Either accidentally or as a result of social human nature, I have a lot of close friends in this bookish industry who are my age or close to it. And if there’s one standout topic that is constantly appearing within my own circles but rarely brought up publicly, it’s this: the condescension levelled at younger authors, and the disbelief that we could be here—either pursuing, about to be published, or published—because we actually *gasp* might have worked hard for it.
This is a hard post to write because there are so many nuances within publishing’s relationship with age: youth, in particular. I’m going to do my best to cover everything I can think of, but I am merely one smol gorl, so forgive me if there are any gaps—I expect this to be a very long post, but there might have to be a Part 2 if I miss anything.
So, strap in. Let’s talk about the youngsters in publishing.
To be clear, this post isn’t targeted at any one event, one person, or one remark. It’s me being tired of seeing a certain sentiment floating across my feed even by the most well-meaning people. It’s me being exhausted by the misconceptions directed at my friends, so I figure it’s time to clear the air, both for the rest of publishing and for the Youth out there who are trying to get into publishing but might be discouraged because of the generalised nonsense floating around.
Let’s also be clear: publishing does have an ageism problem toward older writers. This post is not to say it does not. It absolutely does, and I think this very ageism problem is the source of the derision that comes floating back to the younger writers, you know? The industry starts fuelling the idea that you can’t get published if you’re over a certain age, blah blah blah, well-meaning folks push back on the idea by explaining why publishing as a youngster isn’t all that glammed up, blah blah blah, and then the youngsters get discouraged. It’s a vicious cycle.
So let’s break it. Let’s acknowledge that there’s no issue with being published when you’re over a certain age without crapping on the people who are getting published at an extremely young age. And to do that, let’s walk through the misconceptions that cause people to discourage younger writers, yeah? From yours truly, an actual Youth in Publishing™️ and from special guest Tashie Bhuiyan, also a Youth in Publishing™️, let’s take a moment to stroll through the reality: the actual cons and the… bizarre cons that make no sense.
Firstly, people across the industry seem to have different ideas over who is considered young, but as far as I can tell, the condescension is levelled largely at teens, and sometimes people in their early 20s too. By young people in publishing, I’m roughly referring to this general age range.
Myth: Younger people have an easier time signing with agents/getting book deals because their age makes them more marketable.
I just wanna have a chat with whoever started this nonsense because…that’s not how it works?????????? This is predominantly something that comes up a lot in the Young Adult industry in particular, but such an assumption is absolutely not something that can be generalised. Most teens don’t even put their ages in their query letters. While I did have “a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania,” in my query letter, does it really make sense for an agent to offer just because college students are #hip and #cool? If anything, many teens are choosing to leave their ages out of query letters due to fear that an agent will see it and immediately set their expectations for something bad, because we all know there’s a stereotype that young writers = bad writers (*sigh*, more on that later).
TASHIE: Seriously, though! I also added that I was a junior in college in my query letter, but I did it because I was referencing my internships and wanted to show that my interest in the publishing industry was recent and that I’m actively invested. Otherwise I wouldn’t have included it, either! I don’t think it gives you an edge AT ALL unless it’s relevant in some other way (ie: how I’m currently in an internship).
And with book deals: yes, we’ve all seen the announcements that declare “FRESHMAN AT BLAHBLAHBLAH UNIVERSITY’S DEBUT NOVEL” or “24-YEAR OLD SELLS BLAHBLAHBLAH” but do we really think someone’s age is enough for a publishing house to take a risk on? Is it really so alluring for a publishing house to acquire a book simply because the author is 24, to the point where they’ll put in thousands of dollars for a little fact (author is 24! hooray!) which the casual browser in the bookstore won’t even know? Books are largely pushed out by librarians and booksellers who are connected with casual readers not on Book Twitter. If you weren’t plugged into the book industry, would you have known that the pretty book on the shelf you’re about to buy is written by a 24 year old? Would that really be the selling point publishers are putting money on? A young age is a cool little tidbit that grabs the attention of industry people so they click into an article and go “Ooooh.” Realistically, it’s not going to help sell books, and therefore, it’s not going to be the pivot point that gives someone a book deal.
TASHIE: Agents and publishers alike are looking at the quality of books! They’re not thinking, “Oh, a 24-year-old wrote this and it’s bad. I’ll take it anyway because they’re 24.” The same way they’re not saying, “Oh, this book is so good, but a 54-year-old wrote it. Pass.” They’re professionals who judge based on merit!!!
