Ageism in Publishing

The other day some truly awesome people began talking about ageism in publishing via Twitter. I first heard about it from Ashley Hearn, an editor at Page Street Publishing, but here’s an awesome thread from Susan Dennard, NYT bestseller author of the Witchland series.

I encourage you to get online and read some of the ongoing threads/comments, especially if you’re struggling with this particular pressure.

A lot of writers feel ageism in a variety of ways.

Many feel like they have to have an agent by 20, or a book deal by 25, or become a NYT bestseller by 30. Others expressed the pressure to graduate from a master’s program or have a bazillion short stories under your belt before you submit anywhere else. And the symptoms go on and on.

I get it. I do.

The pressure to be someone sooner rather than later feels as if it getting worse.

In my opinion, ageism has grown over the last decade. I’ve been published since 2007, even before eBooks went on the rise, and never saw ageism the way I see it now. Everyone wants that fresh-faced 20-something straight out of an MFA program with the next best thing. And I think we can all understand that from a marketing perspective, but it is very disheartening from…well, any other perspective.

Why should a book be judged on anything other than the writer’s capabilities?

It shouldn’t be, but we don’t live in a perfect world, so many writers struggle with pressure, anxiety, disappointment, and overall hopelessness, because—let’s be real—aging is out of our control.

I’m not immune to this pressure.

I have this weird obsession with wanting to be a NYT bestseller before I’m 32. Why 32? Who cares. The point being is that I have no logical reason for this, and yet I think about it all the time. And it doesn’t do me any good, especially when I start adding up the “future” years that publishing lives in. What are “future” years, you ask? Well, the years that I know it would take to get something out right now if I miraculously signed with an agent tomorrow.

Here’s an example breakdown: I’m 26, almost 27. Let’s be super kind and say I signed with an agent on my 27th birthday, and somehow another miracle takes place and that agent signs one of my manuscripts within a year. Now I’m 28. And that book is slated for release in another two years. So I’m 30. And let’s not even get into the chances of it hitting any sort of list.

Basically, I’m always living five years in the future, and that age constantly feels like it’s getting worse, and though I logically know that is ridiculous, I can’t help but feel that way, and I know I’m not alone.

It’s SO easy to feel like you’re running out of time. But we’re not. We have every day to try.

With more pressure being added for authors to be public personas—often extremely public personas—the “young” face has been an inevitable repercussion.  

We see extremely photoshopped faces or out-of-date photos used all the time, (which there is nothing wrong with if the author wants their photos that way, but I have heard many authors who felt pressured into it, and that is not okay). One author online pointed out that older authors are less likely to get their photo printed on books, not because they don’t want to, but because publishers don’t want to print them. And that’s super messed up.

Age is a beautiful thing.

With every year, we learn more. We grow more confidence. We step out of our comfort zones and meet new people and try amazing things. Age can bring a lot of positivity to literature and life in general. But don’t get me wrong. Being older doesn’t automatically mean you’re a better writer or understand life more. I know tons of young people who’ve been through much tougher lives than many adults I know. There are fantastic young writers and fantastic old writers and every age of writer in between. But it shouldn’t be a defining factor in publishing. It shouldn’t feel like one either.

So if ageism is getting you down, here is a list of amazing articles about authors succeeding later in life:

11 Writers Who Started Late

Debut Books By Writers Over 40

The Authors Who Prove It’s Never Too Late to Write a Book

Reading conversations about this happening and how others feel has really opened my eyes about how I was perpetuating this by putting age-related goals on my calendar.

This is my pledge to stop putting pressure on myself to reach a certain goal by a particular age.

My age doesn’t define my career. My writing does.

I hope you’ll join me,


48 thoughts on “Ageism in Publishing

  1. I know 2 authors(John Grisham and Dan Brown) who both made it beyond 30 years of age to publish their books,much less pen them. And to think that I thought that nowadays, you have to be the subject of tabloids, scandal and notoriety to even qualify for a book deal without even holding a pen. Just saying! Keep the faith and keep on writing,Shannon!

