Ben Peek (benpeek) wrote,
Ben Peek

The James Frey Scam

Much linked (and for much reason) is this article in which James Frey, the author who passed his work of fiction off as fact, before he and Oprah got caught, is back with what can only be described as a scam:

Frey saw collective writing as a way to get around the conundrum of having umpteen ideas for clever commercial book series but never enough time to write them. He also liked the idea of applying the model of an art studio along the lines of those run by Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons to the book world.

So he came up with the concept of a book-writing factory that would go beyond the basic model of existing companies such as Alloy, which use teams of writers to produce books to order.

Ideas for books, or ideally series of books, would either come from him or an author recruited to the Full Fathom Five stable. Then Frey would hold the writer's hand, providing critical feedback as they wrote.

The finished product would be sold to publishers and/or film studios, and the writer would be given a share in the royalties as incentive to produce their best work.

He started to appeal through colleges and writing courses for budding young writers prepared to write for little upfront, in the hope of fame and riches down the line.

Frey now has 30 in his stable and has sold 12 books of three separate series. The first series, Lorien Legacies, which is hung around the conceit of a teenager alien landing in Ohio, has already been launched in the US and in the UK by Michael Joseph/Puffin and is being made into a film by DreamWorks.

The comparison to a factory is right: low wages, poor benefits, shit hours, and at the end of the day, the company doesn't acknowledge the work that you do. Why, as an author, would you bother to put yourself through this?

Well, in part, because Frey is selling these books to publishers and studios. How much money he is making from these sales isn't mentioned in the article (and probably never will be), but assuming average sales on the work due to the association with Frey, then most of the author's are probably making what they would if they'd sold the work independently. Of course, I have nothing to back that up. If the work is sold for a lot, you get a lot. A little, get a little. What is on offer here is the connections that most new authors would not have access too. On the surface, then, perhaps that's not so bad?


The good news for Frey is that with such deals already in the bag, Full Fathom Five is off to a flying start. The bad news is the drumbeat of criticism that is building.

It began with one of the lead authors of the first volume of the Lorien Legacies, I Am Number Four, calling in lawyers to represent him in his dealings with Frey. Writer Jobie Hughes complained that he has not been credited for the book, which appeared under a pseudonym. Then New York magazine published an article by a young woman who had been in negotiations with Frey to join his factory but had been dropped by him. The magazine also revealed what it described as the "brutal" terms of the contracts offered to writers.

The contentious elements include: an upfront payment of just $250 (£156) to the writer for an entire book, which is pitiful unless the book is sold, at which point they get 30%-40% of any royalties obtained; the fact that Frey retains all final creative control and the copyright of the work in his company, with total power to decide what happens to the book; and a system of fines if the writer breaks the terms of the contract. A publishing lawyer told New York magazine that he had never seen a contract like it in his 16 years of negotiations.

Frey insists the portrait of him as a ruthless exploiter of youthful talent is wrong on several counts. First, his contracts vary according to the degree of experience of the writer and according to whether the idea for the book came from him or them.

He estimates that the central storyline of about 85% of the books under way originated with him.

It's good to know that when all else fails on your ability to write your own work and produce it yourself, there's always a factory model where you guide young authors and place them in terrible contracts. Of course, the article doesn't make mention that such behaviour is not completely new to publishing, and that the carrot on a stick mentality that is used by Frey is used quite often to varying degrees of success (mostly not). But who doesn't like ragging on James Frey? The Guardian even has a photo of Frey in the best My-Sneakers-Are-Casual-But-I-Really-Am-A-Millionaire-Fat-Cat-Eating-Your-Children pose so you don't mistake him for someone with talent:

You just know that Vladimir Putin wouldn't stand for this.


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