"At my present age of 92, the afflictions of ageing assail me like the onslaught of an army bent on my destruction. Each week seems to bring a new, unwelcome impairment. Not long after I rise in the morning I yearn to recline on the couch."
So wrote novelist and Chicago native Harry Mark Petrakis in his piece ‘The writer in old age’.
But what was missing from his rhetoric was that in a professional career that has spanned more than six decades and counting, Harry Petrakis had in fact spent very little time chilling on his chesterfield.
After churning out an impressive 25 tomes, the latest of which he wrote just four years ago aged 91, he simply didn’t have the time, or even perhaps the inclination.
Yet while publishing books well into the third age is not everyone’s cup of tea, an increasing number of active Australians are seeing the merit in having their name in print while in their 60s and beyond.
Aveo Lindfield Gardens retirement village resident Joan Mors is one of them.
A mother of three, grandmother of four, and a great grandmother of two, 91-year-old Joan has enjoyed a long career as a nationally acclaimed artist, winning numerous awards for her painting and having her works represented in collections across Australia.
However over the past ten years the enterprising nonagenarian has added published author to her creative wheelhouse, self-publishing at least five children’s books, each one of which she also illustrated.
Joan, who also creates one-off books illustrated and written by hand, estimates she was around 13 when she put together her first book using plain A4 paper, held together by ribbon.
It wasn’t until more than five decades later that she was inspired to get the books she had initially written for fun professionally published.
“My granddaughter’s husband is a photographer and he was doing wedding photos and sending them off to get printed. It gave me the idea that maybe I could get mine done too,” she says.
Three of her books, which have enjoyed various degrees of commercial success, are also held in collection in the National Library in Canberra.
Among all her drawings and additional artworks Joan, who does not own a computer and handwrites all her works, is currently working on another book which she expects to publish later this year.
Despite this, she confesses these days she writes mostly for herself.
“Those who read my books really need to have the same sense of humour as me. I enjoy writing about things that intrigue me, such as why on a Tuesday are there always men in the supermarket with a list? I get fascinated by the strangest things. It’s my very fertile imagination. I just love doing them.”
Gena Evans, a resident from The Clayfield retirement village, also recognises the satisfaction that comes from writing in retirement.
Having spent three years as a food and heritage columnist for an English newspaper in Norway, it wasn’t until quite recently Gena rediscovered her passion for the written word.
“I’ve always loved to write but it’s one of those things you don’t rediscover until you find yourself with a bit of time on your hands.”
Confident others in the village may feel similarly, Gena founded a writing group to share their musings with others.
Gathering twice a month to share what they have written, the group of ten meet up serves both as a platform in which to share their stories as well as a forum for critical feedback.
“We started it so we might have a little sheet of stories for our families for our first Christmas. That was three years ago now.”
Never too late
Chris Herrmann, 65, is another who believes writing talent doesn’t have an expiration date.
Chris, who previously enjoyed a fruitful career in corporate project management and later information technology, was first prompted to put pen to paper following his completion of an impromptu solo round-the-world trip as a “Youthful Midlife Traveller”.
Having only ever written opportunistically, Chris says he was prompted to begin backpacking following the death of his wife of 40 years. He began by launching a weekly blog about his adventures, with the aim of keeping his children updated. Shortly after he completed his odyssey, Chris began cobbling the content into a book.
His book, My Senior Gap Year, was first published in January 2018. In addition to selling in excess of 1,000 copies, the book has since been repackaged and translated into Mandarin for the American market.
In addition, the book has proved a launching pad for Chris’s new post-retirement career, as an international travel expert, author, guest speaker and author mentor.
As with most authors, both Chris and Joan say they were never motivated to write books by the thought of potential earnings. They say the true reward of publishing their books lay in using their own words to share their ideas, experiences and stories with the world.
Chris, who now mentors those interested in writing their own books, says while writing a book with a view to publishing it is an extremely rewarding experience, it is not a decision to be taken lightly.
In any given year there are in excess of 2.2 million books published in the world. According to data from Nielson Bookscan, of the 1.2 million books tracked in 2004, only 25,000 — barely more than two percent - sold more than 5,000 copies.
It appears the most successful authors have some combination of talent, persistence, and luck.
While J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” novels have sold at least 500 million copies worldwide and grossed more than $7.7 billion dollars, it was initially rejected by a dozen British publishing houses and reportedly only got into print after the eight-year-old daughter of a publisher pleaded for it.
In 2006, Publisher’s Weekly claimed the average book sells less than 500 copies.
For the reasons outlined above, Chris says it’s important to have realistic expectations about what you will achieve by writing your book.
And while you will likely derive an enormous amount of personal satisfaction from the process – “there’s nothing like opening a box to find a book with your name on the cover staring back at you” – most authors will at some time find themselves questioning why they even started.
Chris advises that before even writing a rough outline, any active senior flirting with the idea of penning their story should begin by defining their intended readership.
You need to ask yourself whether your book is intended for a small group – typically family and social or business connections – or whether it could serve to influence, inform, entertain or benefit a far greater audience, Chris says.
The next step
Another of the big questions active seniors who wish to add author to their resume may need to consider is who they will get to produce the end product once their manuscript is complete.
There are three primary paths to getting published: landing a traditional publisher, hiring a company to help you publish your book or self-publishing.
The introduction of print-on-demand and eBooks has meant the barriers to publishing have been lowered. Most first time authors, with Joan and Chris among them, opt for this route over the more complex method of finding a publisher willing to offer you a book contract or paying someone to publish your works.
The cost of publishing a book varies greatly but self-published authors can expect to spend anywhere from $100-$2,500 to publish a book based on additional book production costs like editing, cover design, formatting, and more.
Yet whether or not your work is intended for publication, there are often more good reasons to write and to share your story than there are excuses not to, Chris says.
Like all artforms, writing is a craft and takes patience and time.
“It’s not easy, but the effort is immensely rewarding.”
Writing a book can be a daunting process but fortunately there are a range of resources available to help set you on the right path.
Australian Society of Authors (ASA) chief executive Olivia Lanchester says that while there is no magic formula that will guarantee success as a published author, doing your homework before putting pen to paper is a no-brainer.
She says a good place to start is by investigating what industry bodies are around as typically these can offer access to member’s pricing on a range of professional development courses, as well as offer advice on everything from copyright and book distribution to royalties and rates of pay.
It is also worthwhile becoming part of a writer’s group and reading as much as you can in your chosen genre.
The publishing industry is highly competitive so to increase your chances of success, work on your manuscript until it is the best it can be; edit and edit and then edit again, she says.
Other tips that may assist include:
- Identify the readers you are targeting from the start
- Make sure you comply with the publishers' submission guidelines
- Browse bookshops to see which publishers are publishing in your genre so that you work out a list of publishers to target
- Self-publishing is exciting and empowering. Remember, it also involves risks and costs
- Before committing funds to self-publish, speak with others who have already been down this path.
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