  2. I’m going to be 38 in about 2 weeks and it feels like I get this a lot. At least two times a week, I’m told that I missed my window and should settle down for a real job before it’s too late. Really wears on the self-esteem and determination. Probably contributed heavily to the panic attacks I’ve been having for the last year. Anyway, I get really frustrated about this because so many authors didn’t make it big until they were older. Terry Pratchett was 37, Jane Austen was 39, William Golding was 41, and the list goes on.

    Just from the way this is brought up with me, I’m guessing it’s because most other jobs have that early entry thing. You get into a ground floor position, work hard, rise up the ranks, and retire in your 60’s. The older you get, the harder it is to accomplish that standard life path. Writing doesn’t function like that at all and people don’t really acknowledge it. There’s no true entry level or retirement age. You just keep banging away with gradual improvement and never give up. Kind of like the video game ‘Dark Souls’, but a lot more brutal.

    1. Oh, man. The “get a real job” comment is such a common comment people in publishing hear, and yet the people who say it will read a hundred books and not consider that they say those things to the very authors they enjoy. It’s really sad. I’m sorry to hear you’ve been having panic attacks this year. If there’s any way I can help, let me know. Thank you also for sharing examples of authors who succeeded after 20. I think it’s important to focus on the fact that the shiny faced 20-something is the exception, not the rule, and supporting one another could help change this pressure in the industry. You also brought up a great point about the world outside of publishing being what it is in terms of aging up in a position, and that could be why so many think publishing works that way, even though it doesn’t. Great conversation as usual, Charles. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

      1. My current favorite is ‘be a technical writer since you like writing’. Not even close to the same thing and I’m out of ways to explain that. I actually found an infographic with the ages, which I put on my most recent post with a link to this post. Couldn’t get it into the comments.

        Thanks in regards to the panic attacks. Much of it comes from pushing myself too hard for too long. I’m getting help, but it’s basically my body and mind having to relearn what’s tolerable stress and what’s big stress. 5 minutes of watching the news has the same tension effect as nearly getting hit by a truck, which is fairly frustrating. Breathing exercises seem to be working though.

      2. OMG. I have heard the same thing a million times. I’ve also heard the, “Well, why didn’t you pursue journalism? That is a real job,” which is hilarious, because yes, journalism is a real job, but many journalists get paid about the same amount as a YA author, not the mention that (again) journalism and creative writing are not the same thing. I was TERRIBLE at journalism in school. In regards to the panic attacks, my heart goes out to you. I have also suffered from panic attacks at various points in my life. They are very difficult, so *hugs* I hope the help you are getting is helping a lot.

      3. I took a journalism course in college and was told to quit before the drop period was over. I was too flamboyant with my word usage and simply didn’t ‘get it’. I’m too much of a creative writer to make the jump.

        Thanks. Fingers crossed on the help too. The world is far too stressful in general, so I’m taking it step by step.

    1. It definitely shouldn’t matter, and I think it’s great that many are talking about it, so that the industry can work at being in a better place. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  3. How about this? I was in my sixties when I wrote my first book. Since I figured I would be planted before I found an agent, I self published. Now that’s ageism! I do know I need to look as young as possible – readers aren’t looking to read a book by someone who looks as old as Methuselah.

  4. I feel very sad reading this, and the comments. All you young people, yes, young people,who are obsessed with getting agents, publishers, best sellers, etc because if you get over 30 it’s too late. That’s rubbish. I, like noelleg44, wrote and published my first book in my 60s. Then I submitted one to a small publisher who accepted it, took over my 3 self published books and I now have 5 books published and another one nearly ready to go.

    1. It is rubbish. Totally agree. But it’s hard to “get over” the pressure, which is why I think it’s great to talk about it and share stories. That way, we can work at making the industry a better place. 🙂 I LOVE your story. Very cool. Thank you for sharing!

  5. People of any age shouldn’t be discouraged to try to find their own writing voice. There is always a story somewhere, waiting to be told, no matter what age the storyteller is. On the plus side, there are so many alternative means to publish coming forth everyday.

