Vanity Publishing for Kids

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 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.


Beth Kemp said...

There are quite a lot of these scams and they really make me angry. I'm a Head of English in a sixth form college and get loads of promo stuff for these in my post, even though many are aimed at younger kids. Lots of our students have previously been published in such anthologies as well - I have to dissuade them from going on about it in their uni applications for Creative Writing courses, as I know the admissions tutors won't be impressed.

JO said...

Thanks for highlighting this again. But here we are speaking to the converted - it needs pushing on teachers' sites, so they are more aware of it.

And the Lulu idea is great - maybe when my grandson is bigger that is something I can do for him and his school.

MorningAJ said...

When I was at school there was no such thing as Lulu but my school had an anthology of work printed every year 'the old fashioned way' by the same printer who produced the school mag. It included art work too.

Penny Dolan said...

Came across this post via Stroppy Author, and I SO agree! I'm all for schools publishing their own anthologies, but these vanity scams are pernicious. Once it's all agreed, all the adults involved have to keep up the pretence - and then there's the cute "Young Writer" article plus pic in the local paper and others are attracted . . . Grr.

Jo, it certainly does need pushing there! Or Lulu and similar sites pushed more strongly? Must go and rest now - I'm fuming all over again!!! :-)

Leila said...

Urgh. A difficult situation - because of course if you're not over the moon for little Johnny, your family assume you're selfish and jealous. And everyone assumes that getting published is easy (after all, little J can do it...). And everyone assumes these companies are publishers, not printing and packaging companies. Depressing.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Have you thought about writing to the Education papers about this? It's pretty important stuff, isn't it!

Neil said...

I just lashed out a fortune for an overpriced book that included my 9 year-old's poem. It annoys me intensely that the school allowed this to be promoted within classes - the poems were actually written in class. And yet you can hardly tell your child that you won't buy one.
It also has the added impact that it robs you of any kudos you get from your kids for being a published writer now they know how easy it is to get in print!

Geraldine Ryan said...

I think I would write to Chair of Governors if I had school age children and point out this article of Caroline's There's no way they should be asking you for that sort of money.

DT said...

I think everyone before me has already said it so well - it has to be tackled by the school / PTA and there is an affordable remedy in the form of Lulu, Lightning Source and others. In fact, the school could make a virtue out of it by discussing it with the kids and then maybe running their own anthology / competition in response.

Maggie May said...

I seem to bucking the ranting trend here. I was delighted to buy a copy of the Young Writers Playground Poets, Heart of England Poetry back in 2005when my eldest grandson was 10. What wonderful encouragement for a child to see his name in print. He has gone on to really enjoy English and Drama and is a strong member of the school's drama group. I have read many of the poems and am as impressed with them as I am unimpressed with many winning entries of poetry competitions I have read. What a wingeing lot you are!

Emma Lee said...

@Maggie May: yes it's great for your 10 year old but wait until he's got some experience under his belt and starts reading the other poems in the anthology and learns it's not a great thing after all and won't be an "achievement" to boast about if he decides to take writing further.

What makes me angry is that the publishers directly target schools who get involved without asking the parents who then feel they have little choice but to pay for something they never gave permission for their child to become involved in.

Caroline Rance said...

Thanks for so many comments, and I'm particularly glad people have highlighted some less obvious repercussions of these schemes - contributors putting the publishing credit on a uni application, for example, or their parents contacting the local papers for a photo opportunity that could later prove embarrassing.

@Maggie May - I'm pleased to hear of your grandson's achievements and don't doubt that he felt encouraged at the time, but I still do not think a vanity published anthology is an ethical way of boosting children's confidence - the ends don't justify the means when schools can provide the same encouragement by creating their own book.

DT said...

I was pleased to see Maggie's view, even though it's in a minority. My question would be just how many other writers in that anthology went on to write as adults and whether they attributed it to the anthology.

And it's whinger with an 'h' - I'm not just a whinger, I'm also a pedant!

Ms Baroque said...

Oh for heaven's sake. No offence intended, but you lot sound like the music teacher who made my brother audition for the school choir when he was 8, as if they were aiming for some kind of record deal.

I can see objecting to asking parents, who may be hard-pressed, for the money - but I can't see any earthly reason why a 9-year-old shouldn't be encouraged to be chuffed to see his name in print. It's not "vanity publishing" when you're a kid. When you're a kid there's no MARKET for it. There are no stakes, and why not let them think it was just easy? Children deserve approval, not flipping rejection slips and self-doubt. It's just about encouragement and a sense of achievement - that is, the achievement of having written it, and being interested, and taking part - and as such deserves to be celebrated by family members. I was very happy to buy the book my kid's writing was in - and have kept it all these years because he was proud of it, and I was proud of him for being in it, and also several little friends of the family's writings are in it. One of whom, his mum gave me the same rant you lot are having - but who was hurt by her refusal to buy the book? Not the company. Only her little boy, who probably couldn't feel the warm glow from the hard line his mum was taking. And in the school, yeah, the other kids got a copy of the book with their story and he didn't get a copy of his. I thought it was a shame.

And as for Lulu, fine, but how much spare time do you think these teachers have?

And if I were a university entrance officer and saw one of these publications listed on a student's CV, I'd say: oh good, she's been actively engaging with literature ever since she was little.

Maggie May said...

Thank you Mrs Barogue for saying everything I wanted to say.

Maggie May said...

Thank you Mrs Baroque for saying everything I wanted to say. Sorry for spelling you name incorrectly.

Unknown said...

Maybe I'm barking up the wrong tree here but why is everyone so uptight about this? No ones holding a gun to your head to buy the book.... So don't? My son is 6 and was over the moon with his little certificate and it's given him a confidence boost and as a consequence he wants to write more stories.... Stop me if I'm missing the big deal here

DT said...

Thanks for your comment - however did you find this post after all this time?! I think people are relating this sort of anthology to the type aimed at adults where, basically, everyone is included not based on ability but based on ability to pay. In those instances there is often little thought given to editing because the primary objective is to get people's money. As to whether that matters if someone's kid sees their writing in print - that's for parents to decide. But...parents may feel pressured to spend just to ensure their child doesn;t feel they've missed out. Cost is clearly a factor here. In the end, you make your choice and you pay your money - or not.