmountable, but the mountain to climb is probably higher than, say, here in the UK.

    sheilamcperry said...

    As someone who is definitely at the 'wrong' side of 50 chronologically (but who considers it the right side for many reasons) I must admit that I have thought about this quite a lot. The conclusion I have come to, fairly reluctantly, is that I do not have enough time remaining in my writing life to wait around for publishers to decide I am worthy, so I would be far better to do it myself, especially in this era of Kindles and different ways of getting stories to readers. I realise this goes completely against almost everything Nicola has been saying and even against my own instincts, but sometimes I find it is best to accept things as they are and deal with them, instead of continuing to bang your head against a brick wall.

    Colette Martin said...

    As always, great (and sane) advice!

    Julie P said...

    I agree with what people are saying. Surely the writing should speak for itself regardless of the age or ability to publicize of the author. I know in this world where celebrity is the holy grail, appearance/how you present yourself is all important, but there have to be ways of publicising books differently from the usual meet and greet and book signings. We live in the age of technology - have computer with Internet access will promote book!

    I haven't got to the stage yet of sending my ms out there, but I will be by the summer. I hope it's not a load of shite but one never knows until one tries! That was the opinion of one publisher. Can Cat not try other publishers? I wouldn't let the views of one publisher put me off - I'd take on board what they said, but a comment like that would be more likely to make my push on and keep sending my ms out. I like a challenge!

    Julie (age irrelevant!)

    Anne Gallagher said...

    Well, being just this side of 50, and not being able to do much live promotion (for physical reasons) I'm hoping that word-of-mouth will sell my book.

    That seems to be the biggest promotional thing you can do, for any writer. Books don't generally get read unless we talk about them.

    As for telling poor Cat she's too old, well, he's just losing one of the best writers he could have ever found. His loss. And I'm sure if anyone found out who he is, he'd have a lot less queries in his inbox. Ageist fart!

    Nicola Morgan said...

    Thanks, all for your comments. I think it's important to recognise that publishers can and will take decisions for any reasons, good or bad. Dan, I do absolutely think we have to recognise any prejudices that exist. Yes, we can and should try to shift those prejudices, but they ARE there and the best way to fight them is to show that they are silly, to show that age need not matter in publishing.

    We also have to remember that different authors and different publishers want different outcomes and have varied ways of measuring success. If we don't much care about volume of sales, we can't expect a commercial publisher / agent to take us on if they can't see those sales happening, whether age or anything else is the reason. But if age might be percieved as a barrier - and it's worth our being aware that it might sometimes raise the bar - then the only sensible recourse is to prove that it won't be.

    So, I think that the publisher should not be slated TOO much. He came to a wrong conclusion, yes, but he spoke as he saw. I have heard other publishers and agents say similar. (Though I'm delighted that carole Blake is not one of them!) The only true conclusion is, as I said, that it's HARDER when you are "of a certain age". So, write better.

    Buffy - I accept that you may be right. I do know of Australian writers with UK agents, who are published first in the UK/US.

    Anne - "word of mouth" - very tricky to achieve, so very very good luck!

    Nicola Slade said...

    Great post, Nicola, with a lot of valid points. First of all, it CAN be done, I was 62 when my first novel came out and my 4th ('Murder Fortissimo') is out end of this month. But although I keep quiet about my age (totally irrelevant) I'm not above playing the Granny card if I think it will be useful. It does work too, used judiciously, and I've done a few talks on the back of that, all of which leads to some sales and definitely some library borrowings, which is all to the good.

    Promotion is hard anyway when your publisher, though enormously reputable, is also a small independent family business, so you have to grasp at any promotional opportunities that crop up. And I do, whole-heartedly.

    Queenie said...

    Cat, if you're reading, here are some of the Australian novelists whose work I love: Alan Marshall, Thomas Keneally, Trudi Canavan, Murray Bail, Karen Miller. (As you can see, I have eclectic tastes. Couldn't get on with Peter Carey, though.)

    Nick Cross said...

    Well said, Nicola, and I think it's easy to see how this could extend outwards to issues of say, beauty or presentation skills. Writing should be something that is open to anyone, unlike film acting or politics. Indeed, I know of many people who have taken up writing precisely because they have an illness or physical issue that prevents them from doing other types of work. There are so many weapons in our promotional arsenal now and hopefully the more enlightened publishers can already see that.

    Anonymous said...

    The only people who've ever asked my age are local newspaper reporters who seem obsessed with knowing it as if it's a box that you have to be filed in. I don't think age matters unless it has some impact on your work and I think that writers get better as they grow older - at least I hope so!

    David John Griffin said...

    I flippin' well hope age isn't a factor for being published in my case (I'm 57 this year) otherwise I'm doomed; doomed, I tell you!


    Hart Johnson said...

