So it seems that not only are writers now the target of unscrupulous, money-grabbing ‘companies’, but in particular young writers as well.
We, as writers, are all aware that if you choose to use a self-publishing company for your book, or even an independent editor, you run a certain risk of being taken for a ride. Research and prudence will usually see you good in these instances, but the story in the following newspaper article is another next level of dastardliness. I’ll also mention that I have a friend who fell for this one, and she is by no means gullible.
I shan’t say any more, as the article speaks for itself…
It’s a typical weekday morning rush. As you hurry the kids to finish their breakfast and get off to school, the post arrives. In it there’s a letter that thrills everyone. It’s from a company called Young Writers announcing that “an imaginative mini saga – a story using 50 words or less”, written by your 10-year-old and sent in by her school, has been chosen for publication in a book.
“The Adventure Starts Here is the 18th annual Young Writers’ competition and we have received in excess of 20,000 stories from all over the UK and overseas,” it says. “I am therefore delighted to let you know that Julie’s piece has been chosen for publication.”
The letter comes with an impressive “Talent for Writing” certificate which says: “This is a certificate of merit to certify that Julie Smith (not her real name) has written a creative piece of distinction that was selected for publication in a Young Writers anthology”.
Having been showered with congratulations by her proud parents, your child heads off to school on cloud nine to tell her friends and teachers of her success. But her mood is less jubilant, when she discovers that she’s by no means the only “winner”. Most of her friends’ parents have received the same letter.
Your mood takes a further dive when you read the letter in more detail and find that it’s going to cost you £14.99 plus £2.50 postage to buy the book containing your child’s work. OK, the price comes down the more you buy – “a great keepsake for other family members, capturing a snapshot of Julie’s work at this age in a format that will last for years to come” – and postage is free if you buy four or more. But it seems a ghastly amount to pay for something where your true interest lies in only 50 precious words written by your child – the rest won’t hold quite the same fascination, let’s face it.
This was the scenario for my daughter and many of her friends last week. Most parents reacted with delight when they first read the letter and, despite the cost, some readily complied with their children’s request to order at least one copy – “pester power” is hard to resist when your child appears to have achieved so much and wants mum and dad to buy the proof.
Most, however, felt more sceptical on hearing that virtually all the entries from the school had been accepted for publication – a spokesperson for Young Writers confirmed to me that between 60% and 80% are published. Was this venture, they wondered, perhaps more about making money out of proud but gullible parents, than a genuine literary achievement by their children?
One mother says: “Our daughter has needed special help with reading and writing in the past, so when we first discovered she had been chosen to have her story published, we were so proud that both her dad and I were literally in tears. The letter made it sound like her work had been singled out and that was a massive achievement for her. Then, when I found out all her friends’ stories had been chosen and that the book was only being sold to parents and would not be available in bookshops or libraries, I realised it must be a money-making exercise. I think playing with parents and children’s emotions in this way is absolutely outrageous.”
Elaine Millard, chair of professional body the National Association for the Teaching of English, says: “I would disaprove of this. It appears to be a money-making business with little educational merit. Looking at the website at youngwriters.co.uk, there isn’t any advice on how to write well – this is left to the school – and no apparent feedback for the children. The book on offer is also very expensive and, coupled with parents’ desire not to let their children feel left out, puts pressure on parents to buy at a time when many are having to count every penny. Parents would be better off spending their money on the many lovely children’s books available for half the price in bookshops to read with their children.”
Parents who wish to encourage their children’s creative writing further should look instead at websites, including publishinghouse.me.uk and poemhunter.com, where children can upload and publish their writing online free of charge and get feedback from their peers, Ms Millard suggests.
Reputable national writing competitions are also worth looking into. Parents will find a list of those available for both child and adult writers on the National Literacy Trust website, literacytrust.org.uk.
• Young Writers was invited by Guardian Money to respond to questions it raised, but declined to comment.