A SCOTTISH publisher is poised to claim a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the youngest author to get a novel into print.
But Inverness-based Aultbea Publishing, which has brought out a series of books by child "prodigies", admitted yesterday that some of its authors had paid to help get their books on the shelves.
Aultbea is launching a 1,500-word five-chapter novel called This and Last Season's Excursions by Christopher Beale, six, at Borders bookshop in Oxford Street, London, today. "It's a very exciting story and there's going to be a huge amount of publicity worldwide on this," said the firm's owner, Charles Faulkner. "Because of the way it's written, it raises consciousness in the child reader. The world record is a bonus."
In two years, Aultbea has gone from being a small scientific publisher in Inverness to making a name publishing books by child authors, ranging from fantasy novelists to non-fiction writers.
In December 2004, it published Dragon Tamers, a debut novel by Emma Maree Urquhart, who was 13 at the time.
Those that followed included seven-year-old Adora Svitak's Flying Fingers, a collection of short stories that included tips for young writers. Help, Hope and Happiness, by Libby Rees, ten, was a book of advice for children whose parents, like her own, had divorced.
Aultbea's books have often had wide media coverage, with excerpts and features appearing widely, including in the London press.
But the Grumpy Old Bookman, a literary blog on the web, has targeted Aultbea, questioning its sales claims and asking why Emma Urquhart's books had vanished from the company's website, despite a reported three-book deal.
The blog, run by Michael Allen, in Wiltshire, also quoted claims by one author who said he was asked for 10,000 by Aultbea in return for 50 per cent of royalties.
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."
It had not happened with Christopher Beale's book, she said. "The family is not paying for this book to be published."
Asked if any children's families had invested, she said: "I'm not usually aware of a lot of our contracts - who has invested or who hasn't.
I wouldn't say it's common practice. It has happened before."
Ms Redwood also insisted that the Grumpy Old Bookman website had a "thing" about Aultbea.
Mr Faulkner said Christopher's father, Theodore, the author of a series of Christian fantasy novels in the United States, had approached the company because he heard of its success with child authors.
"When he sent it to us, we realised that was going to break the Guinness World Record and thought it was really good and decided to go ahead with it. The initial print run is anticipated to be sold out very quickly, for value and collectors."
One small boy and a very big literary adventure
CHRISTOPHER Beale's book, This and Last Season's Excursions, follows the adventures of a boy, his stuffed animals and his pets - Christopher's own puppy, Biscuit, and his kitten, Daisy - as they fight lions and "hinnies", rescue owls and search for the mysterious city of Quarles.
According to his website, cbeale.com Christopher, who lives in Zug, Switzerland, learned to read at three. He finished the book at six years and 118 days old. He said: "I wrote it in my bedroom after lunch every day. My mum asked me to write a story and I ended up writing a whole book."
He has read books such as Through the Looking Glass and Swiss Family Robinson. Fluent in Italian, he is now busy translating his first book as well as writing his second. His website links to that of his father, Theodore, the author of the Christian fantasy novels Eternal Warriors and The Wrath of Angels.
"I'm not the only novelist in the family," he says on the website. "My daddy writes stories too, although I'm not allowed to read them yet. They're probably not as exciting as my book anyhow. I asked him once, and he said there aren't any hinnies, bats or even any green mambas in them."
The perils of paying to get into print
PAYING to have your own books published is frowned on by some, but there have been a few success stories.
The British author Janey Jones published her own Princess Poppy books for children before they were snapped up by Random House.
But the Scottish Publishers' Association (SPA) urges authors to steer clear of pay-to-publish deals. "We tell a writer to try to get a publisher or agent before taking the vanity-publishing route," said the SPA's marketing manager, Liz Small.
"People ring us for advice who have engaged in a vanity-publishing contract and end up unhappy as a result. It is better to get professional editing and professional production with a professional-looking book."
Arrangements under which an aspiring author "invests" in a publisher or shares costs for putting out copies are not unheard of. But these have increasingly given way to websites such as Lulu.com or IUniverse.com - now reckoned one of the most straightforward ways to get into print, with a popularity boom in the US.
The sites offer customers the chance to download their manuscripts, choose binding and cover and calculate prices up front. They can fix a price for the book and see it offered for sale on the company's site.
Another well-known website is Trafford Publishing's Trafford.com, which operates in the US and UK.
Jenny Brown, a literary agent, said: "You always want it to be clear with any publishing deal, whether they are helping you to publish or investing in you, or is it a business deal?"
On web companies, she said: "It's quite straightforward. You pay them money and they help you to self-publish your book."