[Updated 17 October 2017 to correct links and add comment about schools]
This week Alexa (11) learned a hard lesson about business ethics. Yesterday she rang me at work all excited because a great short story she had submitted to Write4Fun (a “schools poetry and short story competition” run by the Australasian Publishing Group) had “passed the first round of judging”. By the time I arrived home some of the gloss had worn off, and by the end of the day she was quite disappointed. It’s a salutary warning about how the drive to make profit can corrupt a good idea.
By passing the first round of judging, she received a letter which said (amongst other things):
And Alexa, we are very excited to offer you the opportunity of having your short story published!
Before we continue, let me elaborate. ‘Read Write Repeat’ will contain many poems and short stories from students all over Australia. The book will be produced as a beautifully presented, hardbound volume that will literally last for generations.
Still attending school and a Published Author… this could be you!!
Alexa, we are very excited to produce ‘Read Write Repeat’ and hope you will choose to be part of it. We enthusiastically encourage young writers with our competitions and pride ourselves on being able to “show them off” in our fine publications…
PLEASE DON’T DELAY
‘Read Write Repeat’ is scheduled for release in March 2016. Unfortunately, we have only a limited number of places available in the book. We urge you to secure your place as soon as possible by returning the enclosed forms. Due to size and page restrictions, we need to know immediately if you wish to take advantage of this exciting offer.
For a “special discount price” we could pay only $68 (plus $9.95 postage) for a copy of the book. For another $27 she could have a photo and a dedication included in the book. For $36 (plus $6 postage and handling) we could have her story done as a plaque or on 12 bookmarks. For $185 (postage include) we could get 2 books, the photo and dedication, 1 eBook (only available in the package), 1 plaque and 1 set of bookmarks.
A bit of searching on the internet find quite a lot of people labelling it a scam (see for example Bored So I Complain and The L6F Morning Star.) As far back as 2001, Andrew Humphries, made a private members statement in the NSW parliament which included:
I believe that company has acted immorally, unethically and quite inappropriately in relation to its dealings with young primary school students. Australasian Publishing Group Pty Ltd was responsible for organising a competition throughout Australia and New Zealand. It invited primary school students, including those from Belrose Primary School—of which one was my son—to submit a poem. The upshot was that the entries once received were not merely assessed to be considered for a prize. The group wrote directly to the students who had entered the competition and then sought to coerce them into believing that the poem they had submitted may be published in an Australia-wide bound volume to be called “Poets of the Future II”.
That company gave a strong impression that that would occur only if the book was purchased at a cost of $54.95 plus packaging and delivery costs. It also pressured the students to purchase a poetry package at a cost of $149, which most primary school students would undoubtedly be unable to pay. I believe it was unethical to pressure young children in this way, to in turn put pressure on their parents to make the purchase so that they would not be disappointed. A letter sent to the students advising them of the opportunity to have their poems published in a national book would certainly have raised their hopes and given them a sense of pride. They would later discover that the letter had been sent to all their peers at school and that there were strings attached to the offer. The offer was effectively a sham.
The Office of Fair Trading warns about Vanity Publishers, particularly in relation to schools.
Unethical vanity publishers
These people want you to believe that they will make considerable efforts to market your published work. Yet despite the inflated price you pay, they have no real interest in the success of the book.
Their sole concern is the money you pay to either have it published or purchase a copy of the work. They employ various methods to drum up trade.
School literary competitions
Unethical vanity publishers often target schools by promoting short story or poetry competitions. The student’s parents are then contacted by the publisher and informed their child’s entry will be published – provided they agree to purchase the book. The cost of a book is quite substantial, often in the $60–$70 price range. As these competitions attract up to 3,000 entrants, it can be a very profitable exercise for the publisher. But distribution is limited to family and friends. You won’t find these works available through bookshops.
Unethical vanity publishers play upon the desire of parents to demonstrate support for their child’s creative abilities by purchasing the book. However, parents are urged to treat these deals with caution. They are paying large sums for publications of dubious value.
Australian Publishing Group, Bundall, Queensland
The Office of Consumer and Business Affairs, South Australia issued a warning against this group. This vanity publisher obtains stories from students for a school short story competition offering the chance of winning a prize. The students are then notified that their story is considered worthy of publication and for $65, they can purchase a hard bound copy. A photograph and a dedication can be included for an extra $25.
I’d love to know what percentage of submissions get through the first round of judging – I suspect it is virtually all of them. Everybody we know who submitted has received the publication offer.
[Update: I asked them what percentage get through the first round of judging and they said:
On average, approximately 40% of entrants are eliminated from the first round of judging in our writing competitions. (Obviously this does vary a little from competition to competition.) So she has already surpassed thousands of entrants from all around Australia, as we had just over 9400 entries!
Only an absolute maximum of about 2000 students can be published however. We have only had to produce an anthology of that large size twice in 17 years.]
As far as I can tell Write4Fun isn’t doing anything illegal, I’m not sure I would call it a scam, and they are providing a service some people will appreciate. At the same time I think the ethics of it are quite questionable. It seems to me they take advantage of the innocence of children and the pride of parents, they use emotional manipulation to encourage people to buy their products and I suspect they give a false impression in talking about the first round of judging.
It looks like the competition is real and, even though I’m not sure how rigorous the judging is, I’m sure it encourages kids to write. The main problem I have is that it is also a vehicle for dodgy marketing.
One of the reasons Alexa entered the “competition” was that it was promoted through her school. It is a shame that schools support Write4Fun, or at least don’t warn parents how the scheme works.
In discussing the ethics of community engagement I spoke about the importance of considering the motivation for engaging the community. It is hard not to believe that the main motivation behind Write4Fun is profit.
It was really sad seeing Alexa’s excitement turn to disappoint as she realised that being offered a place in the publication was not as significant as she first thought. She really wrote a good story (and of course I’m quite unbiased!) and it’s a shame that her first exposure to a writing competition has been soured by marketing and manipulation.
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