Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Fully fathoming Full Fathom Five

by John

Did anyone see the major feature from New York magazine on James Frey and Full Fathom Five?  If not, it’s definitely worth a read, though, like some of the writers from the article, you may feel the need for a shower afterward.

Basically, Frey has set himself up as a book packager, which is an accepted and legitimate practice in publishing. Typically, a packager pays an author or illustrator a flat fee for their work, rather than an advance against royalties, then takes the manuscript and/or art and puts it together as a finished product, which is then submitted to publishers. For example, Gossip Girl was put together by Alloy Media, then sold to Little, Brown, and several celebrity picture books like Jerry Seinfeld’s Halloween were package deals as well.

However, the terms that Frey lays out for authors are atrocious and exploitative—a pittance of a fee ($250!), vaguely defined profit sharing, no copyright, no public acknowledgment of authorship, and so on. And the model of success that Frey sells authors on, his young adult novel I Am Number Four, turns out to be not much of a success at all for his co-author. (Full disclosure—as an editor, I passed on I Am Number Four, partly because the secrecy over authorship gave me the willies.)

But I guess what bothers me most about Full Fathom Five is how cynically they target the young adult market for their products—sorry, I mean their books. One of the main reasons I got into children’s publishing in the first place is the strong sense of moral responsibility among children’s editors not to publish “bad” book for kids. And while I know that hucksters like Frey have been part of the book business since the beginning, it’s disturbing not only to watch him prey on the YA market because it’s “hot” right now—you know if Adult Horror was selling, he’d be writing ghost stories—but also to witness his attempts at cloaking his credibility issues for a more naïve audience.

So I suppose this post is both a cautionary message and a moral plea for YA writers: Watch out for the Full Fathom Fives, and remember who you’re writing for. Now, excuse me while I hit the showers…


  1. Glad to hear you passed on it. That was what bothered me most about this deal--what it says about the publishing industry and readers. It seems some publishers will accept anything that might make them a quick buck, regardless of how exploitative it is toward the authors. And readers seem willing to overlook poor quality and formulaic writing if they are part of the next "cool" thing.

  2. I do feel the need for a shower, and I'm glad right now that I don't write YA; even the thought of being tempted to take him up on something like this is making me shudder a little. Then again, I'm not spending $45,000 on tuition and I don't expect to ever make a fortune writing. (If I do, hey, great! But I expect I'll have to keep a day job.) Fascinating article, though, if only for what it reveals about people's motivations to write and how some of the "big things" in the future might be produced.

  3. To give the tiniest bit of credit where it is (possibly) due, I do think Frey is showing some innovation in the industry at a time when we're all questioning the future of publishing. And while movie-tie-ins prior to publishing sticks in the craw a little bit right now, maybe we'll all think NY/LA collaborations are SOP in a few years. Who knows? One thing is certain: James Frey is a manipulative, greedy slimeball.

    LOVE that you passed on I AM NUMBER FOUR.

    - Liz

  4. Thanks for bringing up the point about responsibility in children and YA publishing. The last few days, there's been a lot of discussions among YA writers about James Frey, but I haven't heard anyone else bring this up. It is by far the scariest of all the things happening in this situation. I don't always love that writers have to pass through the editor gatekeepers, but this situation makes me appreciate the system!

  5. I'm impressed that you passed on I Am Number Four. I realize there are unethical people in every industry, but it's especially slimy when the person scamming writers is also a writer. In general, the news always makes me want to hit the showers (along with political ads). :)

  6. Writer Girl16/11/10 4:07 PM

    I guess it's just business isn't it? But like lots of business it's slimy and exploitative. As a struggling YA author i don't think i'd ever be desperate enough to get into business with frey. Surely there's nothing wrong with having a day job, at least you're not selling your soul right?

  7. Love him or loathe him (and I suspect most of us loathe him), there's no denying that James Frey is the quintessence of American capitalism, complete with the amazing publicity machine and the sweatshop. Since we live in the land of the Happy Meal, I'm betting that he will be financially successful.

    Now I must go and ponder such concepts as hubris and karma. Thanks for alerting me to Full Fathom Five. (There's no denying the guy's good with a title, too.)

  8. Aren't the publishers that choose to work with Frey equally culpable? They might claim they didn't realize what he was/wasn't paying his authors, but why in the first place are they buying books on spec from a known sleazebag?


  9. Hey Folks, thanks for all the interesting and enlightening comments. Just one additional note on I AM NUMBER FOUR--on submission, I actually thought the manuscript was pretty good! Despite it all, the man and/or his team can write... -JR

  10. Even if they can write, exploitation is bunk.


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