Pub Rants

Age Is Just A Number

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STATUS: TGIF! Getting ready for Book Expo the week after next.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? QUESTION by Rhett Miller

Lately, we’ve been getting a lot of queries from young people—and we know this because these writers are highlighting their young age in the query letters they are sending us.

I have a couple of thoughts on this.

1. No matter how you spin it, highlighting an age in your query just doesn’t come across as professional. Here at the agency, we don’t care how hold you are; we only care about how talented a writer you might be. If you have a good query with an interesting novel, we’ll ask for pages whether you are 15 or 85.

In fact, just last year we offered representation to a 15-year old writer. Now I didn’t know that when I called to offer representation. It hadn’t been mentioned in any of her submitted materials. In fact, we had a great phone convo and she actually didn’t bring up the topic of her age until the very end of the phone conference. She brought it up because she needed to know how it would work since she was under the legal age of 18. The answer to that question, by the way, is nothing really changes except that her parent or guardian must co-sign the agency agreement and if the book sells, the publishing contract.

Ends up she had several agent offers of representation and went with another agency so we didn’t end up signing her. (Side note: Her YA novel did sell though as I saw the announcement on Deal Lunch.)

But my point here is that her age didn’t matter; I would have still signed her on as a client.

So this makes me speculate that young writers like to specify their tender years for a couple of possible reasons:

1. Maybe it will impress us that they’ve finished a novel so young?

I find it impressive that anyone finishes a novel quite frankly! And I’m only going to be impressed if I offer for rep and then discover that you have that much talent and you are only 15 because when I read the sample pages, I couldn’t tell.

2. Maybe we’ll go easier on them while reading the pages?

Nope. We don’t grant leniency because of age and cut you slack while reading your sample pages. You’re either ready or you’re not and that’s going to show on the page via a clear demonstration of writing mastery and talent.

And ultimately, I think your writing talent should speak for itself—regardless of your age. So my advice? Don’t mention it.

32 Responses

  1. Kelly Wittmann said:

    I’m always puzzled when writers mention their age in queries. This is one of the few businesses in which age really doesn’t matter; take advantage of that!

  2. Heidi C. Vlach said:

    Maybe they’re thinking that their age could be of use in marketing the book? I know I’ve heard of a few young authors painted as prodigies in their book promotions.

  3. Brittany said:

    @Heidi- Yes, I’ve heard of young author “prodigies”, too, and most of their books weren’t very good.

    Thanks for this post, Kristin! I’ve been wondering this for a while because I’m a young writer. I don’t think it’s so amazing that someone my age can write novels, and I don’t want to try and “impress” agents with my age in query letters. And I definitely DO NOT want agents to go easy on me.

    I posted this question in a writing community that I’m a member of, and I got mixed responses. Some said to include age so that the agent knows they’re working with a minor, others say not to. So thank you again for writing this post so I know what an agent thinks.

  4. The Zuccini said:

    When you read about young writers, their age is always highlighted.

    I think that interviews like this give the impression that age does matter.

  5. Thomas said:

    There’s certainly an impression in Hollywood that a script writer’s age matters — especially if you aspire to write for television, more so than for film.

    There was a class action lawsuit settlement announced this year in which writers “age 40 and older” sued the studios for age discrimination.

    I’ve had script agents ask me my age in interviews.

    The reasons given for age discrimination in Hollywood are:

    1. Film and TV are targeted to younger audiences, and older writers don’t know what’s funny or culturally hip to younger viewers.

    2. Agents want to cultivate a writer’s career. Older writers have shorter careers ahead of them, so it’s more productive for the agent to invest time in younger writers.

    3. If a writer hasn’t “made it” by a certain age, it’s because he or she hasn’t got what it takes.

    I don’t know how prevalent these attitudes are in publishing, but I have read articles intimating that, given a choice, book agents and publishers prefer younger — and more attractive, telegenic writers. Young, attractive writers have longer careers ahead of them, and they’re easier to promote on TV.

  6. Anonymous said:

    An agent once told me that yes, age does matter in terms of marketbility (hmm, is that a word?) and how much the writer could be expected to produce…(think ‘milkcow’).

    That’s me out the race then.

  7. Vee said:

    This is so true. I started off querying leaving my age out, and was then told that it was a huge legal matter, by someone who was obviously not in the know.

    I think poor advice and the mistaken notion that you HAVE to mention your age is often why young writers include it. Thankfully I realised I was being an unprofessional nitwit after about three queries, so removed it again.

    I think it was a pleasant surprise to my agent to find out I needed a parent to co-sign the contract 🙂

  8. Eileen Wiedbrauk said:

    Reason #3 which I think is legit: Kristin is kind and benevolent, but not everyone is all smiles when they learn they’re working with a minor — especially when said minor makes a social or business faux pas because they’re only a teenager and have a hard enough time figuring out the faux pas of high school let alone a business relationship.

    (I, btw, am not a minor. But in reading agent blogs I see that every agent has a different take on this; some would rather know up front. But, like everything else, all agents are different.)

  9. MomCO3 said:

    This is an interesting post, and your tale of the phone call reminds me of Reif Larson’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (a great read!).

  10. Joseph L. Selby said:

    I’m sure they are incredibly pleased that they finished a novel at that age. And they should be. But I’m sure it’s also seen as a marketing gimmick. I can think of a published book/best seller/movie that I don’t think would have even been published if the author had been my age.

    I know it’s something I had to ask myself querying young agents. Am I okay taking instruction from someone in her twenties? If I’m not, then it would be a waste of my time to query.

