Friday, November 12, 2010

Know Your Worth

There’s quite angry (and occasionally bewildered) buzz afoot in the publishing realm due to one James Frey. For those of you asking “Who’s James Frey?” He gained notoriety a few years back because of his memoir, parts of which were fiction, and over which he got into a big kerfuffle with Oprah and the publishing industry at large. The feud created enough noise to generate a South Park parody.

Frey has, however, has cannon-balled back into the writing world with his new book packaging scheme Full Fathom Five. The first book created by this machine is I Am Number Four, a YA book that will soon be a film.

Today’s articles, however, are less about the book and film and more about the model Frey has created as a vehicle for his book/film/merchandise factory. He’s recruiting young authors to write for him under a profit sharing model. The writers sign on for a $250 payment and then receive 30 – 40 % of the overall profits (if there are profits).

At this point I start to squirm, there’s a lot to rant about but I don’t really want to go there. You can read the articles in the Wall Street Journal and New York and make your own judgments about Mr. Frey’s attitude and motivations. What I do want to say is this:

One of the most amazing things I’ve experienced as an author is meeting aspiring writers. Young, talented, creative people are so wonderful and full of enthusiasm. I am always honored to meet aspiring authors and to hear about their unique journeys.

The dream of being an author leads to a tough road full of waiting, rejection, and dejection. The part of Full Fathom Five that rankles me the most is that this publishing model targets hopeful young writers at their most vulnerable. Before you’re published that goal is the most elusive, shining thing in the world. And most writers would consider selling their souls to reach that goal. It’s hard to keep a reasonable perspective in that scenario. What Mr. Frey is doing is akin to offering moldy bread to a starving person. M.F.A. students want more than anything to be published, know that the scales are tipped against them, and they are likely drowning in debt. As one writer said, “It’s a crappy deal but it’s a great opportunity.”

I wonder if it is (an opportunity, that is, because the contract terms are heinous). The hard climb from unpublished to published with awesome agent author is so difficult because it takes time to find the right place for yourself as an author – both in the case of finding the best agent to represent you and the best house to publish your work. I am grateful each and every day that I have incredible agents at InkWell working for me and I know that they care about my well-being as an author and as a human being. They are concerned about my craft and my development as a writer, not just how commercial a book I can produce. My publisher, Penguin, treats me with respect and are equally invested in my journey as an author. You can’t put a price on those relationships; they are simply invaluable.

The book packaging model that Frey is touting as radical (I’m sorry, but since when is Fordism radical?) makes sense for someone who wants to become a juggernaut in publishing which is subject to the free market. That’s fair enough. Mr. Frey wants to build an empire - that's literally his business.

What I want to say to young and aspiring writers (of all ages) is know your worth. I will honestly admit there was a time when an offer like Mr. Frey’s would have seemed like a good bet to me because I was so hungry to be published. Now I know better, don’t let your talent be exploited. Find agents and publishers who are invested in you and who don’t just sell your ideas, but instead support your dreams.


  1. I was unaware that I Am Number Four came out of his hair-brained schemes. I'm torn; I want to buy it to support the poor souls he's 'hiring,' but I don't want to support that kind of crap.


  2. I hadn't heard about this.

    This guys always rubs me the wrong way. He's like the Draco Malfoy of the publishing world. He's not on the level of Voldemort, but I'm not a fan.

  3. Andrea,
    I felt the same way. I almost signed onto a somewhat shady packing deal back in the day, and at the time it was my IN and I was so happy and didn't care if I got paid because I was an artist and my work would be read! But THANK GOD that didn't work out. I put countless hours into my writing, hours I could spend with my family or working somewhere else. The time deserves compensation and VALIDATION. As much as we hear that this is a business, writing a book is still a very personal, craft-oriented journey. That way Mr. Frey is so brazenly approaching publishing (and more so, writing) makes me Ick Out.

  4. I didn't realize I AM NUMBER FOUR came from all this sordid background until recently, and now I'm torn about supporting the book or not. I'm not a fan of James and what he's trying to do. But I feel bad for the authors who are actually writing the books and praying for a payday. $250 to write a book?!? Yikes. I just don't know what to say.

  5. What bothered me was the suggestion that when Jobie Hughes, the co-author (and from what I can tell, main writer) of I Am Number Four confirmed that he had had a hand in it, Frey seems to have been furious. It's all rather unpleasant.

  6. First off, kerfuffle is one of my favorite words so thanks for making me giggle.

    Second it is so nice to here someone say "know your worth" - thank you for saying it! From what you have discussed about the quick publication, it seems that someone is taking advantage of an aspiring authors desire to have their dream come true. Shame on him, I hope that your post is able to reach those that are considering selling themselves short of their potential.

    AND, I think I am going to quote your "know your worth" statement as I teach my kids to honor who they are and aspire to become successful in all their endeavors.
    Thank you,
    Kenny Kjovus

  7. That sucks, I thought I'm number four sounded good and wanted to get my paws on it.

    I'm a writer, not because I publish (I don't outside online for fun) but because it's one of the things I do that makes me feel alive (the other thing is reading, so you know never ending circle of life and all that), and it hurts to know people would so something like this.

    Like you said, it's his business what he does, but targeting young authors at their most vulnerable, that's abusive. And no one likes a bully.

    Thanks for saying "Know you worth",


    Ps- I hadn't heard the word Fordism since I helped my sister write her econ papers when she was in college. I can't get over the fact that it is a word!

  8. Ah, I remember that SP episode. It taught us that memoirs of a towel just aren't marketable.

    And yet, I watched that episode. Even if it was about a towel.

    And thus may be the major difference between book markets and TV markets ;-)

  9. Well said! There's a difference between business and art, although the two can come together. $250 is not worth selling your art in this manner. Entrust it to someone who will love your mental lovechild as much as you do.

    Thanks for sharing, Andrea!

  10. I hadn't heard about any of this until today and quite frankly, I'm saddened for the REAL talent behind the scenes. UGH.

  11. I read the article and the whole thing made quite sad. While I want this article to end the whole scheme, but I doubt it...

  12. Hi Andrea :)
    I was stunned to learn that the poor author of I AM NUMBER FOUR got so shafted. I'm guessing the writers didn't know better (a reason Mr. Frey picked them?) and, hopefully, after the internet buzz, they will realize they've been royally screwed.
    "Know your worth" is excellent advice, not only for writing, but for life.
    Thank you for sharing,
    All the best,

  13. I was not aware that I AM NUMBER FOUR was done in this way. I was actually looking forward to it. I am unpublished and a year ago I would have found this attractive. Now that I know more about the industry, I find this disturbing.

  14. Thank you for the reminder about- Knowing Your Worth! That is very powerful. What Mr Frey is doing is sick and wrong and I hope aspiring writers will feel more empowered and have a better feeling of self worth w/ their writing than to fall into the sick trap he's set for them.

    I had no idea I AM NUMBER FOUR was written in a similar fashion. I feel so bad for that author.