  6. I don’t know that I would have been brave enough to even attempt to publish in my twenties (hat’s off to those of you who do). I cared too much about what other peope thought. I might have had more energy to burn the midnight oil then, but a negative review would have sent me reeling. I believe those additional years have enabled me to be more honest in what I put out there, to be more comfortable taking risks, and to come to accept that there is still so much out there for me to learn and improve upon. Overall I believe that makes it a much more rewarding process.

    1. Another great point! Some aren’t ready to pursue publication by a certain age, and that shouldn’t be held against anyone. If anything, we should be excited when an author decides they are ready and willing to get out there, not wondering if their age plays a factor. Looking back, I first published at 16, and I definitely wasn’t ready. Not one bit. But do I regret it? Sometimes. Sometimes I wish I had held off until the publishing world became more accessible and I was more educated (and more mature). But at the same time, I don’t regret it, because I learned a lot and it got me to where I am today. It’s one of those weird gray areas with me. But I try to focus on the fact that it is what it is, and I think it’s best if we celebrate everyone’s unique journey through publishing. We will all make mistakes. We will all choose when we are ready. We are all in this together. 🙂 Thank you for sharing your story about when you decided to publish! You brought up some fantastic points about how rewarding publishing can be, and that is very important.

  7. Once again, Shannon, you’ve touched a nerve and called it accurately. At 56, this is an emotionally charged and important issue to me. Though I have written all my teen and adult life, I have not pursue publishing/writing as doggedly as I should have but instead dedicated my career-life to paying the bills, teaching, and encouraging my students to pursue their post-secondary dreams. Now, at end of my teaching career and wanting to pursue my own more aggressively, the ugly side of this issue–so real, so powerful, so prevalent, almost passive aggressive in nature–drains me of hope. I do my best to ignore it and carry on, but its cultural gravity is so overwhelming and disheartening–twitter, instagram, uninterested key-holders, aloof gate-keepers, the airbrushed profile, the unspoken secret rules of membership. I don’t know what the answer is: Keep on keepin’ on? Don’t stop believing? Eyes on the prize? Carpe Diem? The same tired stuff I tell my students that sounds new to them but flat and hollow from perspective 56? I just don’t know.

    If I’m honest, I DO know that regardless of the issue, I won’t stop writing and telling stories even if I wanted to or thought it was for the best, no more than I can stop breathing or loving my kids. And there it is. Maybe there’s something to be said for knowing, and that no matter what the sub-culture deems important, acceptable or what the key-holder moment is, or how out of reach it might be for me, I can’t stop writing. Does it matter if no one reads them, if it’s more like singing in the shower than performing for an audience? Well…I don’t know–shrug–but I do know: it is what it is. Something about a leopard and its spots, eh?

    Thanks for this post. Truly. It was heartening to hear someone whom I consider to be real, genuine and successful acknowledging the issue. It really, really helped.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, and I’m touched by your comment. You brought up the most important part: in the end, does this issue matter? I mean, yes, of course, in terms of feeling frustrated toward the publication process. But at the end of the day, we love writing, so we write, and we will always have writing, and that means something to us.
      Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  8. Ageism is an excuse marketers use who don’t want to put effort into selling a product; they want a youthful (sexy) face to sell it for them. I haven’t picked up a book and thought, “Well, she doesn’t look pretty enough for me! I’m not reading her book!”

    They perpetuate beliefs such as, “You’re out of touch with youth,” except experiences young adults have are timeless. Furthermore, learning from experience (which takes time, also known as aging), can open perspectives that can be valuable to YA.

    They want the story of success at a young age because it garners attention for a moment. That moment passes, and then it’s on to the next one.

    “Write another book, because this one has sold enough.” Except books can be continually sold for decades — even centuries.

    There are six billion people on the planet. Have six billion people read the book? If not, then keep selling it. Maybe someone lost their copy and want to read it again.