    This is so funny--I will have SO MUCH more time to devote to promotion when I retired (more that 2 decades from now, so hopefully I can retire on writing income first, but if not...) so the promotion thing seems SILLY to me provided the writer has kept up.

    John Marsden is also on my list of favorites (the Tomorrow series), but in my own genre, so is Kerry Greenwood who writes sassier than Cozy mysteries that are SO FUN--I actually have a series planned that is emulating her tone)

    catdownunder said...

    Miaou! I went off for the nightly catnap before this appeared so I am a little late but definitely not ungrateful. Thankyou very much for taking the time and trouble to write this Nicola.
    Dan, age discrimination is illegal here too - but it happens.
    Yes, you have to be (more than) good enough to begin with. That applies to everyone. After that I think it is a complex issue that may, in part, depend on the people you approach as well as what you have to offer.
    It needs more thinking about but I just wanted to say first up that I have read this, appreciate it and all the comments. Thankyou.

    Whirlochre said...

    Since when did shiny teeth figure in the whole shunned recluse scenario?

    Or writers' meagre stationery budgets feature the column, FORTHCOMING TOTAL FACIAL LEVITATION JOB?

    Technically, embryoes have "career potential" but I can't think they have a great deal to say.

    As for availability, if it's the case that anyone can use the internet to find out how to manufacture a bomb and detonate it to maximum effect, the considerably easier and more popular concept of writing and sharing a novel ought to be a doozy.

    And for writers of a certain age intent on making personal appearances, there's always the bus pass. Or beguiled grandchildren with cars.

    Anonymous said...
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
    Elen C said...

    Whoa, Jonathon, easy now.
    I think the point that someone upstream made about having time is a really interesting one. I am now multiply-published and have a solid readership - yay! BUT, I also have a day job that I do 4 days a week for financial reasons. Which means that if I am to do in-person promotional work, then I have to use annual leave. Obs my family don't like me using all my AL for writing, so in actual fact I can only do about 2 weeks a year (spread over the year). Considerably less than a retired person could do.
    And no one has mentioned Simmone Howell, one of the best YA writers around imo.

    Nicola Morgan said...

    Apologies for any confusion but I have just removed a comment. Everyone is entitled to their opinion but I felt that a part of the comment was likely to be offensive. In fact, I know it was as I'd already had some feedback. Eveeryone is entitled to opinions but I just choose not to have my blog the scene of discord that isn't actually relevant to writing.

    I will come back and put the acceptable part of the comment back up and respond to the points made later - for now I have to dash out and am going to be late!

    catdownunder said...

    I am still "meowsing" on all this. There is a lot to think about - I am NOT, NOT, NOT giving up.
    Am going to hopefully not embarrass Nicola but have to say she is amazingly supportive.
    Queenie - don't get along with Peter Carey either but find him a tad more readable than Patrick White! (Might need to blog about that!)

    Anonymous said...

    Hmm, perhaps I should just write the best book I can. Then hire a body double.

    Kath McGurl said...

    I'm on the wrong side of 50 and looking forward to being on the right side in a few years time - all that extra life experience to feed into my writing!

    Great post, Nicola, and may I join the cheerleaders for Cat - you go, girl, and stuff the ageist publisher. If your writing's good enough and you try hard enough you'll get published.

    Ebony McKenna. said...

    As you know, Nicola, I am in deepest, darkest Melbourne. Australia. That didn't deter my agent in the UK from taking me on, nor a publisher, also in the UK, from getting right behind my books.

    BUT - many, many years ago I had an agent who was located in Adelaide. He was making some good sales with New York publishers - but he wasn't as far as I know, having face to face meetings with them. So his location was a deterrent to him being able to do business.

    This was many years (and many unpublished books) ago.

    The only way location can possibly matter is if you're so isolated you don't have internet access and can't get on line.

    And age . . . well, I don't think it matters a jot. Neither my agent nor publisher even asked.

    As just about everyone has said here in various ways - it's about the quality of the writing, not the age or location of the writer.

    Mimi Foxmorton said...

    Extremely informative...and true!
    Being on the wrong side of 50 I look forward to following and learning! :)
    Stay Creative!

    ps. My 'favorite' rejection was for a pirate was deemed: "too piratey".......

    And my greatest disppointment was to finally receive an acceptance letter for my 'Pirates Don't Eat Waffles' then, when having done all the required work-bio, marketing plan, budget etc-just never heard from them again whilst 'Waffles' swings in the wind. Perhaps they didn't like my author photo...... ;)

    Long, twisty road, eh?
    But we write because we have to!

    broken biro said...

    Excellent advice for writers of any age, I'd say... but you have reminded me that time is ticking on... this year, this year!

    Nicola Morgan said...

    Hello all - am back with that deleted comment. Let me put it below without the offensive bit:

    J said: "I have to disagree with you. A publisher is making an investment in you. They want the very best investment possible. An older person is never going to be that investment. [deleted....] I say quit wasting your time and the time of agents etc and let the people who can do ALL the job get on with it. You are just being selfish. I know that sounds harsh bit it's life. Get used to it."

