The Man in the Frey Flannel Suit

Folks from all over are sending along e-mails asking me what I think of this story in New York magazine about author James Frey’s book packaging shop, in which Frey trolls classrooms full of impressionable MFA candidates and/or aspiring authors to get them to give him their ideas, in return offering them a contract that is a high water mark in being a complete asshole:

In exchange for delivering a finished book within a set number of months, the writer would receive $250 (some contracts allowed for another $250 upon completion), along with a percentage of all revenue generated by the project, including television, film, and merchandise rights—30 percent if the idea was originally Frey’s, 40 percent if it was originally the writer’s. The writer would be financially responsible for any legal action brought against the book but would not own its copyright. Full Fathom Five could use the writer’s name or a pseudonym without his or her permission, even if the writer was no longer involved with the series, and the company could substitute the writer’s full name for a pseudonym at any point in the future. The writer was forbidden from signing contracts that would “conflict” with the project; what that might be wasn’t specified. The writer would not have approval over his or her publicity, pictures, or biographical materials. There was a $50,000 penalty if the writer publicly admitted to working with Full Fathom Five without permission.

You can see the actual contract in question here.

Just to be clear, if James Frey (or anyone else) tried to offer me this contract to write a book, here’s what I would do: Have my agent schedule a meeting with him for the clear and specific purpose of kicking him hard and square in the balls.

But then again, James Frey would never offer me this sort of contract. I’m too old and ossified (read: agented and with knowledge of the publishing industry) for him. He doesn’t want to deal with writers who know the appropriate response to this contract is to knee him in the groin. For Frey’s scheme to work, he needs writers who don’t know better, and apparently our nation’s MFA programs don’t actually have classes on contracts or how the publishing industry works, so they make fertile ground for a huckster intent on dazzling the kids.You can’t say Frey doesn’t know his target audience.

Seriously, people. $500 and unauditable net points for a novel? That contract probably also specifies that the writer has to spring for the lube.

The lamentable rejoinder to this is that some people will think that it’s worth it for the exposure to the film industry or publishing industry or whatever. Folks: being an anonymous, uncredited cog in a book packaging scheme doesn’t actually get you exposure to anything, except to the fact that you’re working for peanuts for The Man, and The Man is a rich bearded hipster who walks around in socks, and doesn’t care about you, just what you can do for him. Congratulations: you’re the man in the Frey Flannel Suit. Not that you could afford a suit on what you’re being paid.

Writers: This contract would be appalling and egregious regardless of who was offering it. A story idea good enough for James Frey to sell to Hollywood would be good enough to sell to Hollywood without James Frey. Write your story, get an agent, and sell your work with your own name on it and all your rights to the work intact. It may take more time, but it will be worth it. Have more respect for yourself and your work than quite obviously James Frey will have.

Update, 11/15: An open letter to MFA writing programs (and their students).

146 thoughts on “The Man in the Frey Flannel Suit

  1. Are people really that naive? After the whole debacle Frey suffered with his “memoir” and getting chewed out by Oprah, why would anyone listen to anything that guy says or read anything he would publish? The guy should be laughed out of any MFA or writing program.

    Best, and keep on blogging.

  2. No such thing as truth, eh? In your world view, I can understand that. Not playing, thank you, don’t need a personal God, even if he does wear socks. People actually fall for this?

  3. This is the kind of shitty all-risk-no-reward, work-for-hire contract I was offered when I was first trying to break into screenwriting a decade ago. I was twenty-two, hungry, desperate to break in — and still turned it down. I mean, I signed a less-than-ideal contract for my first novel, but Frey’s is just breathtakingly awful.

  4. John@0: “…apparently our nation’s MFA programs don’t actually have classes on contracts or how the publishing industry works…”

    That’s because they’re not art, they’re commercialism. You’d probably need to pony up for an MBA to get that knowledge. (Or a week’s worth of Internet access.)

    Sounds like Frey is an MFA in his own right, but in his case the A sure doesn’t stand for “arts.” And the MF part, well, I’m sure somebody has already called him that by now.

  5. Dave H:

    “That’s because they’re not art, they’re commercialism.”

    Eh. If one assumes the intent of an MFA program is to give people skills to write work worthy of publishing, not providing them knowledge of how not to get screwed by those IN publishing seems irresponsible.

  6. It’s hard to feel bad for anyone who would sign such a contract, especially to work for an infamous charlatan and invertebrate.

    Last week I gave a keynote speech at the La Jolla Writers Conference after Frey canceled his appearance. The conference organizer said she was going to send Frey a recording of my speech and thank him for not coming. Which was especially swell because I was gonna walk out of Frey’s speech anyhow. Why do people keep giving attention to this guy? Over & over again he proves that not only does his car have no engine, but he’s likely stolen the car.

  7. Steve Boyett:

    “It’s hard to feel bad for anyone who would sign such a contract, especially to work for an infamous charlatan and invertebrate.”

    On one hand I agree with this, because you have to be blind not to realize that $500 for an entire novel is objectively a shitty amount of money. On the other hand, if MFA/writing programs are letting someone like Frey into the hen house without educating the chickens about what the fox intends to do to them, it’s not only the starry-eyed writer who is at fault.

  8. There is no talk of publishing industry at all in college. When I was last in (2002) they actively discouraged any commercial fiction, never talked about publishing, agents or contracts on any level. And no, MBAs didn’t either. We used to joke that the only thing you can get an A on was dead grandmas and broken relationships. Past that they pretty much ignored the world.

  9. What is the relationship between the approved publisher agreements with SFWA, MWA, et al. and these packaging houses? I’m intrigued that Frey is looking to get genre-type stories, but from literary writers, who don’t have the sort of professional organizations looking out for them that genre writers do. I’m amazed at how many people go into MFA writing programs with the intent of getting a teaching credential rather than the expectation of getting their writing to a professional level.

    That said, the best writing advice I’ve come across was from Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio’s Wordplayer.com. A very rough paraphrase from my shoddy memory (and I no longer recall who said it) – “Yes, success is often determined by who you know. But how good your work is determines who to get to know.” Is James Frey how good your work is?

  10. if MFA/writing programs are letting someone like Frey into the hen house without educating the chickens about what the fox intends to do to them, it’s not only the starry-eyed writer who is at fault.

    Very true; I didn’t consider the bogus sanctioning aspect. The good thing, though, is that they are likely being pilloried after the NY article & blogs such as this. One of the things that allows me to retain some shred of faith in my species, really.

  11. John,

    As someone who is currently sending work to agents, working to get writing published, and treating my writing as a job, let me just say this:

    THANK YOU.

    The writing gigs I’ve had (a story in “Nature” and librarian-related stuff) have all come from the tried and true methods. Submitting, networking, letters of inquiry. Yeah, I get rejected. Yeah, I’ve been down and wondered if all the struggle is worth the reward. But damn it, I’ve got stories to tell and I’d like to tell them to a whole hell of a lot of people, so I work.

    $500 bucks and vague promises of Fabulous Hollywood Dream Castles Made of Candy and Love for my efforts, for my ideas, for my WORK is bull. Yeah, I’m young and hungry, but I’m not climbing into the “Free candy” van because the guy driving it seems on the level.

