Read. Prey. Exploit.

By now you have probably heard of the ghastly “James Frey Fiction Factory” news that broke over the weekend. In case you were away, this paragraph from the NY Magazine article sums it up:

“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.”

Gross, right? The always brilliant Maureen Johnson had an equally brilliant blog post about it as well.

Writers, if this is not evidence of the importance of agents, I don’t know what is. Desperation to get published is never an excuse to settle for anything less than what you deserve. What’s more, Mr. Frey is going into my old stomping grounds – the MFA classroom – to prey on his victims. What strikes me as odd about this is that the average MFA candidate is not taught “high concept,” or even knows what it means, and they usually scoff at genre fiction, but it seems as if that is all James is looking for.

The desire to get published and work with “super famous author” can make a person compromise their style, and I am not above advocating “commercializing” a novel for the sake of publication. But! You should never, ever compromise your ideals – whether it’s in your writing or in your own self-worth. You are worth more than $250. Much, much more.

Speaking from an industry professional’s point of view, this is appalling on many levels. It is an agent’s job to protect the writer from contracts like this. Not only would the writer not get paid nearly enough for their work, but Frey makes it so his company can decide not to pay you at all. Add in a little stripping of rights, final say, and ability to protest and you have a nicely packaged fascist agreement. Writers, this is not the future of publishing. And while I know all of my loyal readers are too smart to fall for a contract like Frey’s, there are others out there who hide behind larger advances and prey on the un-agented, feasting on their unprotected, and often uninformed, flesh.

My anger toward this is not motivated by selfishness. Yes, the very essence of my job is being tossed aside and put into question by this “other option,” but there’s a reason agents become agents. And it’s not fame or fortune, trust me. It’s also not to force writers into a bureaucracy and reap so-called benefits from them, like some writers (usually the rejected ones) sometimes believe. We get into this business because we love books and writers and want to see them succeed. And yes, the more money you make, the more money we make. This is our job, after all. While I can’t speak for all agents, I’ll say that a huge commission check is just an added bonus. Most of us do this because we honestly love it. We’re your advocates and protectors who speak on your behalf because too many people like Frey exist.

Now, there’s that other side of me. The one who is now going to speak as an MFA graduate. What makes me afraid of this Fiction Factory is that I know how many people will be tempted to take Frey up on his offer of doom. I have many opinions about my MFA, not all of them positive and most of which having to due with it being an expensive and useless degree. But, I entered a “NY literary scene” I was desperate to be a part of and it did, truly, make me a better writer.

That said, all I “learned” at The New School was how to be a better writer. My writing seminars and literature courses only had one educational motive – craft, craft, craft. No one ever bothered to prepare us for actual publication, or even how to go about getting an agent. If I wasn’t already interning at an agency at the time, I probably wouldn’t have even thought about the actual logistics of getting published. In fact, hardly anyone mentioned the word “published” at all, but we were all forced to attend a three-week seminar on teaching. I guess for when we all failed and needed a fall-back career. No one went to this seminar after the first meeting, myself included.

Writers, as followers of blogs you know this, but as a reminder: getting published is not just (finally!) seeing your book in print. It’s, ideally, your new career, and like any job, you are guaranteed protection for your contributions to “the company.” We’re like your boss, but instead of enforcing a dress code or making you attend awkward office parties, we just pay you. While it’s a fun and rewarding business, it’s also a business, and to think otherwise is irresponsible. This is one of my biggest problems with MFA programs. Writing for the sake of writing is all well and good, but if you want to turn it into a career, writing students are discouraged more than encouraged, and are rarely, if ever, given the facts.

If all you want is to just see your book in print, then self-publishing or Frey-style rip-offs probably would suit you just fine. But if you want to be an author, then hard work, perseverance, and having “the system” give you your due is what will make you successful. The easy way out is very tempting, especially in a business that makes you wait for every little thing, but giving in to a Frey contract is against your best interest and just plain heartbreaking for those of us who know better. You deserve more, writers.

16 thoughts on “Read. Prey. Exploit.

