Monday, November 15, 2010

Joining the Frey

My Twitter feed exploded on Friday. I was traveling and couldn't quite piece it together. James Frey. YA book packaging. A million little suckers. It turns out that NY Magazine has published James Frey's Fiction Factory, an article about the memorist's--oops! j/k!--novelist's new effort to become a YA book packager. Frey's been going to (adult writing) MFA programs like Columbia and recruiting writers to pitch him ideas. He tells you there is so much potential. Spielberg. Michael Bay. Merchandising rights. Frey's vast social network. And, I think, a pony.

Oddly, there's a catch. The contract seems to be a wee one-sided. $250 bucks for selling a book. A possible $250 upon completion. You have no rights to your name or image--they can use it whenever they want. You are not allowed to say you wrote the book--except they can tell the world you did if they feel like it. You will get 30%-40% of profits--except you basically have to take their word on what those profits are. You will be liable for any legal action, but you will not own the copyright. You are required to write more books in the series if they ask. But they might ask someone else. And you are not allowed to sign contracts on any "conflicting projects." Also, you have to work closely with James Frey.

No matter. As everyone knows, YA literature is all about one sentence pitches, Michael Bay, and merchandising rights. It's the path to glory. And its function is to make everyone very very rich. Right? (For a good rant and round-up of other rants, see Liz Burns' fine A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy. Also see Maureen Johnson's essential commentary on the contract.)

It's all ridiculous. And gross. The writers who've signed themselves away to Frey should be doing more due diligence, of course. And Frey is, at best, a douchebag. But the MFA programs letting this guy come in with his snakeoil are really culpable here. These programs take students' money, spend 2-3 years purporting to teach them to be artists, and then invite this guy in to dazzle them with sparkly promises while treating them like monkeys at a typewriter. If I'm reading the article correctly, Columbia has six students currently signed up with this company, essentially becoming a feeder program for serfdom on Frey's YA manor.

You can teach people about craft all you want, but that's all worthless if you teach them that their work is worth this little. (Though perhaps the problem is these programs simply don't think of YA as real, worthwhile writing....No mention of him going to any of the children's writing MFAs) The outside world is happy to take things from you, to tell you your work isn't valuable. This is your art and your job. Your words are valuable. Your time is valuable. Your name is valuable. And if you don't value these things no one else will. Be wary. If you have doubts, show your contract to the Author's Guild. If an agency asks you for money to sell your book, walk away. Do research. Make sure you're being fairly compensated for your work, that you're protected, that your name is your own to use as you wish, and that if someone's promising you something he puts it in writing. Don't sell yourself for only a dream of riches, or even the promise of a pony. Because you're the one who is going to have to clean up after it.


  1. But, Anne, it's James Frey. If we can't trust him, then who *can* we trust? Wait, I think I remember: everyone else.

    I like how his first protege has backed out of the company and is now pursuing legal action against him. I like, too, how the company's stated goal is to "write the next Twilight." Guess who wrote the first one, buddy? One person. One person, working from her heart, not the market.


    Frey reminds me of those vanity publishers who will publish your poem because it's deathless prose! But you have to pay $50 for the sucky anthology it's published in.

  3. Sounds like a new spin on an old concept to me - the company flipping around the usual publishing agreement, promising the fame and fortune major publishers don't, while obscuring the fact that they're fleecing you in order to do it. This sounds even more dangerous, though, promising much more only because they're taking much more. As you correctly observe, it's not really Frey who is to blame here, he's just a douchebag trying to make a buck, powerless if he isn't able to convince people to join him. The real fault, as you say, is with the MFA programs, not only for letting him come in, but for not properly educating their students. Seems that for $45,000, they can throw in a class on the legal realities of the business, what they can expect in a contract, and what to be aware of in a shifting publishing landscape. And if they are already doing this, perhaps it's time to update the curriculum. This is a good place to start.

  4. I'm with Jordan. I think any writer should take some sort of class in the business side of writing and become at least mildly proficient in reading contracts (NEVER sign anything with a "hold harmless" clause), understanding the marketing side of writing, etc. etc. ad lib. The Rolling Stones is an awesome rock group, but keep in mind that Mick Jagger was educated at the London School of Ecomonics.

  5. Dearest Anne, Please do a HUGE favor for the students in the Hamline MFA program and encourage Mary Rockcastle to add/incorporate a workshop or presentation on "first contracts" for everyone who will - hopefully - reach the day when they are going to be published.

  6. I second Maggie's request! Especially because there's so much raw talent running around at Hamline -- all artists should have the wherewithal to protect themselves, whether from an out-and-out sleezebag or even from a standard "boilerplate" contract for a first-time author.

  7. I was about to second Maggie's request, but I see Melinda beat me to the punch, so I'll third it. A "First Contracts" workshop would be excellent.