Friday, November 26, 2010

Frey's a Jolly Good Fellow

Or is he? What to make of the latest James Frey controversy? Have you heard of it? I must say I've followed it with fascination, but as a jobbing hack as well as a mystery writer, it struck a chord.

For those that don't know, Frey - famous for writing a very readable but also very made-up memoir, which sold 8m copies - is back in the publishing spotlight. I think most of us, having been exposed as inventing much of a book which purported to be truth, might have laid low for a bit. Frey, on the other hand, seems to have embraced his notoriety and the publicity. He founded a 'writing factory', called Full Fathom Five, in which books would be produced collectively. The reason for its existence being, he says, all the fabulous ideas he comes up with which he personally doesn't have time to write.

To help bring those ideas to life - they are not just his ideas but sometimes those of the writers he hires - he contracts various young scribes, many of them struggling along on college and writing courses, to do the writing under his watchful, beneficent eye. It has so far proved successful; he has 30 writers in his stable and has sold 12 books, including three series, and some movie rights.

I'm concerned for a few reasons. First of all, I like to think I have lots of good ideas for books. However, for me, the fun only comes if I write them. I don't see the point in contracting out the writing part. Sure there are financial rewards, but there cannot be much artistic satisfaction to be gained from knowing someone else put in the hard yards. Writing a book, as we all know, is a bloody long hard slog, sometimes joyful and sometimes tortuous. When you have finished writing one you often don't think you can do it again, nor do you want to. Yet a few weeks or months later when the finished product lands in your hand, or you see it sitting on the shelf of a bookshop, you can reflect with pride on your achievement. Because it is always an achievement.  I celebrate every publication, every submitted manuscript, every signed contract, every royalty cheque, every  successful step with champagne, because I also know how tough the literary world is, how swiftly fortunes can change, and how perilous a writer's existence can be. Those rare glasses of bubbly are earned by hard work. I'm not sure it would taste as good if I farmed my ideas out to a college stripling.

Then I worry about other authors, who don't have Frey's millions. They need to earn a living; perhaps they haven't had the breaks. Many of them would like, and take, the opportunity to write one of Frey's books, rather than being overlooked in favour of ambitious young things with bumfluff on their chin and a head full of literary dreams.

However, when you see the terms Frey is offering, you can see why he's going for youth. Reports claim he pays $250 dollars upfront to write the thing. Then 30% to 40% of any royalties. He retains creative control, all copyright, and puts in place a system of fines to punish the writer if they break the contract. I know exactly what any credible writer, not to mention their agent, would say to such a contract. The first word begins with F and the second with O, and I don't mean 'fabulous opportunity'. But this is a competitive world, times are hard, kids will do anything to get a break, including writing a book for a pittance and with no credit, and Frey is signing them up.

Frey defends himself by saying the contracts differ according to writing experience, he is giving people an opportunity, and going forward he plans to credit them on the cover, as well as publishing more ideas originated by the authors themselves (I'd argue they would best doing it on their own rather than taking his terms.) He denies any accusations of exploitation, claiming he's only doing this because he loves books. I'm sure some of the books are good, and there is an argument that a writing factory for books is no different to the ones in Hollywood that churned out so many classics. Though I bet those screenwriters were better paid and not plucked from the campus and lured into the forcing house.

It's one thing being influenced by Dickens - it's another thing to be Dickensian.


Dan - Friday


  1. Seems like Frey is only jumping on the bandwagon along with James Patterson and Janet Evanovich amongst others.

  2. Perhaps Tim...though I can't speak for Evanovich, Patterson, whatever you think if him, uses experienced writers and as far as I know credits and pays them reasonably well.

  3. As for Hollywood, it is common to begin your career working for nothing so you can get some experience. Agents for TV and film writers rarely if ever will read any script from a writer without credits. My first job writing for local Louisiana TV paid a dollar a week but I qualified for the WGA (could not afford the dues though). It is very easy in Hollywood to find someone to hire you as a writer as long as you are willing to work for free.

  4. Fair enough michael. I'm a journalist by trade and it's also common to be paid pittance on the bottom rung, and there are millions willing to take, because so many people are after so few jobs. I'm just very uneasy with the practice of paying people 'next to nowt' to write a book out of which you might make substantial sums, though I'm sure the writers themselves see it as a great opportunity. It might well be.

    Though some don't - one has called in a lawyer to deal with Frey; another has claimed he didn't get the credit he was promised; while another was dropped pretty abruptly, so she claims.

    Think this one might run...

  5. Frey is taking advantage of the writers' inexperience and screwing them royally. They do not get their names on the books, and, I believe, cannot use what they've written for/as Frey as credits. The percentages they receive are of the net, which we all know is subject to a lot of interpretation.

    Given that he's sold 8 million copies of his own falsely marketed book and should have some ready cash, if he truly wants to help young writers, maybe he could share credit as James Patterson is doing, or work out a deal with a publisher for a "James Frey Presents" series. What he's doing is making money off of their hard work and ignorance, which is reprehensible.

  6. I agree with you Dan. My first job in print was as entertainment editor in 1976 where I made $35 a week. It is interesting how Hollywood is reacting to Amazons "movie" studio writers agreement (they really hate it). Maybe it is time for the author guilds in print look at this trend.

    Question for anyone, how has the future sales of writers who return to their own books after they "co-wrote" one with Patterson?

    Another question. Can this be compared to the long common practice of authors writing under a publisher's house name?

  7. Dan--

    1) The picture of Frey says it all.

    2) A millionaire who pays kids $250 for a novel. In Hollywood we have an epithet for that: Producer.