Arts & Writing Essays & Opinion

The Half Century Club: There’s no time like turning fifty to bring out that book

Author Stephanie Bretherton spoke to dozens of published writers to find out why there's nothing in the rulebook that says you have to be under a certain age if you want a career as an author
Stephanie Bretherton waited until she was in her 50s before she published her first novel, Bone Lines through award-winning publishers Unbound

Patience was never one of my strong points. If you’d have told me in my 20s that I’d have to wait until my 50s to see my first novel published, I think I may have despaired. At that time, like many of my peers, I was convinced that 30 was over the hill. Then I remember passing that milestone and thinking, “Oh well, I suppose I’ll never be an ingénue.” Not for a moment, however, did I let go of my dream of becoming a published author.

Hallelujah for that because on my 56th birthday my debut novel, Bone Lines, was published. I’m a firm believer, therefore, that there’s nothing in the rulebook about age limits when it comes to making a career as an author. Indeed, while one can be a brilliant writer at any age, there is something about experience and maturity that can deepen the ability to draw upon the human condition. (Even if some of that experience is the chastening disappointment of a series of professional rejections or perceived ‘failures’.)

“I feel the same, as unsure, as bewildered and as outward looking as I did at 27.  But being 50 does give you perspective on life”

Kit de Waal

In terms of the literary canon, there are a number of luminaries who were published only after their half century. Raymond Chandler, Annie Proulx, Richard Adams, Anita Brookner, Frank McCourt, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), James A Michener, Charles Bukowski and many more made their debuts after 50, Daniel Defoe was nearly 60, Mary Wesley, 70. The author Kit de Waal, a high-profile presence in publishing today, brought out her first novel, the highly-acclaimed My Name is Leon, in her 50s after a distinguished career in family law.

Kit is somewhat philosophical about being published later in life, “I don’t feel like 50,” she says, “I feel the same, as unsure, as bewildered and as outward looking as I did at 27.  But being 50 does give you perspective on life and while I’m overjoyed to be published and being an author is brilliant, I recognise that it’s not the whole of me – which maybe it would have been if it had happened when I was younger.  It’s wonderful to get a second wind in life, to have new experiences and meet new people, always realising that it’s here now, could be gone tomorrow – and that would be fine too.”

Kit is far from alone in her deferred entry into the industry (or in her equanimity.)  And in recognition of such literary late bloomers, the Society of Authors has established two prizes for first novels by older writers. Paula Johnson, Head of Prizes & Awards for the Society explains, “The McKitterick Prize was set up in 1990 to celebrate debut novelists over the age of 40. The arrival of the Paul Torday Memorial Prize for debut authors over 60 strengthened the notion that all writing careers are valued and important.”

“There’s no time limit on starting a writing career,” Paula stresses, “Some leave it until later to consider it; for others, work and life get in the way, other responsibilities making it impractical to devote the time necessary to complete a novel. For all the focus we put on younger writers, the McKitterick and Torday prizes provide a much needed balance.”

Su Bristow was shortlisted for the inaugural Paul Torday prize in 2019, having won the Exeter Prize for her novel Sealskin, when it was still at the manuscript stage. I asked Su – and a number of others who responded to my call out on social media – about the path to publication and their experiences as older authors.

Like most of the respondents, Su had an early and abiding interest in writing but then life, family, career and, to some extent either having the self-belief or giving oneself the ‘permission’ to pursue becoming an author delayed the gratification of that ambition. Su came to completing Sealskin via a (continuing) practice in herbal medicine, motherhood, an invitation to work on a couple of non-fiction books, a creative writing course and, ultimately, all the patience and confidence bestowed by a full and demanding life.

“My work with therapy and as a medical herbalist is all about understanding what makes people tick, and the strategies we use to cope with what life gives us. That’s an enormous resource for a writer,” explains Su, who applied these insights to a long-held fascination for the selkie legend, exploring how ‘wildness’ can be become subsumed and trapped by marriage and motherhood. She also feels that maturity gave her the courage to take greater risks and include some controversial subjects.

A number of common themes emerged in the various responses to the questionnaire I sent out to the ‘half century club’ – whether these authors were traditionally published, hybrid or self-published and regardless of gender, genre, sales or industry recognition. None felt they’d had an easy ride but each found enormous satisfaction in finally fulfilling that cherished goal.

Nevertheless, the acute learning curves of a (rapidly changing) publishing industry were often a shock to the system. Especially if a would-be author’s time or energy were impacted by still having to work full-time, run a business or manage a household – or perhaps even by health issues. And yet, the lessons of a long professional life, of child-rearing or of entrepreneurial experience also turned out to be excellent preparation for the endeavour.

