Have you seen the latest brouhaha over James Frey? Yes…that James Frey. The one who was called to the carpet by Oprah for lying in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces.
New York Magazine printed an expose on Mr. Frey’s “fiction factory” on November 12, 2010. According to the article, Full Fathom Five is the company created by Mr. Frey to recruit creative writing MFA students from places like Columbia. Their goal: to produce the next Twilight. Really. He wants to get a bunch of hungry, young talent together to churn out YA fiction and stamp his name on it. Or Pittacus Lore’s name. Whichever. The point is: he’s setting up “collaboration” without any of the benefits of a real collaborative effort. He’s creating an entire company to take advantage of writers who are eager to be published, no matter the cost. And, according to the article (and other reactions across the blogosphere) the Full Fathom Five contract is heinous. Bordering on criminal. But still legal if a desperate writer signs on the dotted line.
Here's the rub: The first book from this fiction factory is already out -- and the movie is in the making. So it sounds like maybe...just maybe...Frey's organization might be a fast track to the top of the publishing Everest.
But...the contract promised virtually no payment in return for entire manuscripts – other than a few hundred dollars paid up front. No recognition, no author ownership of the final product…ultimately no control. And it included a confidentiality clause that prevents the writers from telling anyone that they wrote any book that might end up published from Full Fathom Five. So what would you do? Sign up to “collaborate” with a best-selling author (with stars in your eyes and dollar signs floating in little thought bubbles over your head)?? Or press on...on your own or with a partner, trying to slog your way up the mountain the "old fashioned" way?
Here’s a quote from the NY Mag article. The speaker is Phillip Eil, a first year non-fiction student at Columbia regarding a visit Frey made to his school:
We were desperate to be published, any way we could. 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.
These young writers are so far out of my world. Seriously. For a writer – as yet unpublished writer – to believe they could find the magic bullet that would mean they could avoid a “day job” and immediately sell movie rights…never have to “suffer as a writer”…is just a bit odd to me. I had to remind myself that these students – who definitely don’t deserve to be taken advantage of by Mr. Frey or anyone else – are students. Still idealistic. Still dreaming of their “real lives” after school. Still believing they can create art and live like a literary royalty while basking in the glow of their fans’ admiration.
Sigh. If only it worked that way. (Jaded? Maybe. Realist-- yes.)
I’m a collaborator. I have a partner and together we have produced a novel. Although my partner is a Published Writer, having a few wonderful titles to her credit, none of her books are fiction. So – even though she has some experience and an amazing gift for writing – this genre, process, and art form – it’s all new for both of us.
And we have a contract. We didn’t make anything legal until we were in the final stages of signing a contract with our agent; however, we do have a legal collaboration agreement that holds us to certain promises.
Did we need it? Well…we’ve known each other most of our lives. I trust her. She trusts me. We probably didn’t NEED it. But we did both have enough common sense to agree that it couldn’t hurt. And our agent insisted on it. It is just smart business.
Hear that? I said the “B” word! Ultimately, all of this fabulous art we create…these stories…turn into business opportunities if we are very lucky. After all – books have to sell to make anyone money. And they have to sell well to make the publisher and the writer some money.
(The New York Magazine article does go on to talk about how writing programs owe their students education on the business side of things, which sounds like a great idea. But what do I know. I’m just a writer. Not a student of a writing program.)
If you are interested in more insight into how writers are paid for their work, check out this essay from the New York Times about author advances.
So…do you need a James Frey and a wicked contract to collaborate and get your first work published? I sure hope not! In fact, I’m betting my dream job on the fact that I can collaborate with a real partner – with someone creative and funny and fun to work with, who understands my dreams as I understand hers – and not have to resort to selling my work in secret. No back alley deals done in the dark, with no recognition for me. Nope. No weird contracts that ask me to sell my soul to …anyone… to get my words in print.
No thanks, Mr. Frey. Even if I was a student at a prestigious university writing program…I’ll stick to good business. I’ll write for myself and collaborate with a real partner.