The television news feature about eighth grader Ben Heckmann, of Farmington, Minn., was breathless in its praise. “At 14 years old, he has accomplished something many adults can’t achieve,” the reporter said. “Ben is a twice-published author.”
As the camera rolled, Ben described how “the first time I held my own book, it was just this amazing feeling.” Then he shared a lesson for other young people, saying, “You can basically do anything if you put your mind to it.”
But his two “Velvet Black” books, detailing and depicting the antics of a fictional rock band, were not plucked from a pile of manuscripts by an eagle-eyed publisher. They were self-published, at a cost to Ben’s parents of $400 — money they have more than made up by selling 700 copies.
Over the past five years, print-on-demand technology and a growing number of self-publishing companies whose books can be sold online have inspired writers of all ages to bypass the traditional gatekeeping system for determining who could call themselves a “published author.”
They include hundreds of children and teenagers who are now self-publishing books each year — a growing corner of the book world that raises as many questions about parenting as publishing.
The mothers and fathers who foot the bill say they are simply trying to encourage their children, in the same way that other parents buy gear for a promising lacrosse player or ship a Broadway aspirant off to theater camp.
But others see the blurring of the line between publishing and self-publishing as a lost opportunity to teach children about adversity and perseverance.
The young authors themselves, raised in an era of blogging and equal-opportunity Twitter feeds, take the notion of self-publishing in stride.
“The world is changing — it’s possible for people to do almost anything they set their minds to,” said Elizabeth Hines (pen name: E.S. Hines), a high school junior from Annapolis, Md., whose debut novel, “The Last Dove,” was recently released by the self-publishing imprint Xlibris.
She has other projects going, too. “The Black Panther,” part two of what she is calling the Trilogy of Aeir, will be published soon (at a cost to her parents of $2,700 per title). She has also written the first two books in a separate fictional quintet, and begun a work of historical fiction set in 1500s Scotland.
Elizabeth’s parents debated the merits of self-publishing, said her mother, Jacqueline. Would her writing be criticized? Would she “get a little too much of a sense of self?” They finally decided that “self-esteem usually is not a bad thing for kids this age,” Jacqueline Hines said.
Camille Mancuso, 12, of Columbus, Ohio, composed “Through the Eyes of Eak,” about 72-year-old Delphi from the world of Phea, during breaks from playing Jane Banks in the touring production of “Mary Poppins” (by the time her book was published, Camille was on Broadway). Drew Beasley, 10, a New Yorker with an array of acting and voiceover credits to his name, published “Growing UP…With Jack” last year to inspire children to be kind to special-needs kids.
Mac Bowers, 15, self-published the 112-page “Running Scared” through iUniverse in February. It sells for $11.63 on Amazon, where it is described as a suspenseful tale in which “two teenagers embroiled in a dangerous, international web of intrigue have just one goal — to make it out alive.”
Mac’s father, Timothy, a Pennsylvania schools superintendent, said that publishing his daughter’s work seemed a natural way to reward her months of effort.
“What do you do with something you’re proud of?” he said. “You want people to see it.”
Critics say it is wonderful to start writing at a young age, but worry that self-publishing sends the wrong message.
“What’s next?” asked the novelist Tom Robbins. “Kiddie architects, juvenile dentists, 11-year-old rocket scientists?B Any parent who thinks that the crafting of engrossing, meaningful, publishable fiction requires less talent and experience than designing a house, extracting a wisdom tooth, or supervising a lunar probe is, frankly, delusional.”
“There are no prodigies in literature,” Robbins said. “Literature requires experience, in a way that mathematics and music do not.”
Garth Stein, author of the bestseller “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” said he saw how publishing could be great fun for children, but cautioned that “part of writing is living and exploring the world and interacting with the world.”
Alan Rinzler, a publishing-industry veteran who now works with writers as an editorial consultant, suggested that parents hire a professional editor like him to work with their child to tear a manuscript apart and help make it better.
“That sort of puts a reality check on it,” he said.
Ben Heckmann’s father, Ken, said Ben’s aspirations “weren’t to knock Harry Potter off the list,” but “to get that good feeling inside that you’ve done something.”
“He can play basketball at home, or he can join a team; here he kind of joined a team,” Heckmann said. “This is Ben’s basketball.”
Ben’s mother, Julie, noted that while Ben has sold hundreds of books, the family could have simply ended up with a stack of Christmas gifts. “You can put your book out there, but it doesn’t mean people are going to like it,” she said.
Ben’s publisher, KidPub Press, which began publishing books by children and teenagers in 2008, said most of its sales were made by the authors’ families, who buy the books wholesale. The founder and publisher, Perry Donham, said it was “pretty unusual” for a KidPub author to sell more than 50 copies on Amazon.
Some self-publishing companies charge upfront fees, ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars, for services that include printing, editing, jacket design and distribution. Others, like Lulu, offer to publish books free — though that does not include even a copy for the author’s shelf.
KidPub, which published 140 books last year, charges $250; that includes light copyediting, five printed copies and the promise of distribution on Amazon. “When the kids get the box of books with their name on it and they see their name on Amazon.com, they’re like little rock stars,” Donham said.
Kevin Weiss, president and chief executive of Author Solutions, which owns or manages 13 self-publishing imprints, said the company expected to publish more than 400 works by authors under age 18 this year.
“Today a 14-year-old author has as good a chance of creating a following as a 50-year-old author,” Weiss said. “And maybe a better chance because they understand the nuances of social media, and how you can build a following.”
Often, they do not need social media to spread the word.
Ajla Dizdarevic, 12, of Waterloo, Iowa, who has self-published two books of poetry, has been on television and in local newspapers. Being a published author, she said, “was always a dream of mine.” Her new dream: three books by age 15.