Writers and Age


Photo credit: Pexels -Vlada Karpovich

By Debbie Burke



A February 2023 article in The Guardian gives hope to us writers of a certain age. According to the story, “older, unpublished writers are now at a premium – with radical, edgy women aged into their 80s particularly sought-after.”

During the economic downturn that began in 2008, mergers and downsizing of publishing companies led to many older, experienced editors being culled to reduce costs. If they were replaced, new hires were younger people willing to work for less money.

Because of that, publishing tended toward a youth-oriented culture. Many agents and editors are Millennials (1981-1996). That led to significant ageism, with older writers being shoved aside unless they were already big-money successes.

I know of one seasoned author who reported a rejection where the agent said, “Your turn is past.”


At a conference several years ago, I pitched a twentyish agent with a book in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series that stars characters in their 50s. In conversation, there was a passing mention of AARP. She authoritatively informed me, “You can’t join AARP at fifty.”

Oh really? That’s news to all the people who receive solicitations to join around their 50th birthday. 

Her incorrect statement was one reason I decided to end the quest for traditional publication and self-publish instead. I didn’t need to fight another uphill battle in the face of arrogant ignorance.

But recently “old” has become cool.

A prime reading demographic are Boomers (born between 1946-1964). They are retiring at increasing rates, have discretionary income to buy books, and time to read them. And they are interested in substantive topics of health, family, giving to others, and quality of life, rather than the celebrity scandal du jour.

Lisa Highton, an associate agent at Jenny Brown Associates, says: “The vast majority of books are bought by women aged 45 and above. They’re a hugely important demographic and increasingly, want to see themselves represented in books.” She adds, there is “value [in] their collected, distilled wisdom, their lifetime of reading and radicalism that is not possible for younger writers.

According to Cherry Potts, Arachne Press, there is a “very willing readership” for the work of older women “including that most elusive of reader: the white middle-aged man”.

Leading the trend are a number of recent bestsellers by older women like the debut novel by Bonnie Garmus, Lessons in Chemistry and The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller. The latter book features characters in their 50s and addresses the long-taboo subject of senior sexuality. 

An 81-year-old friend, Marie F. Martin, just completed her seventh novel, a mystery set in 1952 on a Montana farm. She didn’t start writing until she was 70 and has learned, refined, and honed her craft to a high gloss. The latest is her best book yet.

Marie caught the self-publishing trend early on and did well with six books. For her seventh, she decided to query agents and publishers. Again, she’s on the leading edge of a trend. I hope she’s accepted and achieves success—she’s earned it. But, if not, she won’t be disappointed. She’ll self-publish again. Marie’s equanimity carries her over the rollercoaster of despair and elation that goes with a writing career.

In my last post, Editor/Janitor”, I mentioned retired newspaperman George Ostrom.

Since then, I saw George and his wife having dinner at the senior community where they live. He’s now almost 95 and in declining health. During his long newspaper career, he had a reputation for calling out BS, sometimes to the angry dismay of prominent citizens.

That evening, I went over to their table, introduced myself, and kiddingly asked him, “Are you the Editor/Janitor of the Kalispell Weekly News?” 

An awkward hesitation followed.

Uh-oh. By trying to be funny, had I inadvertently embarrassed him?

“Why?” he finally asked. “Do you wanna hit me?”

To my great relief, his humorous spirit remains intact.

Like wine, writers improve with age. Unlike athletes, writers don’t peak in their 20s and 30s then go downhill.

The longer writers live, the more problems we’ve had to solve, the more fascinating and frustrating people we’ve known, the more experiences we’ve enjoyed or suffered. That huge reservoir adds richness, texture, and depth to the stories we create.

Insight and wisdom are hard-earned. By sharing those gifts with readers in books, articles, and blog posts, writers can shine a light on truths that lead to realization, understanding, and empathy for the human condition. Those truths endure through time.

Take heart, senior writers. Contrary to the rejection cited above, our turn is not past.


TKZers: Have you experienced ageism when submitting to editors and agents?

Who’s your favorite senior writer?




The lead characters in the Tawny Lindholm Thriller series are still kicking ass in their 50s. Please check out the new release Deep Fake Double Down, on sale now at Amazon and other major booksellers.

Delete Naiveté From Your Writing Life

by James Scott Bell

So you want to be a published writer, eh? There’s a group for that. It’s called Everybody.

The group is wildly diverse. It includes traditional types and indie speculators. It is a spectrum that stretches from the pie-in-the-sky hopefuls all the way to the business hardnoses. Today I wish to address the left end of the spectrum, which I call the Naïve Zone. My hope is that you will make the decision to move your caboose to the right.