    Again, thank you Jon. A writer’s work is their effort, their ideas, and most of all their time. Time I didn’t spend with my loved ones. Time spent alone “making things up and writing them down” as Neil Gaiman says. It’s time well spent, and I’m not selling it for a handful of magic beans.

  12. My MFA program (Mills College), had a two-day professionalism retreat as part of the program, spring of your second year. One day was devoted to academic professionalism — c.v.’s, job interviews, etc — many of the writers would be going on to teach freshman comp. as their day job while they finished (hopefully) writing their novels. The other day was devoted to publishing professionalism — contracts, approaching agents, etc. (They brought in an agent for it.) We also ate yummy food and stayed in a gorgeous old Victorian. It was a lovely cap to the two-year program.

    There’s certainly reason academic writing programs can’t address these issues, and if I were running one, it certainly would.

  13. Very interesting.
    It also leaves me with one question:
    Is this contract really legal?
    It shouldn’t be this easy to sign away copyright, and your right to be credited as the author of something. If it is, it seems that current legislation is inadequate.

  14. Steve @11: it’s not hard at all, particularly if (as seems from the article) Frey is being invited to speak by the schools putting on the MFA program, and when you realize the level of desperation combined with a course of study that completely omits practical skills:

    We were desperate to be published, any way we could. We were spending $45,000 on tuition, some of us without financial aid, and many taking out loans that were lining us up to graduate six figures in debt. A deal like the one Frey was offering could potentially pay off our loans and provide an income for the next decade. Do a little commercial work under a pseudonym, sell the movie rights, and never have to suffer as a writer in New York. We wouldn’t even need day jobs.

    Should they know better? Probably. But these weren’t folks signing up for a get-rich-quick seminar they saw in a popup ad; and apparently the sniffy constraints of Art prevent the schools that award MFA programs from providing an education in, say, how to find an agent, how to deal with the commercial aspects once you sell The Quintessential American Novel That Will Make Phillip Roth Rend His Clothes In Despair.

  15. @mythago: Okay, I’ll amend that: it’s hard for me to feel bad for anyone who stands in line to get screwed. Desperation is what makes it a buyer’s market, and you can smell desperation a mile away. It’s a kind of greed, isn’t it? And con men can’t succeed without the greed of their marks.

    And as I said, their MFA program is probably being publicly flensed right now, so it’s karma. They aided, they abetted, now they can eat it.

  16. Warn them and warn them. Will it help? Sometimes, which makes all the warnings worthwhile. But as long as the academics with their secure tenure and salaries keep blathering on about “Art is only valuable for its own sake” and sneering at “crass commercial concerns,” the theives, cheats, and douchebags will have a new class of victims every year. Pity.

    They should all have at least a short session warning about the literary predators. They could even call it “Seminar in crass commercial concerns” if that would make them feel better.

  17. I used to work for a douchebag and if I had the opportunity to go back in time, the first thing I would do is beat the shit out of myself for being so stupid.

    People like Frey survive because they’re sociopaths who are literally incapable of believing anything negative about themselves. Being a regular human it’s easy to translate that into “oh, they must not really be that bad then.”

    No matter how famous, how rich, or how well connected one of these “deals” will appear to make you do not be persuaded. Do not talk yourself into anything. I was very disappointed to see over half of the kids at that MFA program signed on with Frey.

    If you make a deal with someone with poison in their veins, don’t be surprised when everything turns belly-up. People who insist on conducting their business in total black out secrecy aren’t generally doing anything good.

  18. That contract probably also specifies that the writer has to spring for the lube.

    The alternative, of course, would be to fellate Mr. Frey to provide said lubrication. In fact you might get extra credit in that case. (Not really. Just fucking with you, kid. You’re so gullible!)

  19. This sounds like the contract that contestants on American Idol agree to.

    I think you’ve pointed this out before, but publishers modeling their business model on record labels is not a good thing.

  20. John H:

    Let’s try not to pick needless fights. Steve is incredulous that these folks don’t know better (or at least suspect better), or alternately that they do know better and do it anyway. That’s not unreasonable.

    Sean Eric Fagan:

    Indeed. Or (in this case) on Hollywood screenwriting contracts (only with substantially less money involved).

  21. Most MFA programs don’t cover packaging, or really, much of anything as regards commercial publishing. They do often learn about how to apply for residencies, grants, and fellowships, which can be remunerative, and not something one would learn at Clarion.

    There are exceptions: Vonnegut and Richard Yates used to tag-team a class called “Writing and the Free Enterprise System” over at Iowa. It covered stuff like writing corporate copy to keep the pots boiling. Vonnegut had worked at GE for years and Yates famously at Remington Rand. Currently, the program at Western Connecticut State University where I teach demands that students pursue both a creative and a practical genre, so most students learn something about business.

    One other issue is that a lot of the people running MFA programs have no idea how commercial fiction works—Frey’s industrial-quality nonsense about writing to strict formulas and aiming for the movies to make a zillion dollars sounds exactly right to them, as they have no knowledge of the midlist of genre fiction at all. It all sounds like Harry Potter and Twilight to them: write it dumb, write it big, collect wheelbarrow full of money from Hollywood.

  22. Sure, it’s a shit deal. But the thing that’s really terrible is how little people come to believe their work is worth. I mean, with online spam writing, you routinely see people volunteering to write cruddy articles for something like $2 for 500 words. On sites like Elance, people write researched books for less than $500. For that model to be extended to fiction isn’t really that surprising, I guess.

    It’s actually a little surprising that Frey isn’t outsourcing the writing to people in other countries, like on Elance, especially since it’s under a pseudonym. There are plenty of writers there who would do this quite competently for much less than $500, and who would have no reasonable way to challenge him. I think it’s important to place some value on your own work not only for yourself, but because when $500 and a crap contract is what writers come to expect, that’s exactly what they’ll all be getting paid.

  23. I did my five years of graduate school at a university with a fairly well respected MFA program just up the road from Scalzi-ville. I was getting an English degree, but the department encouraged cross-listed classes and taking classes from a variety of approaches. Thus, a few of my classes were taught by the MFA faculty. The best one was a graduate who had done pretty well for himself (still is a pretty respected literary author) and had sold a novel to Hollywood. He was allowed to do the first couple drafts of the screenplay, and it opened his eyes quite a bit. So one of the courses he taught when he came back as “artist in residence” was a class on screen adaptations, where he taught about Hollywood screenwriting formulas and told war stories. It was a revelation for most of the MFA folks in the room. Our final paper was to do a screen adaptation of a written work of our choice and to do our best to meet both Hollywood’s expectations and the strengths of the original work. Almost 20 years later, it’s the course I probably remember the most, and I wasn’t an MFA student (most of whom tried adapting one of their own works, of course).

  24. My apologies to Steve – with respect to the New York article I can see your point.

    Ironically, I saw a trailer last night for the movie version of I Am Number Four. I hadn’t heard of it before and thought, “What a crappy title.” No surprise that it’s a Michael Bay film. I’ll be interested in Scalzi’s take on it in light of Frey’s dubious business model.

    The trailer is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5djHG3hPu0

  25. Ole@20: “It shouldn’t be this easy to sign away copyright, and your right to be credited as the author of something. If it is, it seems that current legislation is inadequate.”

