Last week, I saw a news article about Libby Rees, "Britain's youngest author," who at 12 is about to publish a self-help book for children called At Sixes and Sevens. It's actually her second book; her first, another children's self-help manual entitled Help, Hope and Happiness, was published when she was just 9 years old.
One off note in this happy story struck me: the name of Libby's publisher, Aultbea Publishing. Writer Beware has never received any direct complaints about Aultbea, but the Inverness-based publisher was exposed as a vanity press (cost: £10,000) in a series of critical blog posts by Michael Allen, a.k.a. Grumpy Old Bookman.
Libby Rees isn't Aultbea's only youthful author. Its first was 13-year-old Emma Maree Urquhart, whose novel Dragon Tamers was published by Aultbea in 2005. According to this article in The Independent, the book's claimed success--50,000 copies sold in the first few weeks of release, a figure that Aultbea's owner, Charles Faulkner, later admitted was spurious--spurred a deluge of submissions from young writers.
The company says it has uncovered literary nuggets which it believes could be hits among the hundreds of thousands of pages.
The first is by Robert King, 14, from Tain, near Inverness. On Saturday he signed copies of his book The Apple of Doom in Inverness. His publisher, Charles Faulkner, is already talking about overseas print runs and translation deals...Mr Faulkner's third protégé is the Yorkshire teenager Sophie Codman. Her 230-page fantasy novel Wizard-The Novice's Quest is due to be published next month under the pen name of Sophie Wainwright. Codman, aged 16, took up writing when she ran out of books to read during a family holiday.
Other young authors published by Aultbea include Adora Svitak, age 7, whose Flying Fingers was published in September 2006; the Risbridger brothers, ages 18, 15, and 12, whose The Third Millennium was published this summer; and Aultbea's youngest author ever, 6-year-old Christopher Beale, whose 1,500-word novel This and Last Season's Excursions was launched in November 2006.
A longer article about Christopher Beale, from The Scotsman, digs deeper than other news coverage of Aultbea:
Asked yesterday if the company took payments from authors, Lisa Redwood, Aultbea's operations manager, said: "We have done it in the past. As of next year, we are not doing it any more. It's not something we require for books to be published, but sometimes people wish to invest to get a higher return on royalties."
This is classic vanity publisher doublespeak. But it does raise the question of how many of these young authors' parents had to pay for the publication of their children's books. The answer: at least one. Emma Urquhart, the first of Aultbea's procession of child stars, has revealed her less-than-happy experience with the publisher in her blog (scroll down to the last post).
Aultbea isn't the only vanity publisher ensnaring young authors. Here's a recent news story about 11-year-old Joseph Voight, whose book about living with Alzheimer's Disease will be published next year by DNA Press. In addition to the $4,200 required to publish the book, Joseph and his family must pay for a book tour planned by DNA.
We all know the risks of vanity publishing, both to our bank accounts and to our reputations. But for young authors, there's a more insidious danger. A few writers have started very young--Jane Gaskell, for instance, was just 14 when she wrote her first novel, Strange Evil, and just 16 when it was published. Helen Oyeyemi wrote The Icarus Girl when she was 18, and got it published two years later. Amelia Atwater-Rhodes wrote In the Forests of the Night at age 13, and published it at age 15. And of course there's S.E. Hinton, 15 when she wrote The Outsiders and 18 when it was published, and the ubiquitously-cited Christopher Paolini.
But such successes are rare The truth is, no matter how much raw talent a teenager possesses, odds are that he or she is simply not skilled or experienced enough to write a publishable book. By reeling in kids (and their parents) with flattery and promises, vanity publishers like Aultbea are telling them the exact opposite. If a young writer really has talent, how much might this fake validation stall his or her development? If you're convinced that you are already good enough, how hard will you work to get better? Will you even realize it's necessary?
I wrote my first novel when I was 17. Afire with my new vocation, burning with ambition, I was sure that publishers would immediately recognize my talent, and I'd be a published author before I graduated from college. Some serious head-knocking with reality ensued. The book did eventually find a home--but not until I was in my 20's, and had become capable of rewriting it to publishable standards. That ego-bruising struggle, which taught me that I had a lot to learn and would have to work hard to learn it, was what made me a writer--not the mere act of scribbling down my first novel. If Aultbea or a publisher like it had gotten hold of me when I was 17, confirming all my naive and egotistical ideas about my talent, would I have figured that out? Maybe. But I think it would have taken me a whole lot longer, and wasted a lot more of my time.
Of course, if a vanity publisher had gotten hold of me when I was 17, my parents, who know better, would never have agreed to pay. Moms and dads, take note.