These thoughts were inspired by an article (which, coincidentally, Kris slash P.J. mentioned in her post of Nov. 5) titled “How to Lose a Third of a Million Dollars Without Really Trying.” In it, author Heather Demetrios recounts what went wrong for her on her way to publishing riches. She admits up front that she didn’t understand the basics of the biz:

If just one person had sat me down when I signed my first book contract and explained how publishing works, how nothing is guaranteed, and how it often feels like playing Russian Roulette with words, I would have made much sounder financial and creative decisions. I would have set a foundation for a healthy life as an artist, laying the groundwork to thrive in uncertainty, to avoid desperation, panic, and bad decisions that would affect me for years to come.

The big mistake this author made (and which many an author over the years has also made) was to assume that a contract with a big advance translated automatically into a secure financial future.

How would my life be different if a fellow writer or someone in the industry had told me that the money I’d be receiving for my advances was absolutely no indication of what I could make on future book deals? What pain could I have avoided if they had advised me not to spend that money as though there would be more where that came from? I suspect I may have avoided a near nervous breakdown and not come so perilously close to financial ruin and creative burnout. But no one came forward.

That But no one came forward gives me pause. Authors bear the responsibility to figure out what the heck goes on—and changes—in this industry. An agent or colleague can help, but ultimately it’s on you to get educated.

So let’s talk about a few lessons to be drawn from this article.

The first is to understand this: A big advance is no guarantee of future results.

I really thought I had made it — forever, not just for a moment. Not for this one book deal. Forever. Otherwise, I reasoned, they would never have paid me such enormous sums. These publishers must be investing in me for the long run. I was one of their own.

Another lesson: Within the walls of the Forbidden City (traditional publishing) you are only “one of their own” so long as you make them money. The Forbidden City is not the family farm. It’s a big business with an unforgiving bottom line.

Next: the rules of personal financial management are not suspended when you get a contract.

After that second advance came through, I stepped into my dream life: I quit my day job to write full-time, moved to New York City, bought $15 cocktails, and learned (with astonishing speed) not worry about prices when ordering at a restaurant. I said yes to travel (often book research I wasn’t reimbursed for), concert tickets, new shoes, and finally being able to buy people the kind of presents I felt they deserved.

Here’s a tip: Do not quit your day job and do not move to New York City. Okay, that’s two tips.

Did I pay off my student loans? No, though I made a few large payments. Did I set money aside for retirement? No. My reasoning was that after the next book I sold, I’d take care of all that.

Bonus tip: Don’t go into student debt pursuing a degree in creative writing, folklore and mythology, theater, or anything with “lit” or “studies” appended to it.

Then there is the marketing part of the biz. Don’t expect your publisher to do the heavy lifting.

My publishers have never made so much as a bookmark for me (though twice they agreed to design them if I paid for the printing). If I wanted to go to a book festival or important industry conference out of town, I had to pay, unless the festival organizer covered the costs, which they rarely do. I couldn’t afford to do that, which meant I was unable to connect with librarians, booksellers, and industry professionals to amplify my books and, thus, my sales.

These days, the author has to do the lion’s share of the work on building a brand and marketing the work. You’ll need a website, an email list, some social media presence, and a whole lot of patience.

Kudos to Ms. Demetrios for opening up about her mistakes. To avoid them:

Learn the basics of a book contract. You can start here.

Learn the basics of book marketing. You can start here.

Learn the basics of managing money. You can start here.

Learn the basics of mental toughness. You can start here.

Well, we didn’t have time to go into the other option, self-publishing. Suffice to say naïveté is no excuse here, either. So before you take the plunge I suggest you read the articles posted on this page over at Joanna Penn’s site.

Speaking of plunges, and knowing that building a writing career of any sort takes years, which option is best for a writer long term? I’ll have some thoughts on that in a couple of weeks.

So what lessons have you learned, TKZers, that you can pass along to writers who enjoy wearing rose-colored glasses?

Advice to Traditionally Published Authors

alice-in-wonderland-29904_1280I have a number of writing friends who are in one phase or another of a traditional career––still in it, sometimes hanging by a thread, a few dropped by their publishers. These friends all started in the “old system.” You wrote a book, got an agent, signed with a publishing company. Getting invited inside the walls of the Forbidden City was the only game in town.

Of course, that’s all changed. The indie revolution that began in earnest in 2008 has grown from healthy baby to active toddler to good-looking adolescent. It’s driving the family car now. It has some acne, sure, but the teeth are good and the body sound.

From time to time I’ll hear from one of my friends, asking for advice about which way to go. They may be near the end of a contract, or in new talks offering them lower advances and tighter terms. Here is some of what I tell them.