    Copyright law is to protect your right to control and benefit from something you created, but it’s not intended to protect you from yourself. I’m pretty sure nobody that works for Frey is being forced to do so against their will; their own desires are causing them to make that choice.

  26. What also annoys me is this from the New York piece:

    Simonoff began circulating the manuscript as an anonymous collaboration between a New York Times best-selling author and a young up-and-coming writer. Publishing houses weren’t certain how to respond. Then, in June 2009, a bidding war ignited for the film rights, between J. J. Abrams and a joint proposal from Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay. Spielberg and Bay won, for a reported high-six-figure deal. This, in turn, sparked publishing interest, and HarperCollins won the book rights. Together, Frey and Hughes signed a four-book deal. Rights to I Am Number Four have since been sold in 44 countries, and, at last count, has been translated into 21 languages.

    So, to recap: Frey and Hughes come up with a pulp-YA novel which publishers won’t touch with a ten-foot pole. That is they wouldn’t until Spielberg and Bay snap up the movie rights. After that the they’re falling all over themselves to win publishing rights.

    Which only makes it more likely that other writers will take Frey’s crappy deal.

    Ugh!

  27. That’s a stunningly bad contract. You’d be better off self-publishing.

    When I was just in college, I wrote some technical books in a situation where there was a middle-man company between me and the agent, work for hire, IIRC, though my name was on the result…despite what is likely far lower sales potential, I still got an advance that was something like seven times the lump sum he’s offering…in 1986 dollars…inflation would double that.

    You know that if the deal is worse than a college sophomore operating only on the recommendation of high school advanced composition teacher can wangle to write a book on a completely obscure technical subject, it really is a crap deal.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that some sort of “work for hire” deal can work. It worked for me. After two books and decent compensation I went direct to the agent and could have made a career of it, if I hadn’t decided I preferred programming.

  28. John H:

    No problem.

    Steve Burnap:

    I have also done “work for hire” freelance stuff — although not for novels — but did it on a contract where I was more than adequately compensated for my time and effort. “Work for hire” is not necessarily awful every single time, but it does require the writer to pay close attention and to make sure what they’re paid is good, because that’s all they will be paid.

  29. I’ve done some WFH—my latest paid twelve times what one of Frey’s sweatshop workers gets to compile 14,000 words of old jokes and insults. Sure, Hollywood isn’t going to make a movie out of it either, but the same is true of the overwhelming majority of the stuff Frey will get his hands on.

  30. Isn’t there a Randy Newman song about this? Oh, yes, “Sail Away”.

    “In America, every man is free
    To take care of his home and his family
    You’ll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree
    You all gonna be an American”

    “Sail away, sail away
    We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay
    Sail away, sail away
    We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay”

    Yeah, that’s the one. Mastah Frey needs a good whippin’.

    Regards,
    Jack Tingle

  31. Sean Eric Fagan @29: “This sounds like the contract that contestants on American Idol agree to.”

    This seems more to me like the business model of Motown Records. Great if you’re Diana Ross or Smokey Robinson – not so much if you’re one of the other Supremes or Miracles.

  32. Ugh…it’s like the mirror universe of PublishAmerica in a way…your book may actually see the light of day, but you STILL won’t get due credit for it and you’re STILL shackled to a shitty contract.

  33. Everyone is a sucker for something. I have met no one who has not at one time or another fallen for something that might have been obvious to someone not so closely involved.

    That is what all con artists count on. And Frey is just one step above a con artist. Or possibly one step below, since I doubt if his massive ego regards the contract as a con. At least the con artist is honest enough to realize he is conning.

  34. Wow, I thought he was probably just doing some sort of book packaging thing like James Patterson’s. But this is awful. Unfortunately, Hollywood doesn’t care. And if Hollywood doesn’t care and buys Frey’s wares, the publishers can’t afford to ignore it. But eventually will come the lawsuits and that may shut it down. He really is a reprehensible human being.

  35. This is a seriously good PSA. Maybe you should use some of your influence to have MFA (Maters of Fine Arts?) profs to point their students to it. It won’t take but a few moments and most students would be eager to click over to get professional advice from an established author.

  36. Academics have long been exploited by commercial academic-journal publishers (who get them to write for free, review manuscripts for free, and as Peter Murray-Rust reports, sometimes even edit for free, and then sell the product back to academia for large sums.) So I wonder whether some of them simply don’t know better about what writers should expect from commercial publishing contracts.

    That’s the charitable interpretation, mind you. If they do know better, and invite folks like Frey to pitch to their students who *don’t* yet know better, they’re engaged in pedagogical malpractice.

  37. If we ignore the ancillary douchebaggery, is this really so bad? Most “work for hire” writing is a flat fee with no royalties, correct? Is there anything wrong with turning that around?

    I’m not defending Frey, I’m honestly curious what the professional opinion on this is. Wouldn’t someone who writes a successful tie in series much prefer a reasonable royalty rate over an up front fee?

  38. Michael Kirkland:

    “If we ignore the ancillary douchebaggery, is this really so bad?”

    Yeah, it really is. The flat fee is appallingly low for the amount of work required, the author has no way of knowing if the amount reported on the backend is at all accurate, and the contract points uniformly put all the risk on the author, with very little commensurate benefit or control. This contract is atrocious.

  39. “Over & over again he proves that not only does his car have no engine, but he’s likely stolen the car.”

    He wants you to think he stole the car. It’s his mom’s.

  40. I know I suggested a class on contracts and the business of writing for my Bachelor Degree (I had a concentration in Creative Writing, and there’s seriously only two things you will do with this degree: write or teach) and my college told me it wasn’t their job to teach me these things. My response was something along the lines of, ‘If a degree is to help prepare me for a job, it most certainly IS your job to teach me these things…to prepare me for one of the two jobs I can take with this degree.’ A published prof came in on the tale end of the discussion and told me I didn’t have to worry about all that, my agent would take care of it for me. At the time we were hearing about all these agents bilking stars and I just knew there had to be similar kinds of problems among book agents and thought her attitude for a published author was incredibly naive…and appalling that she would pass this along to others in her classes. To this day, I’m thankful she was never one of my profs.

    I was never accepted into an MFA program because I write *gasp* fantasy (This was about 10 years ago) and I’ve not even tried to get into a program since (there’s only one I know of that encourages a focus on anything other than literary, and no way I can come up with the plane fare twice a year, much less someone to look after my autistic son while I was gone). But from what I remember, the focus was on writing. Never saw much on the business of writing. It’s really too bad these programs leave their students so open to scams and charlatans.

  41. That’s what I meant by ancillary douchebaggery. If we assume that the royalties do get paid out, would a low (or no) fee plus royalties really be a bad model for this sort of factory fiction?

  42. Just finished reading that article, and wow, douchebag is the most polite term I could think to describe Frey. The man is a predator, plain and simple, who set his sights on fledgling writers instead of some other vulnerable group.

    Part of me can understand why these writers do it. You’re young, you’ve got debts piling up, and here pops us this guy selling you the world and parading around other writers he’s signed up who are more than happy with their deal. It sounds so good, and hey, it’s only the one idea, there will always be others.

    Problem is, and I don’t know if this has been covered by anyone else in the comments, if you’re successful then the identity used for that success is owned by Frey. And he can use your own name on the books later, so if you become successful under your own name then he can churn out crap and sell it on that basis alone. Essentially, you’ve given this guy your identity. It’s the worst kind of identity theft, as you willingly signed up for it.

