james frey: author, liar, sweatshop boss

Today I break one of my own rules, and write about a book I didn't enjoy. Not only that, but I trash the author, too. But perhaps author is the wrong word. Maybe I should call him the factory boss.

I know something about how difficult it is to write a book, and I feel solidarity with all writers. When it comes to blogging about books, I usually employ the old saw, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it". So when I didn't like I Am Number Four, I wasn't going to write about it. Until I discovered what it really is.

I Am Number Four is a youth novel, the first in the "Lorien Legacy" series, written under the obvious pseudonym "Pittacus Lore". The writing is stiff and inauthentic, the pacing plodding, the characterization and suspense nonexistent.

I was surprised at the poor quality of the book, and went online to read more about it. A quick search revealed that the book and the series are the product of author James Frey's company Full Fathom Five, a kind of sweatshop for hungry writers.

Frey, you may recall, is the writer whose book A Million Little Pieces, marketed as a memoir, was exposed as fiction. There was a confrontation on "Oprah," there were lawsuits, a whole long drama. And while I'm not interested in drama, I am interested in truth. Frey, who seems to imagine himself a literary bad-boy, continues to claim there's no difference between fiction and nonfiction. I have a huge problem with this, and so should you. If you don't, try reading more Orwell.

But that's not my biggest problem with Frey.

When I Googled I Am Number Four, I quickly found a long New York Magazine article from 2010 called "James Frey’s Fiction Factory". The article detailed how James Frey created a media company, "hired" (but didn't pay) writers, and set about to create the Next Big Thing in youth media. The next Twilight, the next Hunger Games, the next Harry Potter.

Each of those successful series, however, is the product of someone's creative mind. You may not like them all, or you may dislike the idea of them, but each was born from one writer's creativity. Their outsized successes may have everything to do with money and marketing, but the creation itself, what millions of readers flock to, are what happened when Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, and J. K. Rowling put pen to paper or pixel to screen. Given its origin, it's not surprising that I Am Number Four is so bad. Art is not created by committee.

But that's still not my biggest problem with Frey.

The subhead of the New York Magazine story tells us, "The controversial author is hiring young writers to join him in a new publishing company. The goal is to produce the next Twilight. The contracts are brutal." And if you read to page five of an 11-page story, you'll find out what that means.
This is the essence of the terms being offered by Frey’s company Full Fathom Five: In exchange for delivering a finished book within a set number of months, the writer would receive $250 (some contracts allowed for another $250 upon completion), along with a percentage of all revenue generated by the project, including television, film, and merchandise rights — 30 percent if the idea was originally Frey’s, 40 percent if it was originally the writer’s. The writer would be financially responsible for any legal action brought against the book but would not own its copyright. Full Fathom Five could use the writer’s name or a pseudonym without his or her permission, even if the writer was no longer involved with the series, and the company could substitute the writer’s full name for a pseudonym at any point in the future. The writer was forbidden from signing contracts that would “conflict” with the project; what that might be wasn’t specified. The writer would not have approval over his or her publicity, pictures, or biographical materials. There was a $50,000 penalty if the writer publicly admitted to working with Full Fathom Five without permission.
Here, I typed a whole bunch of things in bold and italics, but lucky for you, I deleted them all. That paragraph speaks for itself.

The writer of the magazine story consulted with a publishing lawyer.
He said he had never seen a contract like this in his sixteen years of negotiation. “It’s an agreement that says, ‘You’re going to write for me. I’m going to own it. I may or may not give you credit. If there is more than one book in the series, you are on the hook to write those too, for the exact same terms, but I don’t have to use you. In exchange for this, I’m going to pay you 40 percent of some amount you can’t verify—there’s no audit provision—and after the deduction of a whole bunch of expenses.” He described it as a Hollywood-style work-for-hire contract grafted onto the publishing industry—“although Hollywood writers in a work-for-hire contract are usually paid more than $250.”
Desperation drives us to do many things. But it should never drive a writer to sign a contract like this.

* * * *

One of the many variables that fueled my career change was the deteriorating state of the magazine writing business. Even in the 1990s, magazine pieces were already getting shorter and shorter, and fewer venues were publishing long pieces. Pay rates had been stagnant for 20 years. Publishers, now owned by giant media conglomerates, started to issue all-rights, work-for-hire contracts.

Historically, a typical magazine contract was about licensing. A writer would license the use of a work, retaining ownership and being paid for each use. For example, the article would run in a magazine; that was one use. It ran in that magazine's European version, translated into French; that was another use. It ran in an anthology; still another use.

Writers retained the rights to their work, so with some judicious editing, they could sell more pieces on the same topic to different magazine with different audiences. By squeezing multiple articles out of one set of research or interviews, writers could earn a living.

In a work-for-hire contract, a publisher pays one fee, and owns everything, forever. They can use and re-use the story. They can re-write and re-package it. They can do whatever they want, because it's theirs. As more publishers starting adopting work-for-hire contracts, it became increasingly difficult for writers to earn a living from their own craft.

And that was before the internet.

After the advent of the internet, pay rates that had stagnated were cut in half, then in half again. There are a huge proliferation of writing venues, but almost no paying markets. Young people writing for About.com or Suite101 for pennies per 1,000 clicks, earning one dollar per article per month, do not believe me - I mean that literally, they think I am lying - when I say I have earned $1.50 per word. And that was only because I hadn't broken into the $3.00 per word category.

In the 1990s, the National Writers Union was organizing for a $1.00/word minimum. That had been the going rate for 20-25 years. By 2005, 50 cents per word was a lot. A few years ago, Allan was offered $175 for 1,500 words, from a glossy magazine with big-name national advertising. Huffington Post was bought by AOL for more than $300 million, but still doesn't pay its writers. At all.

And then there's James Frey, draining a little more water out of the pool.

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