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In these times of isolation, many people may be finally getting around to writing that novel they’ve planned for years. Without the constraints of traveling to work, or in some cases, work itself, there has never been a better time to begin.

But just how long would the average fiction author have to wait to “publish” a bestseller? In The Book recently produced a comprehensive interactive index to plot on a graph the age and gender of every bestselling author and the genre they were associated with, to truly answer the question: how long do you have to wait? A spokesperson for In The Book, Tom Matthews, describes their process for creating the index and the surprising results the index showed.

We carried out this research by compiling a list of all fiction authors who topped the New York Times’ famous bestseller list since its conception in 1942 and looked at the age they published their first bestseller. By comparing the year of the author's birth, and the book publication year, we got the author's age when their work fiction was published. The interactive index can be used to find out the ages of each of the New York Times bestselling fiction authors, and you can filter by different genres, decades, and genders. You can take a look at the index here.

The research was conducted initially because we were curious to see whether age and gender had any influence on when writers achieved bestseller status. However, the research revealed that, astonishingly, both male and female bestselling authors publish their first bestseller at the average age of 48.8, exactly! Note that we didn’t include the same author twice; we only looked at that author’s first bestseller.

There was a disparity in gender in particular genres, which we will discuss later, but the number that stood out most was the average age being so high. In a world where celebrities seem to only be getting younger, to achieve “celebrity” status in the world of writing appears to be an honor that requires extreme patience and determination. Compare the age of 48 to that of the average Grammy award-winning pop star, World Cup footballer, and other people who have reached the pinnacle of their profession. Writing is a unique discipline career with regards to becoming famous. 

In today’s climate, the results may be refreshing to some: hard work and perseverance are important, and nothing is given.

Of the literary fiction genre, most of the most prestigious, the youngest bestseller is Phillip Roth. He was 35 when Portnoy’s Complaint achieved #1 in 1969, 12 years younger than the average author in the literary fiction genre.

Indeed, across all genres, the youngest average age was 41 (horror), and that’s only a small sample size as there were only 5 authors on there who had bestsellers classed as “horror.” The next lowest average age was science fiction, with 45. This shows that writing and achieving bestseller status requires extreme perseverance and that while in other industries, stars seem to become younger and younger, writing remains an art of dedication.

Gender Disparity Between Genres

Overall, while gender appears to have no influence on when authors become bestsellers, several interesting disparities arise when looking at the average ages of men and women over each genre.

Mystery/Crime authors saw the biggest difference in age with a massive 8 years, separating males and females. Male authors publish bestselling novels at an average of 48 years old, whereas female authors do so at 56. 

The romance genre produced a disparity in favor of females. Female romance authors are, on average, younger than their male counterparts. The average age of a female romance author is 45, whereas a male romance author is 47. 

And the most historically prestigious of the genres, Literary Fiction? Women literary fiction authors achieve bestseller status at an average age of 46, while males do so at 47. That’s even accounting for Harper Lee’s age of 89 when Go Set a Watchman was published. An interesting bonus fact, and something we didn’t know until we undertook the research: To Kill a Mockingbird was never a number one bestseller!

See below for a breakdown of the average ages of all the genres included in this research.

Decade to Decade: Average Age of First-Time Bestselling Authors on the Rise

The average age of authors publishing their first bestseller in each decade is as follows:

1940s = 47
1950s = 44
1960s = 47
1970s = 49
1980s = 49
1990s = 50
2000s = 47
2010s = 51

From this data, one can tell that, on average, authors have to wait longer to publish a work of bestselling fiction. 

There are several possible explanations for this rise in average age. The most obvious would be that more younger authors are now pursuing more non-traditional publishing methods than ever before, with the rise of Amazon and other platforms allowing them to self-publish and many authors being able to make a living from these profits. Either way, the rise in average age is fascinating. There was an anomalous dip in the 2000s, but the statistics when looking at a longer timeframe are fascinating: comparing the 50s to the current decade, an author has to wait over 7 years longer to publish a bestseller.

In The Book say:

In today's culture, young celebrities are common. We live in a time where popular YouTube stars are teenagers. With many using lockdown and isolation to start writing their books, we wanted to demonstrate that writing a bestseller is not something that simply happens overnight and that it actually requires extreme perseverance. Our index of all bestselling fiction authors shows just how long one would need to wait to achieve this status and how big a part gender and genre play in this.

In The Book are a publisher of personalized children’s books in the UK and the US.

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