    Thanks for posting this John. We should all be aFreyd of guys like this. (Yes I’ve been wanting to use that pun the whole time I’ve been writing this :)

  43. Michael Kirkland:

    “That’s what I meant by ancillary douchebaggery.”

    Your definition of “ancillary” is off, since those things are in fact primary examples of douchebaggery. The formulation of your question is akin to asking, if one ignores the ancillary property damage, whether setting one’s house on fire is a fine way to roast marshmallows.

  44. Dave H@39

    I’m not saying any of these people were forced into this. And that is exactly my point when I say:

    “It shouldn’t be this easy to sign away copyright, and your right to be credited as the author of something. If it is, it seems that current legislation is inadequate.”

    There are lots of laws protecting people from being taken advantage of in trade and business, for instance anti-trust laws. And there’s also plenty of other areas where laws protect people from doing something stupid that will, or may, harm them (,seat-belt laws, helmet-laws etc).
    My point being that I think there should be laws protecting artistic work from someone, who if not an outright swindler, at least exploits people’s hopes and dreams for his own gain.

  45. The marvelous Maureen Johnson weighs in on this as well: http://www.maureenjohnsonbooks.com/2010/11/13/the-james-frey-problem/

    MFA students have probably been hosed already. I’ve written about this topic before. I went to Columbia, where he pulled many of his writers, including the writer of “I am Number Four.” I know how much it costs. I know the sacrifices people make to go there. I still pay Columbia about $800 every month in student loans. I’m one of the few people I know paying off my MFA by working in the profession for which I was trained. If you’re in an MFA program, you’re probably already on the hook for a lot of dough, so if you see a job opportunity in writing, you’ll take it.

    I’m going to go one step further and call out Columbia and all writing MFA programs on the carpet here—if you don’t offer your students a class or seminar in the business of writing, you should be ashamed. They didn’t offer them when I was there, and I don’t think that’s changed. (If it has, please correct me at once. I’d love to be wrong about this point.)

    You would think schools like Columbia would want to help their students succeed, and I imagine if they were the ones ponying up the student loan they would be more concerned about getting their money back.

  46. Wow. Just…wow.

    At least if you were to aim that kick at Frey’s balls, it would be almost impossible to miss something that huge.

  47. @Michael Kirkland – I’m a dabbler, not a professional writer, but I have published both work made for hire and a couple of academic articles. Frey’s contract is worse and pays less than the WMF contract I signed with Steve Jackson Games over twenty years ago, plus it denies the author the right to claim the work on a CV or in a future query letter without permission. It is beyond horrible, and I am appalled that a school with Columbia’s reputation let Frey anywhere near their students.

  48. @ellid

    Some of the conditions in these contracts just seem evil for evils sake, not things Frey really ever would have a business case for needing. It’s so evil it just seems absurd.

  49. Michael @70, with the caveat that the things I get paid to sue people over do not involve intellectual property, there’s nothing that strikes me as gratuitously evil. Selfish, controlling, assholish, by all means – but they are all completely directed at the progress of money into James Frey’s bank account while completely killing all rights the writer might have. There are a lot of very ugly provisions about how disputes will be resolved, confidentiality and what rights the writer can recover if she wins a dispute against Frey. I particularly like (and by “like” I mean “I have a professional admiration for this level of bastardy”) the indemnity provision in Section 9, which allows them to go after the writer for costs if they get sued for some issue tied not merely to the author’s breach, but alleged breach.

  50. This story is stunning on so many levels…from the institutions that are asking (paying?) Frey to lecture, to the lack of applicable business courses provided to their students…though I believe most schools that offer arts degrees of any discipline do not offer those students business courses.

    Also, I was horrified to see Salman Rushdie in this article listed as “Frey and some of his social circle.” I’m going to assume that was just an awkward “I met you and now must stand here but I don’t really know who you are” kind of picture.

  51. I went to an MFA writing program back in the aughts, and though my writing improved by leaps and bounds, it’s true–there was nothing at all in the way of publishing education whatsoever, except for one barely-publicized after-hours lecturette by an agent. Our instructors were all about “self-publishing” as in the old days of Amiri Baraka’s ‘zine before he was Amiri Baraka, and using the letterpress on campus. No one had any kind of publishing advice, even as they kept getting their books out. We were all like, “Um, can we do that too?” So yeah. Actually, I have to give one shout-out to a prof that I did an Independent Study with–she was very helpful. But she was the exception. MFAs also tend to want to be published so badly, that I can easily see how a charming snake-oil salesman could infiltrate the right group.

    Oh, and @domynoe: I feel your pain. I only got into this MFA program based on my poetry, not my “genre” fiction.

  52. Actually I was wrong about the lawsuits being in the future; the guy who wrote I Am Number Four already sued Frey and got some sort of settlement. The first of quite a few, I would imagine. But as long as Frey is getting cash from Hollywood, he can keep it up. The people in the grad class at Columbia do not strike me as particularly stupid, whether Columbia teaches them about the business side or not. They were attracted because of I Am Number Four, because they knew that there was money there and that Frey was famous enough to get book deals and movie deals. And a lot of them are probably young enough to believe that what happened to Hughes won’t happen to them somehow, even though Frey is one of the most notorious liars around.

    The only way that company is going to be shut down is if there are a lot of lawsuits and they become troublesome enough for the film studios that they decide it’s not worth it to deal with Frey. The funny thing about all this is that Frey wrote a novel and couldn’t sell it. So he changed it into a memoir and caught the wave of non-fiction at that time, got lucky enough to get Oprah’s blessing, got caught out and then declares that all along he was just making controversial art. He went back to fiction. Now he can’t even be bothered to do that. Warhol actually made art. Frey just makes hype.

  53. What is your position on James Patterson and his “collaborations”?

    It’s essentially the same deal: known writer handing over a synopsis and the unknown writer does all the heavy lifting. There was an article about James Patterson’s working model and it didn’t produce the kind of uproar that Frey’s example.

    This model is well-known and alive and well in the publishing industry right now but I haven’t seen anyone laying into it as yet. But isn’t it the same thing? You write under a pseudonym, get paid and use that to leap you forward to the next point.

    I do think some things suck about Frey’s model (like the money) but if you were an unknown writer it’s not such a bad idea to take a risk on something like this. My first ever freelance jobs were for Penguin and I got paid zero. I’d tell any writer to do the same in a heartbeat.

    Frey is using these writers but they’re also using him.

  54. IS THIS CONTRACT SO BAD?

    Here’s what I don’t get: does that 30-40% include royalties from books sold, or is it just for merch / film / tv deals? — This makes a big difference, because standard royalties are 8-12%. And most advances on a book for a first-time author won’t exceed $1000, if even. Sometimes there are no advances.

    Being legally liable for copyright infringement, injurious content, etc. is pretty much standard from a book contract. ALL authors are legally responsible for their material, not their publishers.

    If this thing is paying such high royalties, the only way this is screwing the author is if he is not allowed that he wrote for this publisher on a resume or query. Many writers have worked as ghost writers before, this is nothing new.

