The All-Time Bestselling Authors Who Debuted After Age 50

Everyone seems to agree they have a book inside them, some unique perspective or experience that could be translated into a bestselling novel if they so chose. While not everyone aspires to be a writer, anyone who does quickly discovers that writing a coherent book isn’t as easy as it looks. A great idea is one thing; 80,000 words that make sense and compel the reader to keep turning pages is something else entirely. A lack of time is the main reason offered for not writing that book, and it makes sense: Between school or work, personal relationships, and the fact that we all spend about one-third of our lives sleeping, finding the time to write is a huge challenge that leads many people to postpone the attempt, and then one day you wake up and you’re middle-aged and it seems like you’ve missed your chance.

Or maybe not. The “normal” progression of a life is beat into us at an early age: Carefree youth, schooling, then a career and family and finally retirement. Most of us assume that whatever we’re doing when we’re thirty is what we’ll do until we finally retire. Increasingly, however, we’re realizing that traditional concepts of retirement and age-appropriateness stem from a time in history before modern lifestyle choices and health care—a time, in short, when most people died well before their 60th birthday. The idea that you retire when you’re sixty-five and then have a few short, glorious years of leisure have been replaced with the struggle to fund what could be three decades of living post-retirement.

It also means that it’s never too late to write that novel you’ve been pondering. In fact, plenty of bestselling authors didn’t publish their first book until they were 50 years old or even older. Here are the bestselling authors who didn’t get started until their sixth decade.

01
of 05

Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler (Center)
Raymond Chandler (Center). Evening Standard / Stringer

The King of hardboiled detective fiction didn’t publish The Big Sleep until he was fifty years old. Before that, Chandler was an executive in the oil industry—a Vice President, in fact. He was fired, however, in part due to the economic trials of the Great Depression, and in part because Chandler was almost a cliché of the old-school executive class: He drank too much on the job, he had affairs with co-workers and subordinates, he had frequent embarrassing outbursts, and threatened to commit suicide several times. He was, in short, the Don Draper of his era.

Unemployed and without income, Chandler had the crazy idea that he might make some money by writing, so he did. Chandler’s novels went on to be incredibly popular bestsellers, the basis for several films, and Chandler went on to work on several screenplays as both primary writer and script doctor. He never stopped drinking, either. His novels remain in print to this day, despite the fact that they were often cobbled together from various (and sometimes wholly unrelated) short stories, which made the plots Byzantine to say the least.

02
of 05

Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt
Frank McCourt. Steven Henry / Stringer

Famously, McCourt didn’t write his Pulitzer Prize-winning bestselling memoir Angela's Ashes until he was in his early 60s. An Irish immigrant to the U.S., McCourt worked several low-paying jobs prior to being drafted into the army and serving in the Korean War. Upon his return he used the G.I. Bill benefits to attend New York University and subsequently became a teacher. He spent the last decade or so of his life as a celebrated writer, although he only published one other book (1999’s ‛Tis), and the accuracy and authenticity of Angela’s Ashes was brought into question (memoirs always seem to be problematic when it comes to the truth).

McCourt is the most obvious example of someone who spent their whole lives working and supporting their family, and then only in their retirement years do they find the time and energy to pursue a dream of writing. If you’re heading into retirement, don’t assume it’s just marking time—get out that word processor.

03
of 05

Bram Stoker

Dracula by Bram Stoker
Dracula by Bram Stoker.

Fifty seems to be a magic age for writers. Stoker had done a lot of minor writing—mainly theater reviews and academic works—prior to publishing his first novel The Snake’s Pass in 1890 at the age of 43. No one paid much notice, however, and it was seven years later when he published Dracula at the age of 50 that Stoker’s fame and legacy were assured. While Dracula’s publication predates the modern concept of the bestseller list, the fact that the book has been in continuous print for more than a century attests to its unassailable bestseller status, and it was written by a man just beginning his sixth decade after prior literary efforts had gone mostly ignored.

04
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Richard Adams

Watership Down by Richard Adams
Watership Down by Richard Adams.

Adams was well-established as a civil servant in England when he began writing fiction in his spare time, but he made no serious efforts to be published until he wrote Watership Down when he was fifty-two years old. At first it was just a story he told his two daughters, but they encouraged him to write it down, and after a few months of trying he secured a publisher.

The book was an instant smash, winning several awards, and is now considered a staple of English literature. In fact, the book continues to scar young children every year as they assume it is a lovely story about bunnies. As far as literary legacies go, horrifying subsequent generations isn’t so bad.

05
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Laura Ingalls Wilder

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Even before her first published novel, Laura Wilder had lived quite a life, from her experiences as a homesteader that formed the basis for her Little House books to a career first as a teacher and later as a columnist. In the latter capacity she didn’t begin until she was forty-four years old, but it wasn’t until the Great Depression wiped her family out that she considered publishing a memoir of her childhood that became Little House in the Big Woods in 1932—when Wilder was sixty-five years old.

From that point forward Wilder wrote prolifically, and of course anyone who was alive during the 1970s is familiar with the television show loosely based upon her books. She wrote well into her seventies and despite the brevity of her active writing career her impact remains considerable to this day.

Never Too Late

It’s easy to become discouraged and to assume that if you haven’t written that book by a certain date, it’s too late. But that date is arbitrary, and as these writers have shown, there is always time to start that bestselling novel.