Tuesday, May 19, 2015

New York Times Bestsellers: Ages of Authors

One aspect of literature that fascinates me is the fact that it celebrates accumulated wisdom. Authors often bloom in their middle and senior years. 

I examined the ages at which the authors had their bestsellers. To simplify the process I subtracted birth year from year initially appearing on the bestseller list rather than seeking out birthdate versus list date.

A special award goes to J.R.R. Tolkien who, 34 years after dying at age 81, had the novel The Children of Húrin rise to the number one position on the bestseller list, 115 years after his birth.

Another remarkable story is that of Helen Hooven Santmyer. In the 1910s, she was a suffragette and in the 1920s, an Oxford scholar. For the bulk of her professional life she worked as a librarian in Dayton, Ohio. At age 86, and in failing health, she published her 1200 page epic, "...And the Ladies of the Club." It sold several hundred copies, languishing in obscurity for two years until it got noticed. In 1984 it was selected as a Book of the Month, and rose to the number one position on the New York Times Bestsellers List where it stayed for seven weeks.

Eleven novels reaching the number one spot on the New York Times Adult Fiction Bestseller list between 1960 and 2015 were by authors over the age of 80. Another 38 were by authors between 70 and 79 and 133 novels were by authors between 60 and 69. The average age was 54.1 and the median 54.

On the other extreme, two novels were by authors in their twenties. Rachel Van Dyken with her novel The Bet, owns the position as the youngest.


Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of one novel, A Predatory Mind (2013) from Loose Leaves Publishing. His mystery, Never Kill A Friend, will be available June 15th from Ransom Note Press. The sequel to A Predatory Mind is set to come out later this year.



4 comments:

  1. I tweeted this! It's a great post, I hope you tweet it too!

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  4. Martin, your research was recently referenced in an article in Atlantic Magazine:
    https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/07/work-peak-professional-decline/590650/

    The specific quote is,
    "When Martin Hill Ortiz, a poet and novelist, collected data on New York Times fiction best sellers from 1960 to 2015, he found that authors were likeliest to reach the No. 1 spot in their 40s and 50s. Despite the famous productivity of a few novelists well into old age, Ortiz shows a steep drop-off in the chance of writing a best seller after the age of 70. (Some nonfiction writers—especially historians—peak later, as we shall see in a minute.)"

    I do not mean to harass you for an excerpt from your blog that was used or possibly misused by someone else. But there appear to be two misinterpretations of your data implicit in the Atlantic article. Before confronting that author (Arthur C. Brooks) with his bad math, I wanted to check with you about your data.

    Question 1: Brooks states, "he found that authors were likeliest to reach the No. 1 spot in their 40s and 50s."

    From reading your blog post and squinting at the chart, it appears that you actually found that about 170 books by authors in their 40's and about 190 books by authors in their 50's reached the NYT Best Seller Lists, and that these numbers were significantly greater than the numbers by authors in other age brackets.

    So the question is, did you do any research into the total numbers of living authors in each age bracket, or the number of books published each year by authors in each age bracket? WIthout one of the latter pieces of data about total numbers of authors, Brooks can make no claim about the likelihood of being published.

    Question 2: Brooks states, "Ortiz shows a steep drop-off in the chance of writing a best seller after the age of 70." Here in this blog post, you clearly labelled your age chart with this caption, "Number of novels by authors of a given age range."

    So the question is, did you correlate your data to the number of living people in each age bracket at the time a given book was published? Without that data, nobody can make a claim about the "chance of being published." Indeed, given the steep increase in mortality after age 70, it seems rather more probable that the real reason for the drop off is an encounter with the Grim Reaper. But that's just a guess, as I don't have any data on Reaper encounters.

    Again, I've found your blog interesting and your data thought-provoking. I'm concerned about misuse of your data by another author. Thank you for any insight you can provide.

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