  55. I’m one of those people who generally just reads the Whatever on my RSS, but since people are talking about writing programs & I have a degree from one of those programs, I thought I’d add my two cents. I have a Bachelor’s in Creative Writing, and I *did* take a class called “The Literary Marketplace” that was all about… er, what it said it was. The class was an elective and I took it the first semester it was offered, so it was in its roughest form. This was in spring of ’05 (yes, I’m a child). I was a little irritated because of course the emphasis was on “literary” venues. However, the basics were still there: submitting to magazines, submitting to agents, what editing both books and magazines looks like, self-pub and the mind-boggling amounts of work that go into it, and doing your taxes as a self-employed author (my professor went over the tax form he used but strongly recommended an accountant). I think I had to read some agents’ blogs before I got the system for querying really firmly in my head, but this was still an excellent springboard to knowing what was out there.

    Unfortunately, the rest of the program wasn’t really constructed that well, and there was the usual genre bias. But I’m really glad I took that class, particularly since it’s apparently pretty unique.

  56. If the supply of writers far exceeds the demand for writers, the price paid for writing will continue to drop. It is impossible to put an artificial floor on something when people percieve that something to be “pursuing their dreams”.

    Isn’t this simply the future? Supply and demand? 160,000 people participating in NaNo and all of them want to be published. A fair percentage of them have no chance whatsoever of being published, so will clutch at this straw.

    An agent friend of mine once said that there are more writers wanting to write than there are readers wanting to read.

    Rather than outsourcing to the subcontinent, Frey has simply come to the conclusion that there is an untapped mass of people living right here in western nations who will do almost anything to get into print and that he can make a buck off that desire. For every published writer who is willing to stand their ground for a minimum rate, there are a thousand unpublished writers who would be willing to put up with these terms because they think that in some way it helps them accomplish their dream.

    We can point it and say “this is really crappy” – but, like we do everytime a carrier like RyanAir suggests charging for things like using the toilet. Yet people still keep flying RyanAir. Until the oversupply of writers dissipates, this sort of thing will keep happening.

    There is no scarcity of people wanting to be published. In the best of all worlds writers would be compensated well for their time – but unfortunately how much you get compensated for your time is partly determined by how much others are willing to be compensated for performing the same duty. When people are willing to do the same task for little reward, then the going rate will approach that level.

  57. Noam:

    “IS THIS CONTRACT SO BAD?”

    Yes.

    People, are you reading the contract? More importantly, are you understanding the provisions of this contract? The issue isn’t whether this is work for hire. It’s that this particular contract is horrendous. Blithely saying things like “this is nothing new” really is missing the point.

  58. Matthew @76: Isn’t that a bit like saying if you took a cat and gave it a longer neck, made it a herbivore, shortened its tail and dropped it into Africa to live as a herd creature with others of it’s kind, it would be a giraffe, so really, isn’t a cat just like a giraffe?

    The issue (as I thought Scalzi and the article made abundantly clear) is not that Frey is hiring ghostwriters or writers to work for hire; it’s the heads-I-win-tails-I-lose terms of that offer.

    And I’m also a bit baffled at the repeated suggestions that the would-be writers had it coming.

    Blarkon @80, I will defer to the heavyweight pros on the whole nonsense about how beginning writers can, will and should get screwed by those who want to profit from their work, but I can’t help noticing that your theory only makes sense if the aspiring-writers-to-published-works ratio increases over time. Has it really done so?

  59. Blarkon:

    “If the supply of writers far exceeds the demand for writers, the price paid for writing will continue to drop.”

    Meh. This is the “widget” argument, in which one writer is functionally the same as another. They’re not.

    The writers who are sufficiently good to have Frey snurch their rights are probably sufficiently good to publish without his “help”; Frey is merely trying to get to them before they recognize this fact.

  60. Noam @78: the indemnity is not only for actual copyright violations by the author, but “alleged breach”. In other words, if Frey et al get sued by somebody, then can then turn around and claim no, that was all on the author. Who, by the way, has signed away her rights to sue Frey’s company in court, in favor of private, confidential arbitration by a specific arbitration firm in Los Angeles.

    And it’s not 30%+ of the royalties. Please take a look at section 4.2 of the contract. And, as Scalzi already pointed out, there’s nothing in the contract that permits the lawyer to say “Please show me how you determined that $X was the correct amount of you owed me” – nothing that allows the lawyer to demand an accounting of those fees and costs, or how the company determined what amount of money “can be reasonably allocated to the rights for the Book”. To get that, I guess you’d have to sue them for…oh wait! Can’t do that, you already signed away your rights in favor of extremely limited and totally confidential arbitration in Los Angeles!

    (I mean, it’s not that I hate LA or anything, but if you don’t actually live there, it means your costs of trying to assert any rights against Frey Inc. just got a lot bigger.)

  61. One must not call Frey a douche. A douche is a device a woman uses to clean and refresh. There is nothing clean and refreshing about James Frey, his scheme, or his “memoir.”

    And there’s another James Frey who ought to sue this James Frey for equating his name with “douchebag,” which is a receptacle for used douches.

    What a douchebag.

  62. The question keeps getting asked: Who would be dumb enough to sign this contract?

    The answer is: The majority of inexperienced, aspiring writers.

    The average new, unpublished writer has little to no idea of how the business side of writing works. Before I started college, I assumed I just wrote a novel, mailed it to a publisher and if they liked it, they’re print it and send me money. I knew nothing about licensing or rights, I just wanted to see a book in Barnes and Noble with my name on it.

    The truth is that a new writer may have absolutely no idea that this isn’t a perfectly standard contract…and for the aspiring, struggling writer, when someone like Frey turns up, and all they see is someone who wants to pay them for their work; someone who’s ‘on the inside’ and is throwing around words like ‘movie deal’.

    Sadly, this is becoming more common, and Frey isn’t the first to use the concept of an IP farm to mine content from inexperienced, naive artists…and it’s not just authors being targeted. In fact, it appears the latest trend is getting creators from all fields to pay entry fees for ‘contests’, where the ‘prize’ is you get to hand over total ownership of your idea to the company, before being hired by them under a truly awful, short-term contract.

    The key is to educate yourself and see these people for what they are. They have no interest in your success or career, they see you as a resource to be exploited.

  63. @66, Michael Kirkland

    Fire is the only way to cook marshmellows. People who use a microwave are missing out on the fun of blackened, flaming marshmellow comets.

    @John

    Wow, that’s just…Jesus, that contract is wretched.

  64. The difference between Frey and Patterson (as I said on Twitter earlier tonight) is that Patterson gives his ghostwriters co-author credit under their own names, and probably pays them a hell of a lot better. That’s without even knowing any other details about the Patterson contract about rights, audit provisions, etc.

  65. Regarding kicking Mr. Frey in the balls: Would you be letting your agent do the kicking, or would prefer to do that yourself?

    And regarding my earlier question as to whether or not Writer Beware had been made aware, I have noticed that they are usually fairly quick in posting an alert for scams like this. I just checked, and their last post was four days ago. (Of course, they could be waiting until Monday, but this is the sort of thing that is always good to bring to their attention.)

