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Tuesday 9 February 2010

Child Writers Beware!

Four children reading the book How the Grinch ...Image via Wikipedia

“You are turning me into a sceptic” my wife said waving a mock accusation finger at me. As a mobile nail technician my wife comes back with a whole of host stories from her various colour clients and I just knew this was the start of just such an anecdote. Without elaborating I understood what sort of episode had occurred. A naïve person had just been told the truth about something they had invested a large degree of belief in and my wife now wondered whether or not it had been worth commenting in the first place. In the sceptical world this is called debunking. It is more popularly known as “pissing on someone’s strawberries”.

The woman looked at my wife with a beaming smile on her face. Being a mother, my wife knew that look all too well. It’s that smile that says pride like no other. A pride reserved for one’s child. “My daughter is having her short story published!” the woman announced. “Congratulations” my wife commented, as you would, and waited to hear how this came about. Apparently the young girl, aged 11, had entered a competition through her school to have her short story published in a book of collected stories. It would appear this woman’s daughter was a young girl of rare talent. But before we assign her to the ranks of child author stardom alongside Dorothy Straight, Anne Frank, David Klein and Susan Eloise Hinton, there is more to the story. My wife does not mince her words. “Are they are asking you and other parents to buy this book?” she said. Wishing to demonstrate the proof of her offspring’s literary success the woman pulled out the letter that revealed this exciting news. It was a letter she hadn’t read very well.

It all seemed good. Too good! My wife is the long suffering spouse to a writer, so she has had to read the type of letters writers receive from people who agree to publish. Rarely are prospective publishers who have agreed to take a gamble on paying for the printing and production of your unproven work reveal their joy in the acceptance letter. The letter is usually business-like and straight to the point. This wasn’t one of those letters. This was a letter that began with the great news that her daughter had been “chosen” to appear in the book and then ended with an order form. This was a letter that now wanted this woman to pay almost £15 per copy of a book that contained all the “chosen” children’s stories. My wife put the obvious rhetorical question, “I don’t mean to rain on your parade but don’t you think that this has gone out to all the parents of all the children who entered this ‘competition’”.

The initial reaction to this new development was anger. It is a typical response to anyone who has invested belief in something they so desperately want to believe and then been shown a convincing argument that throws serious doubt over said belief. Involve a person’s child and that belief can be strong. Denial is an also a common defence mechanism especially if the argument reveals that the believer has been duped in some way. My wife didn’t push the issue, being a mother herself she could empathize with the raw maternal feelings present at the time.

Vanity publishing comes in many forms. It can prey on the desperate new writer and in this time where fame has become a type of currency, the temptation to pay in order to get your name on the front of a dust jacket is more alluring than ever. There is a very legitimate way to pay for your work to get into print and some very reputable publish on demand (POD) services provide this. I know a good number of great authors, such as Geoff Thompson and Heather Vallance, who have found self-publishing to be a much more profitable avenue for their books than the traditional method. It is also worth noting that even the great epic poet, John Milton, self-published. It is debated that the lines between vanity publishing and other self-publishing services have blurred since digital media and the emergence of the internet. However, the distinction remains that vanity press derive all their profits from having writers pay for their work to be printed and have no real vested or direct interest in the authors being able to sell.

What is particularly disreputable about the type of vanity publishing described in this article is that not only is it targeted at parents via their children, but that it is not really very honest. It doesn’t seem to present much of a competition in the first place and worse still the “prize” is for the parent to pay for a book that includes their child’s work alongside countless others. Actually it probably would have cost far less to have the short story self-published by a reputable POD like Unfortunately I do not have the name of this particular group, although “Young Writers” appear to offer a similar service and charge the same amount for their poetry competition books. There is a strong rebuttal offered in a comment to a reviewer on

The next time my wife saw her client a rational cooling off period had done the woman some good. Rather than going deep into denial she saw reason. She went to her daughter’s school to investigate a little further. She spoke to her daughter’s teacher about this “competition”. The teacher was delighted to announce that all of her students had got their work into the book. Hey, what are the chances! Now who do you think might have been on a commission there?

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