  11. Ann Elise said:

    I’m glad to have a concrete answer on this matter, though it probably won’t matter by the time I get around to querying, I think, since I only have one more year of minor-ness.

    If, for some strange reason, I’m ready earlier than that, I don’t plan to include my age in the letter but if offered representation, will state that upfront. I feel that if an agent isn’t happy about representing a minor, then at least I’d know that was the reason rather than receiving a form rejection in the querying stage.

    As for committing social faux pas because of one’s age and inexperience, I feel that the assumption a minor would make such a mistake is a social faux pas in itself. A way this could be solved is if said minor’s agent or parent or other adviser sort of person instructed them on how to avoid such problems. As for business faux pas, the same could be said for any inexperienced writer regardless of age.

    If course, I could be full of hot air and inaccurate assumptions. I think the hot air part is evident, considering the length of this comment.

  12. Maggie said:

    I’m glad you posted this. However, I do think it kind of depends on the agency. My friend has been querying for a while and an agent was going to offer representation. Until she read my friend’s blog, which stated that she was 15. The agent was very nice in her rejection afterwards; she mentioned that they were afraid that, since she’s young, she might lose interest in wanting to be an author and wouldn’t follow through with more reliable and interesting work. It’s good to see that not everyone feels that way. 🙂

  13. Aleeza said:

    I have a small question: What if the young author isn’t writing a young adult book… instead theyre penning an adult book. if the agent finds out later on, will they still want to sign the teen knowing that some of the material in the novel is quite mature for their age?
    Or will once again the work speak for itself?
    Would really appreciate an answer!

  14. Carolyn said:

    I get a fair number of emails from young writers (under 18) and it will be so nice to point them to this post to reinforce what I tell about about quality of the work and their age.


  15. Sierra Godfrey said:

    Great post. I always wonder about the genius whippersnappers out there who are writing and have such possession. How do they KNOW what to DO?! Novel-wise, I mean. Holy Krakow.

  16. John said:

    It isn’t just younger people writing more, it’s everyone. When I pounded out my first novel as a teenager, I had to use a typewriter because word processing still mostly sucked.

    Now everyone has easy access to word processing so anyone can write. Thankfully, most people are still too lazy to finish novels.

    After all, we’re not suffering a dearth of novels on the market, rather a lack of readers and buyers. Especially since everyone is used to Tweeter/Facebook headline-styled bits of reading as opposed to several hundred pages of it.

  17. Dara said:

    I’m slightly envious of that 15-year-old’s talent–and that now she’s got a book getting ready to be published. That is amazing to me!

    Anyway, I don’t know why you’d want to mention age in the query anyway–it does come across as unprofessional.

  18. Shelly Campbell-Harley said:

    Great point–I wasn’t sure if it would help give an edge or not to give one’s age (if they were a minor). Thanks for the info! Shelly Campbell-Harley, author of How To Tell If Your Child Is A Bully;

  19. Sarah said:

    Just chiming in: thanks for posting this! I’d almost lost faith in young writers as a group at this point, considering that the most publicized ones out there are people like Paolini and that Maradonia girl. We need more like this one!

  20. Sara J. Henry said:

    When I advised that particular 15-year-old about querying (I beta-read her manuscript) I suggested she not mention her age. I said, “I’m assuming you don’t need to mention your age in query letters – not keep it a secret, but not point it out needlessly. In your bio graf you could say you’re a student” and that’s what she did. I didn’t want her age to scare agents off before they read her manuscript, but as they could find it out from her blog I thought she should say “student” so it didn’t seem that she was hiding her age. Once it reached the offer stage, of course I advised her to ask about contracts because she was under 18 – although she probably would have thought of that on her own. (This particular teenager is one of the most professional writers I’ve met.)

  21. Billy W. said:

    I appreciate this thoughtful post. As a 3-year-old YA novelist, I intentionally left my age off my query letter. When my agent-to-be, represented by the prestigious Birnbaum and Lord Agency in New York, called me at school, she asked me if I had time to talk or was busy with my preschool students. “Uh, wait a minute,” I said. “I am a student.” Trust me, if you think a novelist feels alienated by society, try dealing with Joey H’s hourly meltdowns or Melissa G’s apparent mucous disorder. Heathens! I agree that I still have much to learn in life, but I really believe that everything I’ll need to know I’ll pick up next year in kindergarten. My forthcoming YA dystopian novel, MUTINY AT MILK BREAK, will be released in June 2011. 🙂

  22. Melissa G said:

    Billy W., Mutiny at Milk Break sounds amazing! I’d love to read it. And it’s just a cold, not a mucous disorder.

    Melissa G

  23. Amanda Sablan said:

    I’m 18 myself, and on the lookout for representation. The first batch of queries I sent out didn’t mention my age, per se, just that I was still a senior in high school. But when I finally pared down my query letter, I cut that part out. Hope it makes a difference, even without any substantial credentials!

  24. Anonymous said:

    I was wondering about whether writers under the age of 18 could publish a book. Thanks for answering the question!

  25. Anonymous said:

    Wow. Thank you so much for this amazing advice. I’m a young author, and after reading a blog post by an author who I quite like about how saying she DOESN’T have a lot of faith in the young author thing…it made me all self concious in the novel I am attempting to write. Anyways, this restored my faith. Thank you so much, Ms. Nelson!

  26. Trea said:

    I really appreciate your word on this topic because I used to assume that to become a successful writer you needed a phD or something.
    Evidently not, thank goodness.
    I’m thirteen myself and have already written many pages for many different concepts and hope to get one of those into a book. And soon.
    Thanks again!