I always knew that the author James Frey was a liar. But now, after reading an old yet illuminating expose in New York Magazine, I’ve discovered that he’s a cheat as well. Since becoming the laughingstock of the literary world, Frey has apparently decided to take on a more behind-the-scenes approach to writing and formed Full Fathom Five—a publishing company geared towards producing young-adult novels in the vein of Twilight. Sounds simple, right? A logical progression? Not exactly. In many ways, Full Fathom Five is not a traditional publishing house. In fact, Frey likes to think of it as a literary version of Andy Warhol’s Factory, a series of collaborations between himself and emerging talent.
Here’s how it works. James Frey solicits the help of recent M.F.A. graduates to develop commercial young-adult series. After pitching their ideas or receiving a brief outline by Frey, the hungry writer gets to work on the book without receiving any advance pay. The contract they sign entitles them to a measly $250.00 and a 30% stake in future revenue, including television and film. In exchange, the writer essentially develops the whole thing as a ghostwriter and when they’re finished, they are stipulated to never speak to the media about their involvement with the project.
The sci-fi novel, I Am Number Four, is the first successful project to come out of Frey’s company. It was written by a recent graduate of Columbia named Jobie Hughes who produced the entire thing based off of a one-page outline by Frey. Today, their collaboration has soured and a lawsuit has been filed over future proceeds of the book. According to friends, Hughes felt invisible and frustrated about the secrecy surrounding his authorship over the book. Even as I Am Number Four achieved great success and became a Hollywood movie, he was unable to publicize his involvement with the book.
The writer of the piece, Suzanne Mozes, experienced the bullshit that is Full Fathom Five firsthand when Frey discussed doing a potential project with her. It even went as far as the contract stage, which Mozes immediately sent out to lawyers for inspection. What she found out though was truly disheartening:
I later spoke to Conrad Rippy, a veteran publishing attorney, who explained that the contract given to me wasn’t a book-packaging contract; it was “a collaboration agreement without there being any collaboration.” 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.”
Thankfully, the project fell apart, and Mozes was able to write this crucial article about the experience. As a young writer myself, I feel particularly incensed with rage over Frey’s manipulation and shameless profiteering. He’s exploiting the talent of naive and desperate writers by feeding them pipe dreams. In the end, the writer receives no credit for their hard work and Frey becomes a much richer man. Making a living as a writer is difficult enough without having to worry if you’re going to get fucked over. Frey should know better than anyone about these hardships. He became a literary pariah after the A Million Little Pieces debacle, but instead of redeeming himself, he has just decided to screw people over while in the background rather than at the forefront.