    I think the best thing authors can do is ignore most of the B.S. (belief system) about ageism, and market the book. It is, after all, the book people read, buy, and talk about. Most authors live private lives, and the world I think generally accepts and respects that about authors.

    1. You know, you bring up some awesome points. (Thank you!) I’ve never picked up a book based on someone’s age either. It does seem like a contradiction, especially in YA or children’s, that they want the author to be connected to the youth but in a certain threshold that isn’t that particular age group, or, like you said, they don’t acknowledge that coming-of-age is a universal concept every generation goes through.
      “Ignoring the BS” is the best advice I’ve heard! I whole-heartedly agree. I try to practice this myself, because – at the end of the day – the BS doesn’t do anything for me or my writing. But my level of concentration on my work does. My mental health does. My energy does. And the BS doesn’t help any of that.
      Fantastic comment.
      Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  9. I published my first novel at the age of 26, written when I was 25. Looking back at it now I’m embarrassed by it. I had no insight into character, no insight into relationships and really nothing important to say. I switched careers and spent years writing nonfiction instead. If I ever go back to writing fiction (and I’ll simply mention that I’m considerably older now), what I produce will be deeper, more meaningful, and most importantly will have something to say. You can’t write about life until you’ve lived it.

    1. Very true. Some people have lived a lot by the time they are 26, while many haven’t lived enough, but even then, time can help add more perspectives. Thank you for sharing your story!

  10. Hey Shannon … I arrived here via Chris, the Story Reading Ape’s blog … pleased to meet’cha 😀
    I’m 6 months shy of turning 60, and from this not-even-the-slightest-bit-lofty place let me tell you ‘age’ is irrelevant. Write the best damn story you can, polish it, and publish it, (either yourself or someone else) then turn around and write the next one! 🙂 … throughout it all live a little, or a lot, but don’t let something as ridiculous as our culture’s obsession with ‘age’ limit how you choose to express your Self or your Art.

  11. Oddly enough, I felt the opposite as a 25-ish writer. I didn’t think I had enough experience in life to reflect in my stories. I thought I had nothing important to say. Although older writers encouraged me, and we still remain good friends, it just took me longer to click in with my own voice and find out what I WANTED to say.

  12. I’m 40, published, probably never going to a big house because I would never submit there after what I’ve seen happen to other authors. The desire for bright new things means that if you don’t make it big at the first book, you’re out, more often than not. Big houses want authors who sell themselves and they no longer invest in growing a person or their career. I’d rather be obscure on my own terms and do what I love.

  13. I’m surprised by this post. Not the pressure to be someone at a young age – we all felt that – but the idea that publishers prefer younger authors. Personally, I want to read stories from someone with life experience.

  14. I am so glad I have never let age define anything I have done. I came from another generation, and I have lived a lot of my life; it is all there in my life roadmaps that cover my skin. Seventy-six years young and still standing. It is a fact sort of like the fact that a 100 dollar bill equals 100 pennies worth of something because we say it does. There is nothing in that reality that makes it so; it is what we believe about it. I used to hear people talking about how gold had an “intrinsic value.” Really?? Do the trees value it sitting out there in the rocks or the streams? Do the winds sing about it? Intrinsic? Nothing has intrinsic value unless we make it so. I started writing at 14, and perhaps because I was unconnected with anything else in this world, I had no idea that this was something that people believed in. I listened to my own sound inside, and no one outside me cared what I might hear or think. That is a blessing that I will not forget.

  15. I’m a late bloomer with everything. I went to college when I was 40 and six years later I had a master’s degree in social work. I (semi) retired three years ago and decided to do some writing. So, I took online classes with a university and have self-published two novelettes and a novel. A magazine has published two of my short stories and I am a regular contributor to a university newsletter. I am one of those people who has found success in my later years–and love every minute of it.

  16. I’m 61 and pitching my first book to Agents. Self published a memoir which won an award and received a Kirkus starred review. I have two addition books and a half written non fiction in the pipeline just about print ready. My skin is thick and my aim is focused.

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