Consider: if it seems like more and more young people are getting book deals in YA, could it be perhaps that younger people have an easier time finding their YA voice? Could it be that they’re more in touch with what the market is currently looking for? Could it be that the teen experiences which they are drawing from is something which current teens will be more likely to click with, more so than the teen experiences of someone who was a teenager in the 80s? This is not to shit on older writers at all. This is to say that there are factors that come with your age: benefits and negatives. It doesn’t mean older writers should give up. It means you should consider why you’re writing YA (to reach the teens!), and if you’re intent on it, it means adapting your writing to fit the wants of teens these days rather than demanding the teens adapt to what you want.
Myth: Younger people don’t have the life experience to be good writers.
First of all, this is a terrible generalisation because no one knows what an individual person has been through in their life. A teen writer could have been through hell and back, and just because they’ve never had a 9-5 office day job, they don’t know what life and society is? Further, even if a teen writer has led a relatively mundane life of high school and homework, it doesn’t negate this thing called… wait for it… IMAGINATION.
Things that are true: life experience helps writing. Getting out into the world helps writing. Trying new things, meeting new people, growing as a person helps writing.
Things that are also true: you don’t need anything to be a good writer. Except practice, practice, and more practice. (Honestly, do the people who believe in this myth think I built a time-travelling machine back to 1920s Shanghai before I decided to write my book? You think I had to join a gang, get my heart broken, kill a bunch of men before I could capture it?)
TASHIE: What, Chloe? You mean you DIDN’T do all that? I, for one, am shocked. I thought every writer had to experience things in order to write them! … LMAO. But on a serious note, [in YA] you’re writing ABOUT teenagers FOR teenagers. How is a 9-5 job going to help anyone write a teenager? If you’re writing contemporary, you’re probably writing a teen in high school going through the motions. You don’t need to be an adult to have enough life experience to write that. If you’re writing another genre: fantasy, sci-fi, etc, as Chloe said above, all you really need is imagination. (And people at ALL ages are brimming with creativity!)
Myth: If you’re younger when you get published, you won’t try to develop your writing skills any further. You’ll become a one-hit wonder and be stuck at that point in your career.
I’m sure this might be true for some people. But you know what, this isn’t valid criticism of young writers because this can be true for all writers. Nay-sayers are obsessed with revolving around these case studies of young writers who blew up a few years ago and haven’t released a notable book that’s achieved the same levels of success since then, but you know what was also going on a few years ago? The YA dystopian boom. Consider: maybe age isn’t the variable factor here. Maybe a huge tidal wave of hyped books that were ridiculously funded without a proper plan to succeed is the problem, and when the wave of dystopia receded, so too did the authors who were riding it. No matter what age you are, you’re going to be affected by trends in the industry, and to lay the blame at the feet of younger authors is unfair. If you’re going to get shat on by publishing, you will be. The trouble with this industry is that it’s a volatile thing. More often than not, getting “stuck” is a result of the market. As long as you keep working and working on your craft, anyone can pull themselves back out.
Similarly along those lines:
Myth: Younger writers get their hand held by everyone around them. They’re ignorant to failure because they were able to succeed so young and easily.
Again—I must use Britney’s face here…
Not to get too dark, but Gen Z is incredibly self-deprecating and most of us have some… serious self-doubt. If we recognise that Imposter Syndrome is incredibly real for people in their 30s… why is it hard to believe younger writers in this industry also get Imposter Syndrome? Everywhere I look, young writers are doubting their abilities and constantly doubting, doubting, doubting. No matter what age you are, it’s not easy at all to break into this industry. It’s rejection after rejection and forging onward anyway. No one is refusing to reject young writers simply because they are young. Again, many also choose to hide their ages.
Furthermore, the idea of succeeding easily is especially irrelevant to young POC in the industry because LOL REALLY? Nobody is holding our hand or giving us an easy way in if our work is “too cultural,” “too foreign,” or “too unrelatable.”
Myth: Younger writers who succeed too soon in publishing won’t have a back-up life plan.
I won’t bother disputing this for the young writers, because all young writers who read this will probably immediately furrow their brow and go, “What?”