I found it fascinating that many later-life authors had cultivated careers in public service or education, several in therapy or healthcare, a few in the visual or performing arts, with a strong showing in journalism, or publishing, or PR and marketing (I am one of that group, having run my own design PR company for the last 20 years). The common thread seems to be an interest in people/culture/society – and the need to hone effective listening and communication skills. Almost all were sanguine about the sacrifices and dedication it takes to create a quality ‘product.’

The writing itself, however, for most respondents, seems to have been the easiest part. Considerably more challenging was finding an agent and/or publisher, or figuring out how to self-publish professionally and successfully, and then learning how to market oneself and one’s book (especially in a youth-obsessed culture and an era of reduced column inches for book reviews, matched by the all-consuming and often alien demands of digital/social media).

Then again, the willingness to accept the hard realities and buckle down to dealing with them seems to be another clear advantage of maturity. A number of authors were prepared to go back to some form of education to improve their prospects and enhance their abilities. Most seemed to adjust well to the intensity of the editing process or in learning to handle rejection or, indeed, criticism

When it comes to theme or genre, older authors tend to look less at the market and more at their passions. This was certainly true in my case – and one of the reasons I went straight to Unbound with Bone Lines rather than waste time doing the rounds of rejections that seemed likely for an unknown, older author with a genre-defiant exploration of science and prehistory, full of questions about what makes us human. I’d spent eight years of weekends writing, researching, rewriting and editing Bone Lines – and I believed in my book – but appreciated that it wasn’t a commercial hot prospect at first glance.

Indeed, Unbound has become something of a go-to for the older author. This mould-breaking publisher’s selection criteria is as discerning as any other in terms of quality and a project being the right fit for their innovative ‘brand’ – but with one vital difference. So long as authors can convince enough readers to ‘pledge’ for the book (effectively, to pre-order it) thus covering editing and production costs, Unbound’s risk is accounted for, at which point it kicks back into the process as any traditional publisher would to ensure a high-standard of literary and production values.

For Unbound, when it comes to fiction, it’s all about the merits of the book itself. No pre-existing high profile is required (though they know a good following or network won’t hurt when it comes to funding) and commercial potential is wonderful but doesn’t have to be cookie-cutter ‘on-trend.’ And one good book is enough to get an author started. There are no handcuffs to a two or three book deal (of a particular type) and all the market pressure to not only produce, but repeat (ad nauseam).

Also, admittedly, there’s no advance – rather in its place are months of hard slog and heartache to raise the set budget – but then there’s a very fair 50/50 split of any profits. (‘Any’ actually being something of a keyword. There are no more guarantees of sales here than with any other publishing method. In today’s publishing, there remains a mantra of ‘don’t give up the day job’…yet.)

There are, however, a number of inspiring success stories from the Unbound model. Many of these are non-fiction books or anthologies (The Good Immigrant, Letters of Note), but in terms of fiction, The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth was long-listed for the Booker Prize, Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly was runner up for the Rathbone Folio prize this year and Natalie Fergie (a member of the post-50 debut club) has sold over 100,000 copies of her novel, The Sewing Machine.

“Amazon – which must now be considered as one of the ‘Big Six’ publishers – is adding a new e-book to their Kindle store every 1 min and 42 secs. How mad is that?”

Stevyn Colgan

Former policeman and QI writer Stevyn Colgan published four non-fiction books traditionally, before becoming the ‘Godfather’ of Unbound authors and is currently on his fifth crowdfunding campaign for Cockerings – his third novel.

His fiction debut, comedy crime mystery, A Murder to Die For, came out in 2018 and was longlisted for the ‘Not the Booker’ Guardian prize and a Dead Good Readers Award, and his follow up, The Diabolical Club, was launched this summer. He has seen a number of changes both in Unbound (not least, sadly, how much harder it has become to crowdfund/sell fiction in the current climate) and in the wider industry over that time. 

Indeed, he went to Unbound after seeing advances disappear and mainstream publishers grow increasingly risk averse, especially in what was an emerging digitally-flooded, price-competitive, celebrity-driven market. ‘Mid-list’ author incomes began their ongoing nosedive, physical book shops were closing in droves and the ‘Zon’ had begun to establish dominance. What’s more, in maturity, he wanted to write a different kind of book to the novels he’d attempted in youth. He wanted to write character-driven, uplifting and engaging romps. Or, as Stevyn describes them, “Ealing comedies for the 21st Century.”

He explains, “I think it’s about me looking back on my life and saying ‘Despite all the crap that happens in this world, 95% of people are good’. It’s true. Far more good things happen than bad. They just don’t get the press coverage.” (And this, remember, comes from a former copper.) The fact that the Wodehouse Prize for comedy novels was cancelled in 2018 due to lack of entries from publishers tells you why Unbound was for Stevyn – and is for many – necessary.

