Books, writing, and the business of both are frequent topics covered by the former magazine-world hosts and their guests. It’s relaxing, until…
I was jolted from drowsy to dumbfounded last week, ready to throw down. A recently installed senior vice president of a top publishing house was asked a simple question: What writers started late in life?
She paused for a nano second.
“I’m gonna have to check Wikipedia.”
It was stunning in its disregard. And a little shocking. The question didn’t warrant enough seriousness to even pretend to care, the answer relegated to a type of iPhone research one does while waiting for an iced cortado. I’d heard the sentiment before, enough times to wonder why no one even bothers to dig at it.
So I did what every insomniac does at 2:30 in the morning. I Googled. And I learned that the challenges facing second or even third career wanna-be writers might not statistically align with the bleak stories that get told.
Is it difficult getting published after 40? Sure. Is it appreciably more difficult than getting published at 30? Maybe. But the talking points are more definite that the data.
Scan the blogs and it takes about 2.3 seconds to encounter the perpetual theme:
“As difficult as it is to publish a first novel at any age, does it become more difficult as you get older? The honest answer is yes but you can beat the odds.”
Yes? Just yes, and moving on?
All this ageist book-world doom-saying reminded me of the infamous 1986 Newsweek article that flippantly stated that women over 40 had a greater chance of being killed by a terrorist than getting married. The fact that it was never true didn’t stop it from becoming a pop culture flash point, cited constantly even after it was formally retracted. I am, unfortunately for my yet to be realized novelist dreams, old enough to remember this. “It’s not true – but it feels true,” was the sentiment crystalized in Sleepless in Seattle. Say anything enough times and it feels true. It might even start to be true.
So, is publishing a debut novel after the age of 40 (or 50) the lost cause that the internet makes it out to be? Have I already passed my Last Publishable Day?
Time will tell. But in the meanwhile, the story I’m most concerned with is the one that tells non-young women that the door to, not just opportunity, but mere possibility is closed. It gets told with a jokey resignation in the form of encouraging advice embedded into a discouraging landscape. It gets told as insider insight with no one demanding insider accountability. But, like the 1986 Newsweek article, I wonder why it gets told at all, passively, as a that’s-just-the-way-it-is fact.
It’s almost as if we’re complicity cementing ageism into the structure when we should be stripping it out.
The fitness industry was forced to embrace body positivity, a profit driven decision dressed as empowerment. I wonder if the publishing industry, strike that: every industry, and the people that engage with it isn’t overdue for a similar vibe shift when it comes to age?
It can start with a conversation. On a podcast, on a panel. Decision makers should be asked to speak honestly and specifically about age bias and where on that spectrum their bottom line falls: Is it the marketability of a pretty face over the buying power of older women? Does it prioritize the undeniably delicious bravado of a young writer while undervaluing the deep lyricism of experience? Is it the marketing machine that is BookTok against the wordy author chats of NPR? Can the inevitable question on the difficulty of publishing after 40 speak directly to the practices and the people that perpetuate it rather than propose supposed work-arounds (social media!) that help oldies beat the odds?
But the good news? I did hit Wikipedia that night. I learned, among other green light stats, that the average age of bestselling authors is 48. Unlike entrepreneurs who statistically peak between twenty-something and thirty-four, writers of both genders produce best-selling work later in life.
So there it is.
A little hope in the form of a stat. I’ll take it.
I find that age has turned this pessimist into an optimist, against all odds. And that’s what I’m hoping for ultimately, to beat the odds in an industry that reportedly doesn’t hold space for people my age.
I just want my options left open.
What girl doesn’t?
Kathryn Kellinger is the co-author of several cookbooks including The Balthazar Cookbook and the Simple Italian series. She has written on food related topics for Salon, Epicurious and is currently at work on a YA novel about New York City teens as well as a screenplay about their parents. She lives in Manhattan with her chef husband, two daughters, and one King Charles Spaniel.