Janey Burton

PUBLISHING CONSULTANT

Editor & Contracts Negotiator

 

The short answer is no, certainly you are not too old to publish a first book. I will bet you there’s at least one author, in the list below, who was older than you when their first book was published.

Ten writers who started ‘late’

1. Toni Morrison, winner of multiple awards including the Pulitzer and the Nobel, published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, aged 39.
2. William Golding’s first novel, Lord of the Flies, was published when he was 44.
3. Jean M Auel’s first book, The Clan of the Cave Bear, was published when she was 44.
4. Nina Stibbe was 50 when she was offered a book deal for Love, Nina.
5. Richard Adams’ first book was Watership Down, published when he was 52.
6. Sidney Sheldon was a screenwriter, director and producer, whose first novel was published when he was 52.
7. Mary Wesley was first published at 57, and continued writing fiction until she was 84.
8. Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie series, was 64 when the first was published.
9. Sam Savage was first published aged 65, and he published eight books before his death.
10. Helen Hooven Santmeyer published her first novel Ohio Town aged 67, and she was 88 when her bestseller …And Ladies of the Club, was published.

The longer and more detailed answer is that some of the difficulties that attend writing and publishing a book are greater when you’re young, and others are greater when you’re older.

An obstacle that many will immediately identify is that publishing is not only a competitive business, but a very youth-centric business – show me a creative industry that doesn’t worship youth – and so all the attention seems to go to those debut authors who are young and beautiful and photogenic.

That’s fine, it’s a perfectly rational state of affairs that brings our culture some wonderful writers.

However, in reminding you that publishing is a business, may I also remind you that many people become better suited to business as they get older, when they aren’t beginners at life.

It might even be better to be an older writer

You have experience

In non-fiction, you usually need to know your subject very well, and that knowledge only comes with experience. You might not even be qualified to write a first book about your topic until you’re in your 30s or 40s.

Meanwhile, it would be unusual for a 20-something to publish a memoir, because the writing of memoir tends to accompany enough distance from the events the writer is relating that they can look at them with a certain detachment, and place them in a larger context. Memoirs tend to be better written at a greater age.

In fiction, I dare you to say that the best novels are all by young people. Has anyone ever said something so silly? Of course not, telling a good story is nothing to do with age, and understanding the human condition is by no means the preserve of the young.

Experience helps. As your age increases you encounter more: more people, with differing sets of circumstances, in more situations, and you hear and read and see more stories and make more connections between all these things you’ve encountered. Your perspective is wider. This all goes into your writing.

You have time to change your career

Switching to a new career, or adding to a portfolio career, is neither unusual nor unexpected anymore. Some people realise at age 40 that they always wanted to be a lawyer, and they do the conversion course and the post-graduate legal course and get a training contract and by age 45, they’re qualified and practising as a lawyer.

If they decide at age 40 that it’s too late to change, at 45 they’re still wishing they could be a lawyer, and they’re still 20 years from retiring from the job they have.

You might not resonate with the idea of doing years of academic training – I use the example of qualifying as a lawyer because I happen to know a few people who have done exactly that – but other people start a new business alongside their previous one, or invent a new product, or do shorter courses that add to their skills and allow them to change their focus.

The limit on doing what you want is very rarely your age, but things like money, your other responsibilities, and your willingness to get stuck into something new and keep going at it even when it gets difficult.

There may be practical advantages to starting later

You may have been working for many years by the time you decide to start writing, and this may come with a little more financial stability than a younger person would have. That can really help focus the mind – if you’re not worrying about paying the rent, your creativity gets a chance to come forward.

I said above that publishers do seem to favour youth, but there will be publishers who positively respond to a more mature writer. If they do, you may have more understanding and a more developed approach to the business of publishing, which will help you collaborate effectively with your editor and the marketing department. Authors who seem to understand the business are popular with their publishers, no matter their age.

On the other hand, if they don’t love your book enough to take it on, do you even need a publisher?

If you’ve owned or been managing a business for however many years, it may be thoroughly undaunting to start a new one – except this business is publishing your books.

It may be much clearer to you that if you act as the publisher, you take on the responsibility of investing in the book as a traditional publisher would, as well as receiving the rewards or being responsible for the mistakes. You may be better at assembling and managing the people you need to help you, and either overseeing a workflow that includes editing, cover design, layout, distribution, marketing plan and publicity, or hiring a project manager so you can concentrate on writing the next book.

How to go about it

Manage your expectations

If you’re going for traditional publishing, you’re unlikely to get a massive advance and lots of publicity and attention. Actually, this is true for most authors regardless of age, and can be one of the big disappointments of a publishing industry that relentlessly publishes more and more titles every year.

If you’re an older author though, it might be possible to feel more equanimity about this. Since you’ve done plenty of things already in your life, publishing a book can be another thing you’ve done, another goal achieved, rather than the only thing that matters.

Prioritise

You may have more on your plate than a younger writer, in terms of responsibilities, and therefore will need to make time to write, and then to edit, and then to seek publication. This will not be easy, and may mean delegating some tasks to others in your life in order to make room for something for yourself.

On the other hand, you may well have more stability than a younger writer, in areas such as your relationships and finances. Hopefully, you will also have the discipline to stick to a new project because you’ve learned a lot from all your earlier projects.

Rely on your confidence and drive

You will need to know that, as you’re learning new skills, you will need practice. You won’t write a great book on the first draft. You might need to write a practice book before you write something you can sell.

Going back to being a beginner can be frustrating, particularly if in other areas of your life you are used to being highly competent. But, remember how many times you’ve already learned a completely new thing: having a child, starting a business, making a relationship work. Think of the skills you’ve picked up along the way: household or people management, budgets, diplomacy. Think of your phone! How different and much more complicated is your phone now from the first phone you owned? But you learned how to use it. You can learn about writing and publishing too.

Embrace your community

You’re bound to have some insecurities about embarking on a new challenge, so it’s important to surround yourself with the kind of people who understand. While writing itself is usually a solitary pursuit, there’s plenty of company to be had: from the people you meet while researching, to your fellow writers, to the readers. The writing and publishing communities are vibrant, chatty places, and you can find help and support as well as friendship there. Join writing and reading groups, take an online writing course or sign up to a challenge, learn from others at different stages of their career, and listen to the many publishing professionals who give huge amounts of advice to writers for free.

Enjoy yourself in this new venture, get as much out of it as you can.  Go ahead and get started, and good luck!