But there are still other options! Of the generous sample of the 37 authors who responded to my call out, there was a fair mix of traditionally published, hybrid and self-published. The routes to book making are many and various these days, and while in some ways the democratisation of the industry has flooded the market and made it harder to make your mark, or to discern quality, it has also created opportunities for older authors to pursue their long-held ambitions.

In most cases, however, there was both surprise and disappointment in terms of how much promotion any publisher, large or small, will invest in for their riskier prospects – or how much can be achieved on one’s own. It’s noisy and busy out there and the juiciest PR opportunities tend to go to the bigger players. All the while social media becomes an essential but distracting sinkhole for an author’s time, even if something of an echo chamber. Resilience, self-reliance and self-discipline are increasingly essential character traits for any author.

Stevyn adds, “I discovered that Amazon – which must now be considered as one of the ‘Big Six’ publishers – is adding a new e-book to their Kindle store every 1 min and 42 secs. How mad is that? Between 2014 and 2018 the total grew from 3 million to 6 million (750,000 new books per year). And that makes up a small fraction of Amazon’s total catalogue of 48.5 million books. So, whether you’re young or old, how on Earth do you make your book stand out from the crowd?”

One way, perhaps, is for authors to have confidence in developing their own voices – and to ensure they are offering a distinctive, high-quality product. To see getting published for what it is – as much a business as an art. The desire to do it right, after waiting so long, is primary, however, and many of the respondents had sought to work with freelance professional editors and writing coaches, or with critique groups and author collectives to make the best of their raw material, especially before submitting or self-pubbing.

Then, often through trial and error, the process becomes about figuring out who your audience is and where and how to reach them. There’s also the realisation that success is a long game and that the second, third and fourth books you bring out as you build your ‘brand’ are as vital to longevity and income as is creating an accomplished debut.

By example, I went through two rounds of invaluable assessment and feedback from The Literary Consultancy (and I can highly recommend their services) before I submitted Bone Lines to Unbound – and I began outlines for books two and three in my upcoming ‘Children of Sarah’ series even before finishing book one. (If only completing those had been easier – promoting one novel while still working full time tends to consume all available creative energy!)

But like several other post-50 debuts who responded, I was eventually rather glad that a much earlier attempt at a novel did not make it beyond the manuscript stage (even if it received a few encouraging rejections.)  That particular effort was an attempt to tap into a ‘hot’ commercial trend at the time, and I feel, no longer represents the kind of writer I want to be. Maturity, together with the economic support of an established PR career (and working with Unbound), has given me the freedom to write from my heart and soul and about my interests and values, both personal and artistic.

And I found the right publisher at exactly the right time. That 20 year-old, abandoned manuscript was seen by only a handful of industry insiders when the only entry to the industry was via the ‘closed shop’ of the agent/publisher axis. The right connections were as much the arbiter of success as was talent or determination. Gatekeepers still play a key role, even if several 50-plus authors admit to having been their own naysayers earlier in life, or having been held back by a notion they needed to be perfect at the first draft –or, conversely, that they couldn’t improve on it.

Agents are still the first step for most – and still a hard nut to crack at any age. But many older authors report that the younger representatives of the profession seemed to have little affinity for them or what they – and their potentially ‘shorter’ careers might have to offer. Plus there’s an increased ‘hyrbridisation’ here too, with some agents also offering writing courses and diversifying with other would-be-author-targeted income streams. Agents remain a significant benefit if you can get one, certainly it seems in terms of higher earnings, but are no longer the be-all and end-all.

Despite the anecdotal evidence from my survey, Curtis Brown super-agent, Johnny Geller, insisted in a recent webinar with Sam Missingham of The Empowered Author (an excellent marketing advice platform) that age was no barrier to getting an agent and that, as ever, it’s all about the right book at the right time (market forces notwithstanding). Like Unbound, Curtis Brown is one of the few industry players to invite unsolicited submissions directly over its website.

Some of the small independent presses may be more open to ‘un-agented’ approaches – and sometimes open up submission ‘windows,’ or competitions – but they too have a ‘brand’ they are keen to develop and protect. It’s nigh on impossible to get near the big fish without the hook of representation. However, a handful of authors in my survey who had self or hybrid published their debuts then went on to publish books in the mainstream.

Virginia Moffat, for example, crowdfunded her first award long-listed book, Echo Hall, but has since seen another long-cherished idea, The Wave, published by Harper Collins. When you consider the demographics for book buyers and readers – with much research pointing to the largest group being 45-65 – perhaps agents and publishers should be tapping into the fresh-yet-seasoned voices of the over 50s even more?