  1. I'm used to seeing scams by now, but Frey's just seems so brazen and icky. It's hard to believe he'll continue to get away with it, given the response, but I suppose other publishing scams persist despite the wealth of information out there. Yuck.


  2. I actually recently wrote a sample chapter for a company in NY that was doing “sort of” the same thing! I was fine with not being paid to produce the sample, as it was quite an enjoyable process – I was provided with a general “spark”, and asked to make it my own – begin character development, setting, create a detailed scene, etc. As it was an historical fiction (YA thriller) set in a city/country that I needed to research, the history teacher in me enjoyed the journey!

    That being said, the opening conversation with said company staffers stated there was to be NO pay for the actual penning of the work once a writer was selected to take on the project, simply “a percentage of royalties to be set out in a future contract if/once the book was sold”. The writer was to literally create the work on spec, and then the staffers of said company (who all come from lit agency and pub house backgrounds, presumably with connections back to those worlds) would go to work shopping it – though I guess they would be considered the owners of the content, with the writer simply taking a credit…? It sounded like $0 if the book was never sold, no outright ownership of copyright, and an eventual (possible) cut of the sales.

    Had I been the one finally chosen, I suppose I would have made decisions as they arose as to whether I was willing to work that way, but (even though I have dealt with contracts before), I wonder if I would have somehow missed the 'no audit' clause!

    I don't regret trying out for the company, but as they LOVED some of my ideas, it would be very funny to see if a book is later out there on shelves that contains some of my concepts, character developments and plot points, simply worked on by another writer.

    At the moment, I can't afford to “write for free” for anyone but myself, so it is hard to say what I would have done had I been offered the project formally. Odds are, I would have had to respectfully decline. So curious to see if that company's experiment eventually comes to fruition!


  3. Yeah, I read the whole article and when I finished I went back and re-read a few of your emails, just to remind myself that I have you, oh wise one, on my side. Thank GOD.

    But let me say this, when a writer is on the query wheel, running and running, with seemingly no end in sight, just the thought of someone paying you for your work (even if it is only $250 at first) seems like a mighty big hunk of seductive cheese.

    However, these writers were plucked from classrooms…which is very creepy to me…he's like a predator with candy and a puppy.


  4. @Danielle – You have a fair point on self-publishing. Some of it has proven to be high quality, but those rare exceptions often get taken on by mainstream publishers for better marketing and distribution anyway. There are many differing opinions on self-publishing. Personally, I equate it with masturbation. Some things are just more rewarding with a partner.


  5. Thanks for your post, Sarah. It's appalling and quite sad that these writers have been sucked into this. Speaking from someone with only a high school education, I can say that I have busted my ass to learn my craft and study the industry so I can make informed decisions for my book and my career. I appreciate all of the posts and blogs on this this week because he helps those of us working to get published know what to look for and what to avoid.

    I do struggle a bit with your last comment which implies that those in the “Frey Factory” or who self-publish aren't authors. A lot of what is self-pubbed is crap, but some of it is very well crafted and they are all writers who completed a manuscript and put themselves out there, which is a lot more than most people can say.


  6. This whole thing with Frey makes me sick. I hope that no one falls for this, but I am sure they will. It's so sad how many people are out there trying to make a buck by taking advantage of someone's dream.


  7. Here, here! It's writing prostitution. When I first read this, I got a little sick. Heck, prostitution is more rewarding than this is. At least you make good money.


  8. “The writer would be financially responsible for any legal action brought against the book but would not own its copyright”

    That, by far, is probably the scariest thing I have ever read. Basically it is saying YOU don't own your own work, BUT if it generates a lawsuit, YOU are on your own. Wow.


  9. Ugh. This whole James Frey thing just makes me feel sick to my stomach. Not just for the writers, but the readers he clearly doesn't respect.

    YA fiction and YA readers already don't get the respect they deserve, and now we have this guy churning out novels like pancakes? And not even very good pancakes, in some cases.

    On a lighter note… Does this mean you won't laugh if I call you up and say that I got a great offer from this guy named Jamie, and he seemed so nice that I signed the contract without letting you see it?


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