The Siren Song of James Frey’s Terrible Exploitation

James Frey is hunting for victims in MFA programs, filling the eyes of writers hungry for publication with false visions of Hollywood and big checks.

If you know who James Frey is, you probably have an opinion about him. Most famous for being raised up to best-selling heights before then being cast down into disrepute, Frey is the author of the fictional “memoir” A Million Little Pieces. He’s since apologized for lying and then apologized for apologizing, maintaining that the line between “truth” and “fiction” is ever fungible and other self-aggrandizing justifications in the name of art. Opinions will vary about Frey, depending on your perspective and priorities, but one thing is certain: despite the biggest public shaming in recent literary history, James Frey has not quietly shuffled off-stage, never to be heard from again. He’s still around, and he’s still playing fast and loose with both the truth and people’s dreams.

At this point I encourage you to click on this link to New York Magazine and read a long, fascinating piece by Suzanne Mozes about her experiences with Frey’s new puppy mill style publishing initiative. To summarize briefly (but you should read it!), Frey has started this thing called Full Fathom Five, where he solicits ideas from writers, asks them to deliver whole novels for an insulting $250 fee, and promises them a theoretically generous cut of any profits from publication, movie rights, and merchandise. He also gets the right to take the author’s name off it, make any changes he wants, forbid the author from talking about it, and he refuses the author any right to audit the books in a quest for said promised profits. Frey’s hunting for victims in MFA programs, filling the eyes of writers hungry for publication with dreams of Hollywood and big checks.

And Hollywood is the target audience here. The recently released young adult novel I Am Number Four served as a kind of test case for Frey’s scheme. If you read the article, you’ll know how ugly that turned out, and that the publishing deal didn’t come until after Spielberg and Michael Bay had picked up the movie rights, presumably based on the premise rather than the text. Frey is up front that he’s in this game to make money, and Hollywood has a lot more money to dole out than the publishing industry. I’ve got absolutely no problem with that making money part of the plan. The terrible way in which he treats his stable of nameless writers and the brutal contract he wants to inflict on them is where I have issues. Author John Scalzi does a nice, succinct job of laying into Frey over at his blog, Whatever.

I think Frey’s being exploitative here, I really do, but even as I read the piece and my outrage grew, part of me kept thinking, “I dunno, it might be worth taking a shot.” I just graduated from an MFA program this past summer, and every one of us with a newly minted degree also has at least one finished novel for which we didn’t get paid a single dime. If you’re in that position, taking $250 as a fee for possible bigger success down the line could seem like a good deal. It might be likened to being paid $250 and given a lottery ticket. You probably won’t become instantly rich, but hey, maybe there’s a chance, just a chance, that you will. And wouldn’t that be awesome?

Of course, this line of thinking only makes sense if you assume two things. One, that you came out of your MFA program with a novel James Frey thinks Hollywood will want, which is to say, a Young Adult title with huge marketing upside. I can say with the confidence of being the only one in my program writing genre fiction, that very few MFA graduates are writing those kinds of books. Two, even if this is the case, you have to think that really the point of writing that book was to get the degree and anything beyond that is just gravy. Very few MFA graduates believe this to be the case, and good for them. Odds are, if their book is worth selling at all, then it’s worth a lot more than what Frey’s offering.

I’ve already had three novels published by a small press. I made more than $250 on each of them, but not 100 or even 50 times more. Probably not even 20 times more. And I’ve entertained bids from low-level Hollywood types, none of which led to anything more than a few hundred more bucks, a lot of pointless phone conversations and emails, and some funny anecdotes to share with my friends. Even with this history of only middling success, I decided to go ahead and publish my MFA thesis myself, and I’ve already made way more than $250 on it, plus I control all the rights and no one can take my name off it. If you don’t want to run the gantlet of literary agents and publishers, I’d recommend striking out on your own as a free writer rather than becoming James Frey’s work-for-hire wage slave.

Because that’s what Frey’s offering -- the most egregious work for hire terms (which I’ve done) for almost the lowest possible returns (which I haven’t). While he certainly does have much better contacts with publishers and Hollywood than your average MFA graduate or struggling un-published novelist, Frey’s contract and approach tell you all you need to know about dealing with him. Anyone who offers such terms not only doesn’t have your interests at heart, he is actively planning to act against your interests.

Frey had already done plenty to earn his reputation, but this newest and maybe grandest long con of his is all I need to draw my conclusions about him. However you draw your own, I urge one and all to stuff their ears with wax or find a convenient mast to lash yourself to you when you hear Frey’s siren song. That way lies pain and suffering, unless you’re James Frey.

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