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Contract complaints at James Frey's fiction factory

November 13, 2010

Tags: book packaging, James Frey, fiction

Under a deal some writers are unhappy with, James Frey, author of the controversial bestselling fictional memoir A Million Little Pieces, has launched a fiction book-packaging company through which young creative-writing M.F.A. students are hired to write young adult novels; they are paid a token sum on signing and completion of a young adult novel but share in profits.

Hoping to fill the gap left when the Harry Potter series ended, and to create the next Twilight,
Frey created a fiction production company called Full Fathom Five. The young writers benefit from Frey's ideas, collaboration, and connections (with agents, publishers, and directors). "To find writers, Mr. Frey trolls writing classes and other writers' gathering places," write Katherine Rosman and Lauren A. E.Schuker in James Frey's Next Act (WSJ, 11-12-10). "Writers contracted with Full Fathom Five earn no salary and make almost no money up front (they get $250 upon signing and another $250 upon completion of a book—"Chinese-food money," one author called it). They are promised 30% to 49% of all revenue whether it comes from videogames or publications rights."

Frey met writer Jobie Hughes in 2008 through a program at Columbia program and asked him to develop a book based on an idea of Frey's. That book, I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore (a pseudonym), was not picked up by a publisher until after DreamWorks Studios bought film rights--then HarperCollins offered a three-book deal.

Frey has 28 writers working on 27 books. One of the young writers Frey spoke with is Suzanne Mozes, whose fascinating story, James Frey’s Fiction Factory (New York, 11-12-10), reveals details about Frey's grossly unfair contract, which is described as "a Hollywood-style work-for-hire contract grafted onto the publishing industry," with a non-Hollywood-style payment of only $250.

"We were desperate to be published, any way we could," writes Mozes. "We were spending $45,000 on tuition, some of us without financial aid, and many taking out loans that were lining us up to graduate six figures in debt. A deal like the one Frey was offering could potentially pay off our loans and provide an income for the next decade. Do a little commercial work under a pseudonym, sell the movie rights, and never have to suffer as a writer in New York. We wouldn’t even need day jobs."

Read Mozes's story for the full details of what one young writer called “a crappy deal but a great opportunity.”

This is certainly not the first fiction factory. Among other examples, the Nancy Drew books were written by a series of writers who at the time got no credit for authorship, and Robin Moore, author of The Green Berets, similar undertook a number of book deals in which he lent his name as co-author to novels written mainly by lesser-known writers.

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