There is often the sense among the ‘half century club’ that having been through much of the best and worst that life can offer considerably enhances the mature author’s insight when it comes to character motivation or action. And with this perspective they often include a spectrum of age groups among their characters. What’s often interesting (or frustrating) to older authors is when younger (and perhaps more ‘idealistic’ readers) struggle to like/understand/forgive – or even believe (especially when it comes to a sex life!) – the flaws, concerns, behaviour or story arcs of older characters. (Or conversely, when people assume that certain characters are autobiographical.)

These ‘life-forged’ wordsmiths are often tackling universal or difficult themes, or complex narrative structures. Author and artist Lulu Allison, whose debut Twice the Speed of Dark engages with the grief of loss through violence (and which started life as an art project), says she writes “not because the world desperately needs another book…but somehow because it still does?” Lulu fully understands the risk of ploughing one’s own field (her new work is a dystopia called Salt Lick which features a ‘Greek chorus’ of feral cows) but has dug in for the long haul, prepared to juggle precarious income sources along the way.

There may be market trends – and there may be many obstacles – but each author, each book is unique and the need to add our own small but distinctive voices to the human chorus seems powerful, at any age. Frank Barnard, with four novels traditionally published since his debut post-50 (and a readership of six figures) is now crowdfunding his fifth book, A Remembrance of Ghosts, at the age of 81.

Many older debuts felt they brought considerably more compassion, understanding and forgiveness to their writing than they might have done in youth. Some, such as Tabatha Stirling (Bitter Leaves), are open about coming through the other side of a youth troubled by addictions and mental health challenges or personal tragedies and hardship.

Most had also acquired the wisdom to know you need to treat people well, at every level of the industry and in every corner of life – and that mutual support networks among authors are a godsend. Gratitude was another common denominator. Some authors, such as Geoffrey Gudgion, are using their platforms to help others, with a percentage of profits going to causes such as Combat Stress, as with his upcoming book and second novel, Draca.

The overwhelming and consistent message from the half century club seems to be one of patience and persistence. Keep writing, they say, keep editing, keep learning, keep submitting, keep going – so long as writing is both a passion and a compulsion.

“Keep writing, they say, keep editing, keep learning, keep submitting, keep going – so long as writing is both a passion and a compulsion.”

Be realistic about what ‘success’ may actually look like. Realise you’re never going to please everyone, but if you please enough people you’re on your way. Don’t do it for the praise or the glamour or the money. You may get little, some or plenty of any combination, but it’s all a gamble. Satisfaction, however, is in no short supply.

The last word goes to Helen Steadman, whose debut, Widdershins, became an Amazon bestseller: “Don’t let age put you off” she says, “in a decade, you’ll still be a decade older, so you may as well be a decade older and an author.”

*

Nearly 40 authors helped with my research for this piece, which would have turned into even more of a tome if I had quoted them all – much as I would have liked to. Instead, please be so kind as to peruse this list of very grateful further acknowledgements (and debut novels you may wish to consider buying):

Ewan Lawrie (Gibbous House), Susie Wilde (The Book of Bera: Sea Paths), Tadhg Coakley, (The First Sunday in September), Janet Dean Knight (The Peacemaker), Bronwen Griffiths (A Bird in the House), Catherine Kullman (The Murmur of Masks), Jacqueline Ward (Perfect Ten), BRM Stewart (The Deaths on Black Rock), Rosie Meddon (The Woodicombe House Saga), Julia Thum (Riverside Lane), Penny Hampson (A Gentleman’s Promise), Andy Griffee (Canal Pushers), Thorne Moore (A Time for Silence), Miriam Drori (Neither Here nor There), Piri Shepherd (The Northerner), Kate Tyler Wall (Arboria Park), Lynne Francis (Ella’s Journey), Neil Lancaster (Going Dark), Frank Barnard (Blue Man Falling), Lynne Fraser (The Busy Mum’s Guide to Murder), Angela Young (Speaking of Love), Jo Johnson (Surviving Me), Susan Beale (The Good Guy), Marianne Homes (A Little Bird Told Me), Lucy van Smit (The Hurting).

About the author

Born in Hong Kong to a pair of Liverpudlians (and something of a nomad ever since) Stephanie Bretherton is now based in London, but escapes regularly to any kind of coast. Before returning to her first love of creative writing, she spent many years pursuing alternative forms of storytelling, from stage to screen and media to marketing. Drawn to what connects rather than separates, Stephanie is fascinated by the spaces between absolutes and opposites, between science and spirituality, nature and culture. This lifelong curiosity – and occasional conflict – has been channelled into her debut novel, Bone Lines (and into short stories, poems and the continuation of the Children of Sarah series, of which Bone Lines is the first, stand-alone story.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: