Strategies to get books in print that can further the dialogue on aging
Ashton Applewhite was certain she’d produced a winner. A former literary agent, publishing company editor and author, Applewhite, 66, left the publishing world a decade ago to become an activist against ageism. After speaking and blogging about what she views as an insidious and pervasive prejudice, Applewhite channeled her anecdotes, research and passion into a nonfiction book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.
“It’s a wake-up call about how ageism harms people of all ages. The culture drowns out the message that aging enriches us,” said Applewhite.
She got a shock when she began shopping her manuscript. “The publisher that had an option on it said to my face, no one will buy it because readers don’t want to think about getting old,” Applewhite said. “I got an agent and 20 publishers she took it to passed. I saw first-hand the harm ageism does. This discrimination keeps ideas that could change things from getting out there.”
Applewhite is not the only writer working on aging issues to see their efforts thwarted by an indifferent publishing industry. Her struggle parallels that of other would-be authors who are trying to break into today’s tough book selling environment. The industry is plagued by flat sales, steep competition and shortened reader attention spans.
But with persistence, strategy and a well-told narrative, it is possible to reach readers, as Applewhite and other writers are proving.
“Publishing once thought of itself as society’s agenda-setter, but the (profit) margins are so narrow they have to be sales-driven now,” said Porter Anderson. He is Editor-in-Chief of the international site Publishing Perspectives and editor of The Hot Sheet, a publishing industry newsletter.
“Publishing is a business and they make decisions like car companies. They go with what buyers want,” he added. “In the current commercial climate, the more intellectual end is not always where the sales are.”
There are an ever-growing number of books on aging that do break through. But Anderson agreed with Applewhite that cultural discomfort with the subject prevents mainstream publishers from tackling the topic. The full variety of literary options that reflect the scope and demographic reality of the population are not getting published.
“The perception is that a lot of readers don’t want a book on their coffee table or bedside table that reminds them they’re getting old. Publishers pick up on that hesitance,” Anderson said.
Frustrated by rejection but insistent that her book could find a following, Ashton Applewhite took matters in her own hands. She self-published, setting up her own media campaign and speaking tour to promote her book. She sold 18,000 copies, a number that demonstrated its potential to a traditional big house.
This Chair Rocks was picked up by Celadon Books, the newest imprint of Macmillan Publishing, and will get a wide release next spring.
“I believe this is a book that will take hold and could have a very long life. Ashton brings the subject to life and is the go-to person to change our view on ageism. She has a mission and I find mission-driven authors can often break new ground,” said Jamie Raab, president and publisher of Celadon Books who previously acquired or edited books by Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Nicholas Sparks, Jane Goodall and Al Franken.
Applewhite is ready for the exposure that the next iteration of This Chair Rocks could bring.
“My big vision is that we’re up against a huge problem and it’s going to take all hands on deck to get rid of the self-fulfilling stereotypes,” she said. “Aging is not a problem or a disease, it’s a natural, universal human process that we should be less afraid and more informed about.”
As the old saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat—or sell a book.
The Grandparent Economy got its start with focus groups that researcher Lori Bitter conducted with contemporary grandparents.
“Coming out of the recession, these grandparents, which is code for a segment of the baby boomers, were stepping up and providing for their adult children and their families in ways we hadn’t seen before. I was looking at lots of interesting financial data,” she said.
Bitter holed up at a cottage in Maine for a month, crafting her ideas into a readable form. She originally figured she would self-publish but landed a deal with Paramount Marketing Publishing, which produces business books.
Her tip for prospective authors: seek out niche publishers and understand how your book fits their mission and serves their audience.
“I wasn’t trying to write a best seller. I kept a narrow focus and every page is intended to help the reader understand what is going on in the lives of this consumer,” she said. “I explain to businesses and nonprofits how purchase decisions made in these households are different than in the past.”
Bitter explains that niche authors can expected to do an ever greater share of the legwork to promote their work
“People have the perception that you hand your book over and they create publicity to sell it, but publishers don’t have budgets like they used to,” she said. “You have to work your own plan. A lot of us schlep our books to conferences to sell them. Publishing is not for the faint of heart.”
An option for scholars, college faculty and academic researchers is the university press. The Association of American University Presses represents more than 140 not-for-profit member publishers.
Renowned Prof. Phyllis Moen, who holds an endowed chair in sociology at the University of Minnesota, published Encore Adulthood: Boomers on the Edge of Risk, Renewal, and Purpose with the prestigious Oxford University Press in 2016.
Moen spent five years researching and writing the book. She was driven to share her central thesis: the life course is changing for today’s older citizens, whose abilities and desires to contribute often go unrecognized.
“Society puts everyone over 55 in the category of old. But now there’s this new encore stage that lasts from the 50’s to the 70’s, depending on a person’s health. This longevity bonus comes not at the end of life but in this period,” she said.
Moen’s book has been well-reviewed and earned the Outstanding Publication Award from the American Sociological Association. Today it’s used both as a college text and as a sort of guidebook in classes for older adults who are themselves seeking to reinvigorate their lives through encore careers, entrepreneurship or volunteer work.
“My book is meant to get the conversation going about this time, to get ideas out there because little is set up to take advantage of these opportunities. There are lots of little and big fixes we can do,” she added.”
Moen wants her book to inform more than individuals. She sees it as a springboard to launch her research-based ideas to the communities, employers, families and agencies that intersect with the contemporary needs of older people.
She sees a place for thought-provoking books in advancing public discourse.
“Solutions to some of our big pictures issues can come from academics who have a research background. These are not individual problems, this is a public issue and requires public initiatives,” she said. “The life course is different now but our policies and customs are still from the 1950s.”
There are other options besides getting published for promoting the dialogue about aging and longevity.
While still stumping as a self-published author, Ashton Applewhite used the spotlight of a main stage Ted Talk to campaign against ageism. To date, more than 1.3 million viewers have watched her provocative talk.
“But it produced almost no bump in sales of my book,” Applewhite said. “I’m glad it’s out there, but I would rather people be steeped in my ideas in greater depth than they get in eleven minutes.”
Publishing analyst Porter Anderson thinks that in publishing, as in many commercial endeavors, success begets success. Brisk sales on any topic will get publishers’ attention, he maintains. That will ultimately get more titles on a a topic before readers.
“I encourage people to actually spend money and buy books they support. Send notes to publishers, ask them, why don’t we have more books like this?” he advised. “Publishers look at reader trends with interest. If a book finds a market, all of a sudden the other publishers will want something on that subject, too.”