Monday, December 17, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Reeling in the Kids

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.

18 comments:

Ian Thomas Healy said...

The really scary part about this is that these kids are learning that THIS is the way books get published, instead of slogging through the slush piles and writing something really special.

I'll admit to self-publishing a book, but as an isolated experience, and I had what I still believe to be valid reasons why I made that informed decision. I'm still working on conventional publication for my other work.

All we can do meanwhile is educate people on the best way to get a story published - write something good enough that a publisher will give YOU money for it, not the other way around!

Ian

barrettmanor said...

Let's not forget the parents who think this must be a great way to help get their kids into an elite university. Just one more bit of "life experience" to purchase ready-made for a college application. Scares the heck out of me just to think about it. (You should see what parents in my town do to get their kids an "edge.")

@ian: Of course, there are plenty of valid reasons to self-publish. You went into it with your eyes wide open. Sadly, most people don't.

Deb said...

Shame on these people. IMO the lower layers of hell are reserved for those who exploit youngsters. Even in this fashion.

Katharine Swan said...

Interesting post -- thanks, Victoria. I actually have some stories about Adora Svitak and her mother, whom I worked with when I was first starting to freelance and was still a little naive about some aspects of the business.

You can read about my experiences here.

I had suspected at the time that Adora's book was self-published, but never knew any of the details. This post, in combination with my own experiences with Joyce and Adora, makes me wonder how many of the parents are exploiting their children's talents just as much as the publishers.

Victoria Strauss said...

That's really interesting, Katherine. Thanks for the link.

Adora's website made me queasy--I feel bad for that little girl, who is being taught to believe such ridiculous things about herself, and maybe pushed into her "accomplishments."

Also see Akiane, "child prodigy, artist, poet," and Marla Olmstead, child painter (though there is suspicion about whether she really completes her paintings unaided).

Katharine Swan said...

Victoria,

I'm glad you mentioned Akiane. Back when I was in touch with Adora's family, I followed a link to Akiane's site from Adora's. I sent a message from the site with a suggestion relating to the art, and received a response from the father.

I too wonder whether these kids are being pushed, too. It almost seems like the next generation of soccer moms, living vicariously through their children.

One thing that I think is telling is that all the contact I had with both families was through the parents, rather than the children themselves. It was particularly noticeable with the Svitaks, as I exchanged emails with Joyce for months, and not once did I receive an email from Adora -- even when the messages were sent from "Adora's" email account.

Lis Riba said...

For some reason, this reminds me of Ally Sheedy. Though she's better known as a Brat Pack actress, she first made a name for herself for getting a children's book published at age 12.

I think that was thru a legitimate publisher (it was back in the 1970s). Still would be interesting to see what becomes of these child-prodigy authors.

Julia said...

Ally Sheedy's mom is big-wheel agent Charlotte Sheedy. Her book, "She Was Nice to Mice" was published by Dutton or Simon and Schuster, I think.

It's actually a cute book, as I recall. The future Queen Victoria befriending the mice who live in Buckingham Palace or something of that sort.

Victoria Strauss said...

Thanks for that info, Julia. According to Wikipedia (which I nearly always take with a grain of salt), the book's illustrator was also very young--just 13.

This is one of those stories that makes writers think that publishing is a big web of personal connections, and you don't have a prayer unless you "know someone."

Kristi Holl said...

I feel bad enough when an adult--who should know better and investigate a company to see if it's legit--gets taken. But preying on children--this leaves me feeling sick at heart.

srsbizniz said...

Excellent article, Victoria. Glad, if surprised, that there are so many people out there willing to put effort into digging into these things and discovering the truth.

There's a link back and referenece to this article up amongst the usual rambling at the blog: http://www.used-goods.net/forbidden_knowledge/

I knew about self-publishing before the deal happened... I wouldn't have gone into it, but conveniently, I wasn't told. Manipulation of a writer more than exploitation of a child, and a common event, in my opinion.... but maybe since it's been more than 3 years since my incident I'm just uneasy about still being seen as a child amongst the literary bloggers of the world, heh.

E.Maree
xoxo

Anonymous said...

Wow, I was wondering, have any of you heard of American Book Publishing? If you have are they bogus or real? I'm a young author who is trying to get her book published so I just wanted to know.

Victoria Strauss said...

Vanity publisher Aultbea is now calling itself Script Publishing Ltd.

80s wronged child author said...

Define "skilled or experienced enough"??? This sounds like prejudice to make yourself feel better.

Child author books are published far more readily than adult ones, because the fact of being a child is used as the selling point. Instead of attacking children's abilities, what child authors need is not to have their chance to write a book criminally ruined by abusive school homework consuming all their time instead.

Katharine Swan said...

While we're quoting...

The "wronged child author" who commented above me also commented on my blog, where he was kind enough to leave a link. If you go to his page, you'll see it contains phrases such as "criminally idiotic life ruining homework" (?!) and compares the sci-fi novel he never got to write to "the books lost in the sacking of the Library of Alexandria."

Riiiiight.

Victoria Strauss said...

Here's another, longer version of the article you linked to, Katharine, which the writer apparently submitted to a governmental committee on education. A quote:

It follows that you have the automatic duty to require the removal from the educational system of any possibility of one particular crime against children in these ways, which happened to me in 1982, from happening. This is the destruction, by school's demands upon time, of a child's chance to complete a book and make it as a child author.

I'd say there's a very simple remedy for this problem--complete a book as an adult and make it as an adult author.

The writer identifies himself as having Asperger's, which explains much.

Briana said...

My daughter is 8 and a blossoming author (I'll skip all the proud parent stuff - I know you've heard it before). I've looked into Cricket magazine and its associates, but the issue is that her stories are really too long for this venue (twice or three times too long). I know that all writing can always be tightened, but losing 50-60% of the story is more than tightening. Do you know of any legitimate publication venues where she could submit which would accept longer pieces? Thank you. Your page has been very helpful to me as a parent new to this process.

80s wronged child author said...

Katherine Swan describes her own blog as "to showcase my work and display my credentials." So she boasts about herself, while rubbishing other writers and calling them wannabes. Tells folks all they need to know about her judgment.

I find an answer on her blog where she expressed disbelief that homework can be abusive. Here is a description exactly how - at present the link is publicly accessible without having to log in to Facebook.

www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=277574176772&topic=14631

The Library of Alexandria point came from Carl Sagan. It is about destruction of a society's collective memory in the form of writing, which is a part of its rational resources. The writing was simply entitlted to exist, it has nothing to do with assuming the writing was brilliant.

So Victoria: if you think writers with Asperger's are no good, does that include Luke Jackson? He made the biggest child author media impact of the early 00s, for writing about Asperger's to challenge dismissive assumptions about it - like yours? But the Times and other magazine write-ups let it be known that Luke's writings were written as formless assemblages of ideas, and it was his mum who edited them and formed into any structure for a book. Indeed, in the Times she claimed to have done 12 times as much working time on the books as Luke had.

Every time I mention this, Luke's fans take it as nasty and say I'm trying to discredit him. As I have said every time, not at all, I have total belief that he was able to write on his own, I'm just describing how that's not the way they actually let it happen. It was more controlled than that, there is actually no more independent work to credit him with than to credit a wronged child with. Adult now, Luke has not chosen to class himself as wronged, but in principle he could.

See, if you leap to his defence, then by it you defend aspie writers, which nicely means me too.