I’m disputing this for those who actually believe it: yes, there must be the exceptions who drop out of everything and pursue full-time writing—and you know what, good on them! If someone has the privilege to do so, let’s support them, and if that someone decides later on they’d like to switch life paths, it’s never too late to learn to do something else as long as you’re financially able. But you know what: most young writers are not going to do that. A generation of rising young writers is not going to abandon all other pursuits without any thought to the future. Y’all think we’re brainless? If you don’t assume that people in their 30s will get a book deal and immediately quit their job, why would you assume a teen writer will get a book deal and immediately quit higher education? Sometimes higher education isn’t fitting for them. Sometimes higher education is fitting for them and they’ll juggle a book career and a university degree at the same time. I’m going to go more into the actual struggles of being a young writer regarding this later, but for the meanwhile, let me dispute this: being a young success in writing does not mean they’ll drop everything else too. This is not a valid con to publishing young. If you want to pursue higher education, you do it, while getting published.
TASHIE: Also in this economy… are there even people who are Gen Z and refusing to get a job outside of writing? Because, whew, that’s BRAVE. I doubt any of us are that bold when we have the literal economy to consider (including student loans, the job market, costs of living, etc.)
Myth: Younger writers aren’t as good as older writers.
This one is the most toxic—why? Because they’ll never come right out to say it. It’ll always be:
“You’re so good for your age!”
“I’m sure you’re very, very skilled, relative to your age!”
“Oh, you’ll be a real writer soon!”
This is the age of the internet. I can guarantee most young writers making their way through the publishing industry now got their start on AO3, Fanfiction.net, Wattpad (where I was), or some forum or another. We’ve been writing for a while. THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS is my 9th completed manuscript. We’ve been building our skillsets, learning what works and what doesn’t—usually using beta reading feedback from strangers—and sticking to an uploading schedule. Just because someone doesn’t know how to cook doesn’t mean they don’t know how to write. Just because someone has no idea how taxes work doesn’t mean they don’t know how to write. Just because—okay, you get the point, I don’t need to drag myself on my own blog for every adulting thing I can’t do. For some older writers, maybe they weren’t ready yet to be published at the ripe age of 18, and that’s fair and valid. That does not mean all 18 year olds are not ready. If you, Teen Writer, have been building your skills for a long time—even if it’s not original fiction—yes, you are a real writer. Don’t let people tell you otherwise. Don’t let people tell you you’re only good for your age—if you’re good, you’re good, period. Only you know when you’re ready to be published, and if you decide that you are ready to pursue it, then don’t let a single person tell you that you’re too young for it. There’s no such thing as being too young, there’s only not having enough practice. So practice, practice, practice.
TASHIE: I personally had my start writing fanfiction for YEARS. I only finished my first original manuscript last year. But if I hadn’t written fic for all those years, I would’ve never learned how to develop characters, follow through on finishing plots, create compelling stories that people want to read, etc. As long as you’re writing, who cares what it is?
Now, there are actual cons to keep in mind to being a Youth in Publishing. (I’m going to stop using the meme-y TM sign now because I think it stopped getting ironic three uses ago.)
1. As mentioned before, a lot of writers suffer from Imposter Syndrome. This can be particularly concerning if you’re young and trying to make it through this industry, because not only do you feel like an imposter, but we’re societally ingrained to see ourselves as one. If you’re like me, you might see everyone older than you as an authority figure—no matter how logically you know that you’re equals and business partners with your agents and editors, it’s so hard to work through the immediate instinct to defer to them! It’s so hard to stop and tell yourself, No, I do know what I’m talking about and not immediately shoot yourself down, because well… do we know what we’re talking about when the world is constantly telling us we don’t?
TASHIE: YUP. It’s really hard because no matter what age you are, starting in a new career field (especially a creative one) is incredibly frightening. When you’re younger, it might be your first career field. It’s really easy to doubt yourself and to wonder if you belong and how you fit in and whether you’re doing things right. But as long as you’re trying, you’re already on the right path.
2. Some people in the industry may genuinely think you don’t know what you’re doing. I’m lucky enough that my agent is amazing and my agency is amazing and my editor is amazing. They take me seriously and they value my opinion. Unfortunately, just because of the way humans are, there are people out there in this industry who may not be like that. There’s no way around it: it’s just a consequence of the way things are. All you can do is search for someone who will take you seriously—and believe me, you deserve someone who will take you seriously. On The Call, listen to how receptive they are to your questions. Listen to the way they respond to you, listen to your gut feeling. You’re not imagining it if something feels off; wait until something feels right. No business relationship is better than a bad business relationship where you’re constantly being shot down.
TASHIE: I’m also super lucky in that my agent and agency are incredible and take me seriously and respect me/the work I put in. But in a lot of cases, there are people who will look down on you and even try to manipulate you because you’re younger, so like Chloe said, it’s important to pay attention and listen to your gut if something feels off.