  66. Patterson has a standard collaboration system. He comes up with the book idea, outlines it, does some initial writing on it, turns it over to the chosen collaborator who writes the bulk of it, then he revises and edits. The collaborator gets his name on the cover for full credit as the collaborator, and gets a share of the profits and the advance. The collaborator helps promote the book and can sell other work under his own name separately. (Most of Patterson’s collaborators are published authors on their own.) Patterson works with one publisher, effectively acting as an imprint for that publisher, and the publisher is obligated contractually to account for earnings and can be audited by the authors. It’s 180 degrees different from what Frey is doing.

    The closest thing to what Frey is doing in publishing is what they used to do with category romance writers a long time ago, where the publisher would “own” the writers’ pseudonyms and if they broke ways with the writer, they could have another writer write under that pseudonym and the first writer couldn’t do anything about it. (This was back in the days when wholesale, direct mail paperback titles didn’t have a lot of author promotion.) The romance authors went to court over it to get the practice stopped. But mostly what Frey is doing is Hollywood, where you hire script writers to do script ideas essentially for spec or a small fee, with the promise of a cut if it ever works out of the back end net profits — and then there’s creative accounting to make sure that there’s hardly any back end net profits. Which is why Hollywood doesn’t see anything wrong with what Frey is doing. But in Hollywood, the screenwriters do at least have a guild to which they belong and through which they can make grievances, and that guild also has established regulations and policies that protect writers that the studios and producers have to abide by. Writers have some organizations that go to bat for them legally, like the Author’s Guild and SFWA, but they don’t have a union like the guilds. They are not protected from this kind of exploitation. Frey’s contract is basically saying, “this is how I will cheat you.” And the ability to sue and penalize the writer for hire in that contract is unprecedented. It doesn’t sound like it stood up in court when Hughes sued Frey.

  67. “The writers who are sufficiently good to have Frey snurch their rights are probably sufficiently good to publish without his “help”; Frey is merely trying to get to them before they recognize this fact.”

    I agree. The point I was more going for was that the number of writers who are sufficiently good enough to publish (I’m not saying they are published, just sufficiently good enough to publish) is a rather a lot of people. These people aren’t interchangable. Each of them has a unique voice. Each of them (as stipulated) is worthy of publication – but that there is only a certain number of books published each year and the number of books published each year is smaller than the number of manuscripts worthy of publication (complicating this is that sometimes stuff that isn’t worthy of publication gets published, but for fun we can assume that only the stuff that rises to the top gets in print).

    The ideal is that if someone is capable of consistently writing work of a sufficient standard to be published, that this person is published on their merits. My hypothesis (and I could be wrong) is that the number of writers with unique, excellent, and publication worthy prose exceeds the number of books that are published by a not insignificant amount. That being awesome isn’t enough to get published, that some luck is involved as well (though there is the phrase “you can make your own luck” I guess)

    Frey has devised a business model (and you’ve posted before of others doing similar things) based on a large pool of writers with unique, excellent, and publication worthy prose who have been unable to get published through traditional chanels. I agree that pursuing the Frey model is unlikely to lead a writer to the career that they dream of – but that the model “works” (for whatever value of works you want to use) because the pool is large enough to sustain the model.

    Now I know I’ve built a lot of assumptions into this question – but if the “widget” is quality, unique, publishable manuscripts and the supply of “widgets” exceeds the demand – why *wouldn’t* the price of that producing “widgets” commands eventually fall? (because the number of people participating in NaNo suggests to me that even if only a fraction of them have the “right (write?) stuff” that there are a bloody lot of widgets being produced)

  68. You know, I’m not a professional writer yet, I’m not a lawyer or a businesswoman or a contracts expert, and even I saw how miserable this contract was.

    I’ve spent most every lunch hour for 6 months working on my rough draft (I’m 90,000 words in & closing in on a finish); let’s say about 180 hours conservatively. $250 / 180 hours = $1.39 an hour. If I get $500, that goes up to $2.78 an hour. Waiters get paid more than that before tips.

    Royalties at 30% (because I’ll bet there’s no way for the unknown writer to prove the idea was theirs, so forget the 40%) of all revenue. Sounds good, but again if there’s no accounting method laid out for revenue, how do you know what you are due? So … you are only guaranteed the “advance”.

    The unknown writer takes ALL the liability. That means that you’re taking liability for FREY’S screw ups as well.

    Frey’s company can use your name however they want, whenever they want, even about works you didn’t write. They can use your publicity photos and your bio in whatever way they want, and you have no say about it. Suppose Frey’s company puts out a book celebrating the life and work of , and in the publicity for the book, cited you as one of the many professional authors who have worked for and with him. There’s your name and your reputation, functionally supporting & promoting a book that you would burn on sight.

    You are “forbidden to sign contracts that would ‘conflict’ with the project …” Define ‘conflict’, and in what context? If it’s not specified in the contract, then Frey could realistically say anything you do conflicts. Some people might say “he wouldn’t do that.” That’s not true. He wouldn’t have put the clause in the contract if he didn’t plan to exercise it at some point. The upshot is, Frey functionally controls your ability to market your creative output, whether he is involved in it or not.

    And you agree that you will pay Frey $50,000 if you mention being associated with any of his projects without his express permission.

    You know, you can put your book up on Amazon all by yourself, track your sales figures, keep 70% of the revenues, keep your rights to your work, your publicity information, your reputation, and not be liable for anybody else’s messes. Maybe you won’t get the movie deal, but I’m willing to bet that the lion’s share of the movie deal money never goes any farther than Frey’s personal bank account.

  69. Blarkon:

    “Frey has devised a business model (and you’ve posted before of others doing similar things) based on a large pool of writers with unique, excellent, and publication worthy prose who have been unable to get published through traditional chanels.”

    Well, no. He’s devised a business model based on convincing writers who very likely have the ability to be published through traditional channels to give him their intellectual property instead, at a very low cost to him. He’s relying on their desire to be published and their naivety and ignorance of the publishing world to get them to enter into a very bad contract. This is not the same thing.

  70. Sorry, left out a phrase in paragraph 5 … Frey puts out a book celebrating the life and works of “a person you would spit on if you saw them in the street” …

  71. “The unknown writer takes ALL the liability. That means that you’re taking liability for FREY’S screw ups as well.”

    You would think this alone would scare away most writers. This is JAMES FREY we are talking about. It’s not like he has a screwup-free past.

  72. blarkon@94: My hypothesis (and I could be wrong) is that the number of writers with unique, excellent, and publication worthy prose exceeds the number of books that are published by a not insignificant amount.

    –>Speaking strictly as someone who has seen literally thousands of works of fiction cross her desk after they were accepted and copyedited, at one of the Big Six, I must laugh.

    There’s a lot of crap that’s bought. And I don’t mean “I don’t like this particular sort of thing”; I mean “this is incoherent crap and the author should be suffocated by cramming a copy of The Elements of Style down her throat.”

    It’s the sort of thing that makes me understand why people continue to believe that getting published is merely a matter of luck, not quality. But what it really boils down to is that a lot fewer people are capable of writing a publishable novel than you would think.

    A lot of people are capable of writing an adequate novel. Some of them get bought. Some works of genius go unrecognized for a long time (and they’re usually being rewritten the whole time, so the whole “it was rejected by 57 publishers before one brilliant editor took a chance” thing is kind of a crock; the 58th editor saw a much more polished book than the first 40 or so did). But in general the whole system functions by editors spotting something that they feel has a bit of magic to it.