  1. Traditional publishing is still a viable option 

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of traditional publishing are greatly exaggerated. Yes, trad pub is in the throes of reinvention due to digital disruption. That process is slow, as it is for any large industry facing a shifting infrastructure. Rapid innovation has never been the strength of large industry. But they’re trying.

Traditional companies are also the only way to distribute print books widely into physical stores, including big boxes and airports. If that’s where you want your books to be then traditional publishing is your best shot.

Just understand that your shot is getting increasingly long. Because big bookstores are closing. There is tighter shelf space within those stores. Big boxes and airports are ordering fewer books, and therefore sticking with the big names like Lee Child and Janet Evanovich. While there has been a nice resurgence in independent bookstores, they can’t replace what’s being lost when a major chain store closes.

  1. I understand your anxiety

Being with a traditional house provides a level of security. When you’ve been working with the same people for a long time, there’s a comfort level. When you’re used to the system—editorial, design, distribution, marketing—the thought of switching to a place where you have ultimate responsibility for these things can be nervous time.

Many writers just “want to write,” and not worry about all that other jazz.

My advice is: don’t let anxiety be the tail that wags you. Think back to when you wanted to break in the first time. How nervous were you pitching to an agent? Getting rejected? Wondering if you had what it takes? Eventually, you broke through. You can do it if you go indie, too, because you have the added benefit of a track record. You know what you’re doing as a writer. You have readers who will follow you.

Writers always operate with a certain degree of fear. The trick is to translate anxiety into action, with a rational plan for where you truly want to be.

  1. Don’t think of traditional publishing as your nanny

Trad pub is about the bottom line, because it has to be. You can’t stay in business unless you make a profit. Publishers have to stay in business, and they will treat you with that in mind.

I tell my writing colleagues that a publishing company is not your nanny. If you don’t make them money they are not going to coddle you, make you breakfast, or tuck you in at night. There will continue to be very nice (albeit overworked) people within the company, who like you and want you to succeed. But it is the counter of beans who will determine your future at said company.

Now, if you’re making midlist money and your publisher continues to offer it, you may want to stay right where you are. One successful indie author misses several things about traditional publishing. Have a look here.

Fight for a fair non-compete clause.  Your business partner owes you that.

But you should also learn to sing “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” like the orphans in Annie. I have several writing friends who have been “orphaned” over the years when their editor-advocate within a company moved on or was let go.

  1. Traditional contracts are tight

Traditional publishers are taking fewer risks these days. This is reflected in contracts many writers and agents find particularly onerous. Which is why the Authors Guild is calling for fairer terms. It’s a lovely thought. But it is slamming up against harsh reality. Big publishing simply cannot afford to be overly generous or induced to easily revert assets (i.e., books) back to authors.

It’s business. I hold no animus for a corporation that is trying to stay in business.

But you are in business, too. So be educated about contracts. Work with your agent on the terms you can live with, and those you can’t.

In a lengthy piece on this topic, Kristine Kathryn Rusch wrote:

[W]riters need to know what they’re up against.

They’re not signing up for a partnership with a production and distribution company like they had in the past. Mostly, these days, writers are signing with an international entertainment conglomerate that wants to exploit its assets for as long as possible…

When writers do business with an international entertainment conglomerate, they should be prepared to walk away from what initially looks like a good deal. Because, in most cases, the writers will lose the right to exploit that property themselves for the life of the copyright.


  1. Know your risk tolerance

Thus, what you really need to assess, right now, is your own risk tolerance. Are you willing to walk away from a sure, albeit smaller and more restrictive contract? Can you do without an advance? Do you have the patience it will take to build up an indie publishing stream?

You are taking a risk either way. Traditional publishing is a wheel of fortune. When you pay to play, you’re hoping your book will be the one on the wheel that comes up the big winner. If it does, it could be worth millions. It could be the next Harry Potter or The Fault in Our Stars or Gone Girl.

That’s what you’re playing for—a #1 bestseller slot, the movie deal, the airport placement, the Today Show appearance.

Of course, this sort of fortune happens to very, very few. Books that deserve to be there don’t ring the bell. Yes, your book could be the one, which is what lottery players say to themselves every time they walk into a liquor store or gas station mini-mart.

If you play and your books don’t make it, the cost may be several years of your writing life and possibly no reversion of rights. So be rational about your gambling. If you are you willing to risk all that for a spin of the wheel, then get the best terms you can and good luck to you.

  1. Know your freedom and creativity valuation

But here’s another thing to consider: how much do you value the freedom to write what you want to write and to publish when you are ready to publish? To try a different genre and not worry about branding restrictions and non-compete clauses?

Do you want to be creative more than you want to be secure?

Another thing: if you decide to stay traditional, you at least need a footprint in the indie world. Work with your agent and publisher about non-competing, short-form work to grow your readership.

