November 14, 2010

James Frey & the Truth about Publishing.

James Frey and Full Fathom Five are good for Publishing.

James Frey has been getting a lot of press the past few days, and none of it has been very good.

Thing is, he’s done nothing wrong. If anything he’s demonstrating how the publishing world is just as concerned about numbers as they are about words—numbers that follow dollar signs, to be exact.

It’s no wonder Frey is taking a lot of heat. Ever since Oprah ambushed him on national TV, he’s had a target on his back for shooters armed with indignant envy. Yes, Frey allowed his publisher to sell his first novel, A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, which was based on his experience in rehab as a memoir. And yes, this can be seen as dishonest regardless of the countless other “memoirs” published in which the truth was stretched or omitted for story telling purposes.

But that was seven years ago, and in that time Frey has published two more commercially successful novels. And yet he still can’t shed the label:


Maybe it’s karma, or maybe it’s because every industry needs a villain—and ever since Bret Easton Ellis moved to L.A. for a quieter life, Frey was placed in his shoes as literary bad boy. I don’t know Bret Easton Ellis (I wish I did, he’s one of my heroes) but I do know James Frey and I doubt either of them consented or aspired to such an epithet. I don’t know Frey well—I had dinner with him once and at the time was trying to sell my second novel. He couldn’t have been more supportive and encouraging and when my book was published by such a small press you pretty much needed to be related to me to know the novel existed, he wrote a blurb for the cover anyway.

A few months ago I sold my third novel and emailed him to let him know and again he offered to help any way he could. Not exactly the behavior of a “bad boy.” In fact, the few friends Frey and I have in common all say the same things about him: he’s humble yet intense, straightforward but kind, incredibly smart, and unusually supportive of other writers.

But the press loves to pick him apart, as exampled by his coverage over the past few days. The latest James Frey scandal is his production company, Full Fathom Five, is offering writers $250 – $500 for their books, plus 30% of any profits (television, movie, etc.) they generate—and for this he’s being labeled as exploitative. Frey helps these writers develop and edit the work and his company holds all the copyrights, as well the right to use pseudonyms instead of the author’s real names. The authors are not allowed to publicly state their involvement in the book and will be fined $50,000 for claiming authorship.

Sound fair?

You’re damn right it is. And until you’ve gone out and sold a book on your own, you don’t know how good a deal this could be.

Frey has something that all these aspiring writers (myself included) don’t: name recognition. When Full Fathom Five pitches a project the manuscript will have a much higher chance of succeeding simply by its affiliation with Full Fathom Five. The submission will go to the top of the editor’s pile and get much more consideration than a book by an unknown or even lesser known writer. Editors have to sift through so many submissions they don’t know where to begin. Just to get an editor’s attention is hard enough, and Full Fathom Five’s projects will do more than that—they’ll actually get the editor’s interest. Just like any other business, in publishing success begets success. Full Fathom Five has already sold three series, one for a quarter of a million dollars, and Frey’s first collaboration with a young, unknown writer, a book titled I AM NUMBER FOUR, was published by Harper Collins and made into a movie by Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay. So, if an editor is trying to choose which manuscript to publish, one by an unknown, or one from a proven seller, chances are they’ll go with the proven entity even if the unknown’s book is better written…because that’s just good solid business.

Obviously book publishing is about good writing. But it’s also about how many copies of a potential book a publisher thinks it can sell. This week on the NYT bestseller list is an autobiography by Gary Dell’Abate titled, THEY CALL ME BABBA BOOEY. Dell’Abate is the producer of The Howard Stern Show. His book is already in its third printing. I love Gary, I even dedicated my second book, SILLY LITTLE RICH GIRL, to his infamously oversized smelly teeth (a running joke on the show of which I am a huge fan,) but he would be the first to admit the only reason his book was published was because he’s a part of the Stern show. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that who Dell’Abate is is a bigger selling point than his writing, all that matters is if the book will move, and yes, it has. Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie have also penned successful books, but probably not because they write like Voltaire.

So, unless they call you Babba Booey too, or you’re a Beverly Hills heiress, chances are you’re going to have a much harder time selling a book, even if you’re a great writer. Frey knows this, and he also knows he’s in the position to vault you leaps and bounds ahead of another writer without his backing. So you have a choice: go it alone and try to beat the odds, or team up with Full Fathom Five and share the profits that your work may have never gotten in the first place without his help. A woman in Friday’s Wall Street Journal article about Frey summed it up best when she said about her writing arrangement with Full Fathom Five, “I look forward to the day that I’m irritated that he’s making millions and millions and I’m only making millions.”

Another author who worked with Frey feels differently. Jobie Hughes, the unknown Frey wrote I AM NUMBER FOUR with is more disgruntled than your mailman, probably because he can’t legally take credit for authorship of I AM NUMBER FOUR. Credit for the authorship goes to his and Frey’s pen name, “Pittacus Lore” and when the adaptation hits the theaters it will say, ‘based on the book written by Pittacus Lore.’ The next book written by Pittacus Lore is all but guaranteed to sell, probably in a bidding war, for good money. Pittacus Lore is a proven author, it’s a layup. Jobie Hughes on the other hand…well so far he hasn’t published anything. He’s trying to sell a manuscript he wrote without Frey but hasn’t found the right editor yet. Placing a book with a publisher is a bit harder without an uber-connected, bestselling author as a wingman.

On the same day as the Wall Street Journal article New York magazine also ran a story about Frey and Full Fathom Five. It was written by a woman who wanted to work with Frey but he ultimately rejected her pitch. Such rejections happen every day, trust me, I know… Anyway, the article portrayed Frey as an opportunistic factory overlord looking to enslave young writers so he could line his pockets from the fruits of their hard work. She described how Frey visited an MFA class at Columbia and pitched the students his offer of shepherding their work from conception all the way through the submission process for the aforementioned $250 advance and 30% of profits. Some of the students followed up with Frey, others turned their noses in the air, which is funny because I doubt any of those students have even completed a book yet and when/if they do maybe a third of them will get an agent and then half of that third will manage to sell a book. Those are the facts, hopefully for their sake I’ll be proven wrong.

I was an MFA student once, and never did a best selling author visit us and offer such an opportunity. No writer has ever tried such an endeavor, it’s a revolutionary idea, and as an author I find the venture fascinating and in no way insulting to the craft or the business. James Frey is a brand, just like many other best selling authors who’s books are largely written by underlings and then tagged with the author’s signature to be sold by the millions in supermarkets and airports. Frey’s undertaking is similar, but more noble because he’s offering greater profits and opportunity, and doing it unashamedly in the open and on a much grander scale.

If a more beloved author took the same course it’d be interesting to see if they’d meet as much criticism as Frey. A blogger named Tom Scocca reacted by calling Frey a “Jedi Knight of Bullshit” in a post so bizarrely bloodthirsty I just had to google him in an effort to understand his vexation. Scocca’s bitterness in life may stem from his appearance eerily resembling an effeminate version of Macaulay Culkin but I’m guessing his frustration lies more in the fact that even though he sold a book proposal in 2006 it still hasn’t come out five years later, which is usually not a good sign. Yeah…the publishing world can be tough like that, (trust me, I know…) and that’s exactly why Full Fathom Five is so potentially exciting.

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