  73. Michael Kirkland @61: “If we assume that the royalties do get paid out, would a low (or no) fee plus royalties really be a bad model for this sort of factory fiction?”

    I don’t think we can make that assumption. I would assume he’s using Hollywood accounting. When someone gets a movie deal for, say, 1% of net profits, they likely won’t get anything. The way they do their accounting, movies never make a profit. Thus, no net to get a percentage on.

    Put it this way, if someone invites you for dinner, and promises a fabulous lobster feast, but then serves you dog poop for the appetizer, are you still going to expect a fabulous lobster feast?

  74. Two axioms come to mind in this case:

    West’s test for executive potential: if you shit before you check for paper, you don’t have what it takes.

    and

    Doing free work primarily gets you the opportunity to do more free work.

    Seriously, how could *anyone* presumably intelligent enough to get into a MFA program not recognize that the contract Frey is offering is a shit sandwich? I’ve laughed in the face of people offering me better (but still craptastic) contracts than that one before I got my BFA, let alone a Masters.

  75. In the article, when talking to the writing class that he pitched his new publishing venture/scam to, James Frey went on and on about how he wants to be this great revolutionary writer. Then when he talks about the young adult books that he is “collaborating” with young writers on, all he seems to care about is how commercial the concepts are, and even admits to putting things in I Am Number Four solely for the potential toy sales (upon Spielberg’s request).

    The thing that worries me is that more money and power that James Frey gathers from this (and as others have said, Hollywood doesn’t care, so the money will keep a flowing), whose to say he won’t go farther? I wouldn’t be surprised if his next step is to request unsold and unrepresented manuscripts so that he and his cronies can steal the ideas and plots and have one of their sweatshop writing slaves churn out a new version of said novel.

    If Frey’s model becomes successful, will the same type of thinking that created it influence the way other publishing houses do things in the future? Basically, it seems to be potentially damaging to honest to goodness fans, writers, and publishers of science fiction and fantasy.

    Frey is setting up a genre-based imprint, but using non-genre writers to write the novels. Also, he himself seems to aspire to write for the literati more than for young adults and genre readers, at least when he puts his name on the cover of a book. That is fine if that is what he wants to do. He should go and do that. I get the impression that he thinks he can just whip out some half-assed science fiction and fantasy themed novels for easy money. There is no law saying that he can’t do this, but I find it insulting, and it just really pisses me off.

    If he truly wants to help and support young writers, then he should have at least the decency to pay them more than $250-500 for a complete novel. Just to put it into perspective, he received a 1.5 million dollar advance on his second novel. If that is true, I find it appalling that he has the nerve to offer only $500 or less to an author that he felt was good enough to work with. I’m not saying he needs to pay big bucks here. But at the most he is giving and advance of $500? I really just can’t fathom it, and that is just one of the mountain of problems with his fiction factory. More like fiction internment camp.

  76. Stiles@1010: “Doing free work primarily gets you the opportunity to do more free work.”

    Yep. While I’m not a pro writer, I’ve heard this many times as well from “potential” clients when I used to shoot corporate/commercial videos. It eventually learned that when people propose these types of “deals”, to just turn and run away. Kinda like the whole fight-or-flight instinct. There is usually no reasoning with these folks, as if I don’t do the work for free, they’ll just find someone else who will.

    I guess James Frey is at least paying something… then again maybe he’ll eventually realize that there are some hungry and debt trodden writers who will write a novel completely on spec for free because Hollywood might come a calling.

  77. E said:
    “–>Speaking strictly as someone who has seen literally thousands of works of fiction cross her desk after they were accepted and copyedited, at one of the Big Six, I must laugh”

    Well I did qualify the original statement ;-)

    I’ve suspected that your statement “a lot fewer people can do this than you think” is true, which does raise interesting questions about the utility of 170,000+ people being generally encouraged to write a novel in November (especially since the figure seems to jump each year suggesting that those who don’t succeed do indeed try try again). I’m not sure how many people in the world have authoring fiction as their primary income – but would it reach even 10% of the figure of the people that participated in NaNoWriMo last year?

    If talent is rare, then there won’t be an oversupply of quality and a good writer will remain adequately compensated for their work. If talent is more common (and the figures of participants in NaNoWriMo suggest that a lot of people have been able to convince themselves that it is ;-) then editors can be a bit more fussy (though from your experience it sounds as though those that make an adequate living from their work have little to worry about)

  78. The thing that makes me sad is that I just find this ugly, while I actually found his previous famous scam kind of funny, in that I actually derived a certain degree of schadenfreude from the fact that so many people who would never, ever let nasty old made up fiction sully their reading were fooled into reading an icky, FAKE novel under the guise of a totally-for-reals true-life memoir.

  79. John -
    I’m glad you’ve exposed yet another questionable aspect to this man’s character. This character flaw is far more harmful than his duping Oprah into believing his fraudulent memoir was real. She recovered nicely. However, the students who are sucked into his scheme could potentially suffer financially for years to come should he manage to steal a really good idea. I hope his books end up in the $1 bin at every major book store. Better – a penny on Amazon.

  80. In my country (Germany, that is), these “contracts” would be immediately nullified by the courts. We have a legal term for them. They are called “sittenwidrig”, which means that it doesn’t matter if the author had signed up to them, starry-eyed or not. German law considers a contract that is against proper business conduct to be fraudulent at heart. The copyright would be immediately returned to the proper author.

    But the thing that nobody mentions is what infuriates me even more. What about Spielberg? What about the people at Harper Collins? They are the arms merchants to Frey’s murderer. Nobody has said anything. They continue to enable Frey (and Spielberg himself has a less than white vest when it comes to copyright theft, try to google “Amistad” and “Chicken Run”, not to mention “Twister”).

    All of them continue to give him their support.

    It’s no wonder that pathetic excuse of a man has delusions of grandeur.

  81. One thing that seems to be getting lost: what if there is no movie deal????? Seriously. What if Frey and his merry band of exploiters of the Grub Street working class his agent take the work that one of these MFA students produced, shop it to Hollywood, and nothing happens?

    The writer gets a guaranteed $250, with a possibility of an additional $250, that’s what happens. That’s a grand total of $500 for WMF, which is less than HALF what I got for writing a 90 page game manual in 1990-1991. No, I didn’t get royalties, but at least my work got into print,* which is more than most of these poor, naive students will ever see.

    Morever, anyone who thinks that James Frey and the Hollywood studios will be honest in their accounting clearly hasn’t heard of all the lawsuits brought by the writers and filmmakers and actors of successful films against the studios because somehow, some way, a property that brought in gazillions in ticket sales never quite made back its costs. The Lord of the Rings grossed several BILLION dollars, and Peter Jackson and some of the actors still had to sue to get what New Line was contractually obligated to pay. What makes anyone think that James Frey, a known liar, will really give any of his “collaborators” 40% of anything?

    John is right. This is the sort of contract that aspiring writers should run from, not embrace. Writer beware indeed!

    *after a detour because of the Secret Service raid. Yes, really.

  82. @ Jon H.

    Worse than that. J.K. Rowling tells us when Harry Potter ends? Screw the bitch! Doesn’t she know we could have run that shit, like, forever?