It all comes down to making the decision YOU want to make, without letting a thousand anxious thoughts hack away at your dreams. So listen to counsel and advice. Talk things over with your agent, your spouse, your talking cat. Pray, if you believe there is divine benevolence.

How Make Living Writer-online coverJust don’t wait for certainty, because the only constant is change.

Traditional publishing will stick around and try to find its way forward. Indie publishing will continue to grow and diversify, and new options for writers who own their rights will appear. This requires constant vigilance and business savvy, which some writers don’t like. Don’t be afraid. The principles of success are not difficult to understand and implement. I wrote a whole book about that.

Whatever you decide, keep writing. I love what one of my favorite Hollywood writer-directors, Preston Sturges, once said. He was riding high in the early 1940s with a string of hits that still shine today. But he knew Hollywood careers are transient. “When the last dime is gone,” he said, “I’ll sit on the curb with a pencil and a ten-cent notebook, and start the whole thing all over again.”

As long as you write, you’re never out of the game.

Will One Bad Book Ruin Your Career?


I’ve never quite believed that one chance is all I get. – Anne Tyler
Back in the early days of sound movies, a handsome but unknown actor caught a huge break. He was cast as the lead in a sprawling Western epic under the helm of a well-known director. The studio began grooming the kid for stardom.
But The Big Trail tanked at the box office. So the studio cut the young actor loose. He was, as they say, “damaged goods.”
The only place he could go after that was “Poverty Row.” These were low-rent studios churning out B and C grade pictures, most of them real stinkers. Here the actor labored for years. In 1937 this actor made yet another B Western, Born to the West. I watched the film recently. It is, without doubt, one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.
And the actor? A bit stiff and prone to goofy smiles. So add another floperoo to this guy’s resume. No way the actor, Marion Morrison, was ever going to be a star. Perhaps you know him better by his professional name, John Wayne.
But did these bad films ruin his career? Not when the right role and director came along. The role was the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach directed by the great John Ford in 1939. John Wayne knocked it out of the park.

I bring up the Duke as an object lesson for writers. If you go to a writing or publishing conference these days you’re likely to hear an industry insider say something like: “Self-publishing is not always the right move for a writer. Be very wary about doing it. One bad book can ruin your career.”
Indeed, this sentiment was expressed by an agent/panelist at the recent PubSmart conference. The omni-present Porter Anderson was, of course, covering it, and notes:
And in the course of the panel’s comments on self-publishing and how it can play into an author’s career, [agent Brandi] Bowles offered the opinion that if one self-publishes a book and it doesn’t do well in terms of sales, then some publishers might look askance at that disappointment if asked to consider publishing that author.
Bowles is joined by others in the more traditional corridors of the industry! the industry! in suggesting that if there’s a chance that self-publishing could make an author appear to be “damaged goods” to a publisher, then self-publication is, at least, a very serious option, a route not to be taken lightly.
This sparked outrage from at least one self-publishing attendee, who turned a mealtime with Porter into a persistent pronouncement of publishing pique.
So let’s step back and analyze.
In the “old days” (i.e., before 2007), a book’s success or failure had only one metric: physical copies sold (a rare exception would be made if there was massive critical approval in the right places). If a book tanked, those low sales numbers became a scarlet letter sewed onto the author’s jacket. Indeed, many potential long-term careers got nipped in the bud because a large advance was shelled out and dismal sales made recoupment impossible. That’s when an author could get slapped with the label “damaged goods.”
In those same old days, the only option after such failure was to go to publishing’s Poverty Row, smaller companies with fewer dollars and less distribution. Or the writer could give up the dream entirely. Getting another shot a the “big time” was usually out of the question.
I believe this is the context in which the agent made the above statement. But that context has now been significantly altered.  
First of all, the term career no longer applies only to getting published by a big, traditional company. Purely self-publishing careers are being established on an ever-increasing basis.
But let’s assume your dream is getting signed by one of the Big 5. If you self-publish a book, and it doesn’t sell a lot, you are still making readers. If the book gets good reviews, you are making a reputation. That’s all to the good.
If, on the other hand, your book gets hammered, you can always take it down. You can come back and try again. And again. Just like John Wayne.
Then, should you come up with a killer concept and you have continued to work on your writing chops, your self-publishing credits will not be a deal-breaker. Traditional publishers know (at least the ones who will survive know) that their distribution and marketing systems are different and can be exploited anew for the author who has learned his trade in the trenches.

Have you ever found yourself holding back because of fear of failure? Then listen to what the Duke might have told you: “You think you’ll have a career without taking some risks? That’ll be the day. Keep writing, Pilgrim, and give it your best shot every time out.”