    I think this commenter has missed the point of the post, almost to the extent that I wonder if he didn't read it. I made clear that it's hard for anyone to get published, harder for anyone with any situation which makes their books harder to sell; but all the barriers are only bar-raisers, apart from not being able to write, which is the genuine barrier.

    Anyone is at liberty to give up. If you want to give up, you should. But if you're a good enough writer, you have as much right to keep trying and to succeed as anyone. No one has the right to be published but everyone has the right to try. It's the book that counts and nothing else.

    As Ebony says, "The only way location can possibly matter is if you're so isolated you don't have internet access and can't get on line." And her own success is really interesting.

    Mimi - thanks for joining us. I laughed at the idea of a pirate story being "too piratey"! One thing concerned me a little - you talked about being accepted and then the publisher asking you about a budget? Did I get that right? An author doesn't contribute to costs so i'm a bit worried that you were asked and I would suggest you are better off out of such a situation, unless you've chosen to self-publish, which is different.

    Helen V. said...

    As someone on the other side of fifty I am well aware of ageism - and I should say that as I live in Perth, Western Australia, isolation from major centres is a serious factor - but I met up a local children's author in Perth last month. She is well into her seventies and began writing when she retired. She is published by one of the big publishers - her second book is just out - and no-one seems to have a problem with either her age or her distance from big centres. I caught up with her at a book signing - who knew someone past retirement age can do book signings! - and her first book was published when she was already over seventy.
    It all comes down to the book, I think, and in answer to J's comment I have to add the 'job' is not to be able to provide a publisher with an endless supply of money making fodder. The 'job' is create something that people want to read, has something to say and to put in whatever effort is needed to sell it - and if that only happens once with one product, well, that's the way it is. There are inventors who only make and sell one successful invention and scientists who make only one breakthrough but that doesn't make what they achieve any less valuable and that they shouldn't profit from it. They've done the something worthwhile and the same applies to writing. The chances are though that it won't be just one book and both author and publisher will enjoy a profitable association.

    Melinda Szymanik said...

    It seems a little arrogant for that man to imply he speaks for the entire industry when he says age and location rule out a career in writing for Cat. If all writers stopped submitting after receiving the negative opinion of one publisher where would we be? His opinion is just that. The biggest barriers are the ones we put up in our own minds. I will stop pursuing my dreams when I am dead and not before.

    catdownunder said...

    Purrowling back in to say just a little more. First up, thankyou to several people (you know who you are) who visited my blog and put supportive comments there. Also, thankyou to the people who put supportive comments here.
    Melinda, I suspect you are right about "arrogant". I should have recognised that at the time.
    Nicola - tapadh leat!

    Ebony McKenna. said...

    Booyah! Nicola said I'm successful!

    dances a jig.

    And I completely disagree with the edited comment from J about age being against you. Publishers often don't know how old you are anyway.

    Your writing is what people care about, not your age.

    BUT - he is right in that writers are selfish. I am very selfish in that I make time to write and keep at it and let other things slide so I can write more. It's time by myself, lost in my own world. It's selfish and it's wonderful.

    adele said...

    Agree with all you say,Nicola and will add to the roster of illustrious Aussie writers the wonderful Cassandra Golds whose novel THE MUSEUM OF MARY CHILD (children's book for everyone of any age) still hasn't found a publisher over here though it has done very well in Australia. If you can get hold of a copy over the internet I urge you to do so. It's not like any other book. Marvellous.

    As for age, I'm over 65 and not quite ready to give up yet, though I do acknowledge that most of my career is now behind me. Still, I have dreams of one day becoming a Barbara Cartland-like figure in my ancient decrepitude. I'll lie on a sofa in pink chiffon and pearls and dictate to a willing secretary!! :)

    Geoffrey Fox said...

    Boy, after reading this, I'm sure glad I'm still young (not yet 70) and located in such a major metropolis as Carboneras (pop. 7,000) in sunny southern Spain. Those advantages must explain the strong sales of my first novel, A Gift for the Sultan which will soon appear also in translation by a major Turkish publisher. I don't know what I'd do if I were old and remotely located.

    Nick Cross said...

    Adele, most of your career is behind you only because you have been writing so well for so long. Therefore I would consider it more a quirk of mathematics than anything. Keep going - I look forward eagerly to your Barbara Cartland phase!

    cherry said...

    I'd love to agree with comments made on the lines of: it's the quality of writing that counts.

    However, two agents working within a London agency were excited about a book I subbed. One of them worked with me on the full to polish it and, convinced that it was very sellable, advised me to begin writing a sequel. All was going well, with an agency agreement almost in place, until the agency boss wanted to know my age.

    Given that I was considered too old to be represented by that agency, it seemed cruel of them to waste several months of my precious time.