Saturday, August 28, 2010

Six-year-old lands multi-book deal?

I used to work as an assistant in a school library. One day the father of a six-year-old student donated a picture book that his daughter had written.

The book was printed by a vanity press. I don't remember which one it was, because at the time I just looked at all the mistakes in spelling, grammar and punctuation. The story itself was about the girl's adventures as a mermaid princess, and of course she had illustrated it herself.

The librarian, having more experience with that kind of thing than I did, thanked him for the donation, but told me privately that the book would not be entered into the library catalog. It was placed on the shelf, but not displayed prominently, and I never saw the librarian read from it to the kids. She read them The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where the Wild Things Are and Jamela's Dress... but not the vanity-printed book.

I remembered this when I read a Writer Beware post about a six-year-old called Leo Hunter who supposedly landed a deal for 23 books after his debut title, Me and My Best Friend, was released. Even Robert Jordan didn't get a deal for that many books.

But when you read further it becomes clear. The company which signed him up is Strategic Book Publishing, a vanity press which charges nearly a thousand dollars per "joint venture contract" and whose owner is being sued by the Florida Attorney General. The front page of the website says,

SBP also offers innovative publishing partnership programs for authors that have published with other publishers, and for authors where the path to large sales numbers is not so clearly defined.

"Partnership publishing" is like "joint venture publishing", "co-investment publishing" or my personal favorite, "a meeting of the minds". All these are more palatable terms for vanity press, the kind of printing where the writer pays. You can see that right away from Strategic Book Publishing's testimonials page, where the entries are from authors - not readers - and the first one is:

I’ve noticed some detractors on the net sites but believe me, the service you have provided for the money is exceptional- I don’t know how you can do it for the money.

When writers with actual publishers discuss money, it's in terms of how much the publisher paid them, not the other way around. So Leo Hunter's family paid for his debut title, allowing him to indulge his dream of becoming more famous than J. K. Rowling. At least until bookstores decline to stock his books and librarians don't consider them on a par with The Gruffalo.

But in the meanwhile, publications on both sides of the Atlantic picked up the story and ran it without so much as a mention of vanity presses. Even a look at the book's entry on Amazon should have raised concerns - the product description doesn't match, the release date is July 2009, the sales rank is low and there are no reviews, professional or otherwise.

That wouldn't make for as gripping a headline. But it would be more honest and might prevent other writers from falling into the Strategic scam.

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Victoria Strauss said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Victoria Strauss said...

Thanks for catching the pub date, Marian--I completely missed that. It's looking to me a lot like this was some kind of ill-advised attempted publicity grab by Leo's mom.

Mary Witzl said...


It's hard to be working so hard towards a goal when only a select handful of people (other writers, publishers, etc.) appreciate how much labor goes into it. People will read about this boy's 'achievement' and wonder why so many people make heavy work of getting published if it's so easy a child can do it.

Marian Perera said...

Victoria - Yes, even if the mom claimed to have signed a contract for 23 books, that wouldn't have been as newsworthy as a six-year-old doing so.

She was probably trying to out-Paolini Paolini there. I imagine the next author to capitalize on their age will have to be two or three years old to beat this.

Mary - I hear you. Hopefully publications like PW will look into this more closely and follow it up.