The other day, my mum phoned with great excitement to announce that my 7-year-old nephew is going to be a published poet! She's pre-ordered a copy of the anthology – it might be £15.99, but that's a small price to pay for seeing his name in print!
As 'the writer' in the family, I was probably supposed to give some words of encouragement and inspiration for our budding John Milton. Unfortunately, I'm also the bitter and twisted old scepti-hag of the family, so I'm afraid I couldn't muster up much enthusiasm for the ancient money-making trick for which he's become fodder.
I suspect most readers here are well aware of rat-scented poetry contests. You enter a free competition and receive a letter saying you've been selected out of 7 billion entries to BE PUBLISHED. The book will get into the British Library – whoop-de-rollerblading-hoo! You can even order copies at a bargain price for all your chums.
But when the tome arrives, you discover that your carefully crafted verse is buried under an avalanche of emo outpourings from a thousand other suckers. You won't get any royalties and you won't see the book in any shops. You feel like a bit of an idiot but you think 'c'est la vie' and move on.
At least, you do if you're an adult.
There are, however, 'imprints' that don't aim their services at grown-up writers. They pitch their marketing materials to schools and give teachers a few resources to encourage the class to submit their work.
The average 7-year-old doesn't frequent the many informative blogs and forums about getting published. If you're 7 and your teacher says you've won a contest, you're well within your rights to be pretty chuffed. You don't know you're just a pawn in a money-making scheme that relies on your Aged-Ps and grandma forking out for an upmarket photocopy. If your family then refuses to buy 'your' book, well – how could they do that to you? Lifelong psychological torment awaits.
At the most basic economic level, of course, there is nothing wrong with a company providing a product and people choosing to buy it. All businesses are intended to be 'money-making schemes' (though judging by the websites of some small publishers, I do wonder!) What is distasteful in this case, however, is that the profit is the result of manipulating the emotions of small children and their parents.
It's easy for us slush-pile vermin to feel that everyone in the world is trying to be a writer, but most people have quite sensibly never thought about committing pen to paper. The teachers and parents are not stupid or gullible – they just have no reason to have spent months investigating how to get published.
Yet even when parents become suspicious about the scheme, how are they supposed to look at their child's excited little face and explain that, actually, the whole class's dross got accepted for this wonkily-printed paperback? No one wants to be the parent who says:
No, Jonny, the biggest achievement of your life is NOT worth £16 to me – hell, kid, that's like three days-worth of Jack Daniel's or something.
On the surface, these schemes might appear harmless fun, but if an individual child has been having a tough time, news of such a supposedly wonderful opportunity could have the whole family in tears of joy – it must be crushing when the truth becomes apparent in the playground the next day.
So, how do the people who run these companies justify getting kids to vanity publish? Well, they say they're encouraging creative writing, and that publication boosts children's confidence, motivating them to continue with poetry. How admirable – but an anthology printed on Lulu.com by the PTA would have the same effect and would also raise funds for the school (which gets no profit from these schemes other than the remote possibility of a cash prize). Parents and children could look back on such a publication with fondness and pride – rather than an uneasy sense that someone was laughing all the way to the bank.