Monday, December 08, 2008

Is there ageism in Publishing?

A while ago I received an anonymous email asking me if I thought there was ageism against older authors (let's say over 55), in publishing, specifically in middle grade and young adult fiction. From how the question was asked, it was clear that the author thought the answer was yes, and that she had experienced it first-hand.

My first instinct was to say no, because 99.9% of the time I'm reading manuscript submissions, I don't know the age of the author. Even if the author gives some hints in the cover letter (for example, by saying that he or she is a retired librarian), it wouldn't affect my judgement, because I don't generally read the cover letter before reading the manuscript. It's hard to say for sure, but I'd like to think that even if I did know an author's age, it wouldn't affect me either way, because it's the writing that I fall in love with.

However, the one time I have seen the author's age make a difference is in an auction situation when we're deciding whether we want to compete with other publishers for a project. When we make an aggressive offer on a project, we're looking to make an investment in the author's career--generally, we're not looking to publishing "one-off" books. And if we feel that the author may not have more than one or two books in them, we might not think it's worth the investment. However, I can't imagine that this would come into play unless an author was over, say, 75 or so.

An author's age may also make a difference in terms of Publicity. The publicist is looking to see how "media-genic" an author might be, and so, yes--I think in some cases, if an author is young (and attractive!), this might be taken into account. I think especially for teen readers, they like to think that the author is young and hip and cool, and in the age of social networking, they have easy access to information about the author in some cases. Then again, if an author is older, it may actually be a plus for publicity. For example, author Millard Kaufman published his first novel at age 90, and his age made for a great publicity hook, just as Christopher Paolini's young age did, too.

It was interesting that the email specified older books, because I don't think ageism affects picture books at all--in fact, having a "grandmotherly" or "grandfatherly"-aged author might actually be an advantage.

If you're an older author and aren't having luck getting a book published, I don't think you should or can blame ageism. Publishing is a difficult, competitive industry no matter what your age. And I think older authors have the advantage of having more of a wealth of life experiences to draw on, which gives them an advantage over younger authors. You need to focus on the positives, know your weaknesses, and keep working to improve. I do think that in some cases, older authors might have a disadvantage in writing contemporary YA novels, because it's hard to write authentic teen dialogue, and the farther away you are from your teen years, the more foreign their language may seem. However a 15-year-old or a 30-year-old can be just as guilty of writing inauthentic dialogue as much as a 60-year-old. And no matter their age, authors can find opportunities to be around teens, observe them, listen to their language.

In my opinion, some of us may be guilty of ageism in Publishing, but I honestly don't think it comes into play very often. But I wonder if any of you feel differently or have had personal experiences to share regarding this issue. Because if even a little ageism exists, we should move toward eliminating it. Please share!


Anonymous said...

Alvina: That's a very balanced look at agism v. authors. I do know, having been told this at a conference by an editor, that she "would love to get her hands on a teen author because they are so promotable."

No one is lining up for a 70 year old author for that reason.

But the top editors are--like you--reaing the mss. first.


Anonymous said...

I think it depends on the editor and the imprint they're with. Some value "young, hip & cool" a lot--but luckily you're not like that!

Anonymous said...

Great topic! I agree that age probably doesn't matter on a first read. However, I do suspect that editors, consciously or not, factor it in when talking about actually acquiring and marketing a book. In particular, I wonder if this is true with "edgy," "out of the box" books.

For instance, would there have been a different reception (or even publishing fate) for, say, M.T. Anderson's "Octavian Nothing" books had the author been 70? I don't know. But part of me, as a reader, does look at younger YA authors and figure that they're more in touch with their audience, especially when I don't necessarily get what they're doing (you will not find me writing a novel in text!).

Interestingly, I read one review of the film version of "Twilight" that specifically called out the director's age (she's in her fifties) as one of the reasons that the film was, in the reviewer's opinion, "out of touch." Had she been younger, I'm sure that the critic would have found a different explanation for why the film didn't work.


Nandini said...

Interesting! One of my favorite mg authors is Jeanne DuPrau, and she was over 50 when The City of Ember was published. I don't think it should matter if the writing is good.

Anonymous said...

It can be in reverse too... trust me! I was 22 when I first got "the offer." I got a lot of flack from writers for being so young and that was hard for me. The first time my editor met me she asked "How old are you?" I don't think she didn't give me a shot because I looked really young (and who knows, maybe it did work to my advantage) but i was always personally insecure about it.


Gail Gauthier said...

I agree that being close to the teen experience, either because of your age or because you have teenagers living in your house with you, helps with keeping your dialogue authentic and your knowledge of popular culture current. However, everyone ages--even the young and hip don't remain so for long. I wonder if even thirty-something YA writers are always writing about the current teenage world or the world of their own teenage years.

Being young might get you some attention with a publisher for a while, but I don't think you can build a long-term career on that.

Anonymous said...

Aw, I thought this article was going to address ageism toward young writers. The publishing industry has something against writers between the ages of 18-21, as well. At least, writers in their 50's can still get published. I'm 19 years old, have been writing since I was 13. I've done the research nearly every YA writer is between 30 and mid 40's.

Young writers are not even allowed to published books toward their own age bracket. Apparently, we make basic mistakes and have no voice. (Though I could make this same argument for older writers. Considering, there is no such thing as perfect writing.)