3. In the same vein, some people in general might think you don’t know what you’re doing. You may get people insinuating you’re young and naive. You may get all the very myths I’ve mentioned above tossed your way, then shut down if you try debunk them because, welp, what do you know, you’re too young! There’s no way around it. People will be assholes.
TASHIE: But hey, you’ve made it this far! You’re already doing great. There will always be people who are mad about your success, who try to belittle you, but that doesn’t mean that you’re any less good at what you do.
4. It’s hard to juggle a burgeoning career with the start of your adult life. That’s just the truth: to be a college student and to be on revision deadline means that I finish my homework and then stay up until 2AM editing. It means thinking ahead to whether you really need to go to another frat party or if it’s better to stay in and finish that chapter. Sometimes it means going to that frat party and then coming back and editing while drunk. Whatever works! To me, it’s worth it. To you, it’s something to consider—is this something you will be able to manage? Is this something that you can fit on your plate? There’s no shame if it’s not. This is why we do want to start an acceptance movement on there being no deadline to getting published. There absolutely is not: for some people it works to break out young, and we shouldn’t stomp them down. For some people it does not work, and we support them until it is time.
TASHIE: Yeah, it’s definitely really hard to balance! This last semester, I was juggling two internships, writing two books and taking six classes. But at the end of the day, this is what’s important to me, and if it’s what’s important to you, one day (even if it isn’t right now), you’ll find a way to make it happen.
5. It’s also hard to burst into a professional industry when you have no clue what the heck any of these Fancy Adult Terms mean. I’ve emailed my agent the most ridiculous questions, including: “LAURA, WHAT IS A VOID CHECK PLS HALP.” (It’s just a check with VOID written on it. Publishers need it to pay you. Most 20 year olds do not have check-books so yes, I had to haul my ass to my bank and ask for a single check.) I still have no idea how taxes work and I’ll have to figure that out at some point and honestly I’m still not sure if I’m doing email etiquette right. Maybe some of the nay-sayers have a point in that life experience can be good in these little things, but you know what, you can also figure it out as you go. A few clueless questions won’t oust you from the industry: agents are happy to answer them!
TASHIE: TOTALLY! Honestly, I had to ask the older people around me a lot of questions while trying to figure this all out. I’m so glad that instead of condescending me, they all helped me. It’s okay to ask for help if there are things you don’t know!!!
6. As a young person, you might not have developed the same mental health coping strategies as older people have. The amount of work on your plate could be shocking, the feedback could be shocking, the realisation that strangers will read your work and may tag you in criticism could be shocking. This is also something you will have to determine for yourself: is it something you can handle at this moment in your life? Do you need more time?
TASHIE: Last year, when I was writing my first book, I actually had the privilege of going to therapy and talking out my fears and worries with a mental health professional. (Shoutout to my awesome therapist Juan, who’s also a writer and totally understood all my fears and helped me confront them!!) If that sounds like something you need, that’s okay. It’s a lot of pressure to handle and you don’t have to carry the weight alone.
7. Lastly: the adult-splainers. Good god. If you tweet/post anything about something specific to teenagers, there will be the few clueless adults sliding into the replies with WELL BACK IN MY DAY… *explains to me my own joke in a completely irrelevant context*. They’re well-meaning. They still missed the point so hard it landed somewhere three miles away.
TASHIE: My recommendation in this case is to mute them and move along with your day. There’s only so many times you can explain a meme or a reference to something they clearly don’t (and often, aren’t willing to) understand!
Aaaand that’s all I have. At the end of the day, my thoughts are this: all young people in publishing worked to get where they are. It does no good to kick young people down for the sake of lifting older writers up, and yet it’s something we’re seeing time and time again. I’m in utter agreement that there’s this panic spreading throughout publishing about getting published at a certain age, and I recognise my own privilege and unique position to be speaking here when I’m getting published at age 20. I also think we can push back on this panic with legitimate reasoning instead of implying that publishing young is a terrible, terrible, no good thing. Listen to the younger writers, especially the teen writers. And plssssss, before I pull my hair out, respect them.
TASHIE: We’re begging!!!!!!!! If you wouldn’t invalidate them as readers, you shouldn’t invalidate them as writers.
For the teens out there: don’t give up because someone told you to. If you want to postpone your publishing journey—which is mightily valid—make sure it’s on your terms, upon your understanding of yourself.
The biggest thank you to Tashie for dropping in to give her thoughts!! (And for being my editor on this post lmao ily.) Follow her on Twitter to keep up with this rising star.