    If this continues, I’ll do exactly as a reader what I am already doing as a listener. I will only support independent authors. And will stop buying any corporate, mass-produced bullshit, just like I stopped buying the big names in music.

  83. The problem is, too many people are DESPERATE to be published. They just don’t get it. You publish with a reputable publisher if your work meets their standards and is marketable. If not, you self-publish. Either way, you don’t need a scamming SOB like Frey to get your work out there.

    Is anyone actually SIGNING this contract?

  84. Thomas @107: we have a similar concept of the “unconscionable contract” in the United States, which seems much more limited that “sittenwidrig” as you’ve described it; but the cute thing about this contract is that the author signs away her rights to have an actual judge in an actual court look at the contract.

    –E @99, that’s a really interesting point about “the 58th editor saw the genius of my book!”

    Stiles @101: if you read the New Yorker article, it’s quite obviously why people are signing. Frey, despite his rather public literary disintegration, has a company that is doing deals with Hollywood, and (if the article is to be believed) is doing real deals with major producers. MFA students are broke and desperate and not really contract-savvy; so there’s that ray of hope that, yes, if your thing works out, they could screw you but they won’t and you have a chance of making lots and lots and lots of money. And if it doesn’t work out you at least made $250, right?

    Please don’t confuse “uninformed and desperate” with “stupid and greedy”. To do so excuses the behavior of a con man.

  85. Maria @111: Sadly, yes. In the article, five out of the nine students in the seminar submitted ideas to Frey. Including the author of the article.

  86. THIS IS A VERY BAD CONTRACT. DO NOT SIGN IT.

    There, clear enough? Now, details. I’m not a lawyer, not an agent, and the only book I’ve written was about solid state logic gate design, work for hire, got a bonus for it, and that’s all I can say about it. Uncle’s like that. My legal training is limited to the first quarter Legal Engineering class I had over four decades ago. The goal of that class was to teach us that we were not lawyers and that we should not attempt to read and understand contracts, as they are not written in English, but a strange language called Legalese, which looks like English, but is very different from it. Words have strange meanings in Legalese, sometimes the opposite of what they mean in English. Over the years I’ve read and signed many contracts, almost always with the aid of a lawyer I was paying to help me. They’re worth the money, believe me. I can’t imagine any of my lawyers approving of this contract. This contract appears to transfer almost, if not all, possible legal risks to the “author”, while retaining almost all (other than the flat fee) possible benefits to Mr. Frey or someone he appoints. I would not sign this contract. I wouldn’t even bother to show it to my lawyer. I wouldn’t let it touch my bottom for wiping purposes.

    (John, I’m sure you’re working on preview. Thank you in advance.)

  87. mythago @ 112 –

    The author signs away her rights to have an actual judge in an actual court look at the contract.

    See, that alone? Would render the contract illegal in my country. But then again, it appears to me that it’s no longer the United States, more the United Corporations of America. As for being desperate, I have had a similar experience with a subset of Tor as a graphic novel author. And it’s not that most of these students go into this situation bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. And if you are at a place where agents don’t even look at your stuff (and let’s be honest here, the market place is shitty out there), you start to rationalise, just like Hughes did, according to that article.

    Yes, it is a shitty deal, but if I play along, then he will introduce me to his agent, and then…. Or, It’s Steven Spielberg, bitch!

    Like I said. Been there. Done that. With one major exception. While I was working my ass off, they always “forgot” the contract. The graphic novel grew from 180 pages to 500 pages, and by the time I figured out that I had been royally screwed (without the royalties), I was so deep in it that abandoning the book would have essentially negated 14 months of work I had put in. So I moved forward while my body was slowly falling apart. While I heard the other artists and writers complain the hell out of through YM to me, but were too cowardly to stand up.

    And when it was all done, then the “publisher” sent me an illegally backdated contract. Only by that point I knew the “publisher” was a scumbag. And I also knew he couldn’t push back the street date of the book anymore. And even then, I was stupid enough to go, well, I’ll sign the damn thing, I’ll have a book out, I am kind of proud of it… whatever.

    But… I wanted to see if it was my book. And thanks to Amazon (because I never got comp copies), I could get the book as soon as it was out. And they not only had taken my logo design for the cover without paying me for it (or even stating it was mine), they had dumbed down entire sections of dialogue.

    Big. Mistake.

    Since I hadn’t signed a contract, the entirety of the story was mine. All of it.

    Didn’t matter to them. Know what they did? They walked around Hollywood (just as I knew they would) trying to sell the thing. And obviously, that information was relayed back to me. And so I simply sent that “publisher’s” Hollywood management firm, Circle of Confusion, a delightful cease and desist, or as I told them: How many Harvard Boys, you think, will it take to try and screw one German? You do know that I can take your entire company down for fraud, don’t you?

    (I did that in Legalese, though. By that point in time I knew a lot about international copyright law, oh yes)

    Made them scatter faster than cockroaches when you turn on the light.

    And make no mistake. They are cockroaches. No matter how they nice they appear to be, no matter what they promise you… they lie. And I can tell you from experience now on how to dissect any kind of communication you might get from them (see the link at my sig)

  88. All I can say is: thank God for MWA. I’ve had my disagreements with them over what constitutes “self publishing” (waves at Charles Ardai if he’s reading this) , but I’m glad someone’s there looking out for me.

  89. I wrote a YA trilogy for a packager and got a high-four-figure advance for each novel as well as royalties, potential bonuses, and a percentage of film and foreign rights. Fortunately, I had a literary agent negotiate it for me. The packager came up with the idea and worked with me on an outline and on editing each book before it went to the publisher. That was a fair contract and nothing like Frey’s contracts.

    I’m also a retired lawyer. I believe James Frey’s contracts are unconscionable. General contract law provides that unconscionable contracts are unenforceable. I hope the writers sue his slimy ass.

  90. #110: Thomas Hart: “If this continues, I’ll do exactly as a reader what I am already doing as a listener. I will only support independent authors. And will stop buying any corporate, mass-produced bullshit, just like I stopped buying the big names in music.”

    So you’re going to stop reading Scalzi’s books, visiting this blog, watching Stargate, and won’t go to see any film made out of any of his books, is that it? That doesn’t seem like a great solution. Most authors don’t make a ton of money, but do work very hard at what they do — why punish them because there are con-artists like Frey? The publishers are not responsible for the contracts between book packagers they contract with and their writers, nor are studios responsible for disputes between screenwriters and producers. They don’t even necessarily see the contract between them and I doubt HarperCollins or Dreamworks knew what terms Hughes had agreed to for I Am Number Four, (slightly better than the current contract but probably not much.) Hughes sued Frey successfully and that didn’t impact HarperCollins or Dreamworks. But if there are more lawsuits and Frey’s company becomes embroiled in claims that have legal liability for the publishers and studios, they’ll stop dealing with his company just as his publisher dropped his two-book contract after the memoir debacle. And with the story in New York Magazine, publishers may be hesitant to proceed further, although some deals have already been made. And even though there’s no audit clause in the contract, that doesn’t mean the writers can’t sue the company for misappropriation of funds and other claims. Frey is especially vulnerable because he’s trying to tie up the writer’s other projects, preventing them from making a living besides working for his company. It’s a badly phrased attempt at a non-compete clause, like in a Hollywood contract and it’s particularly unenforceable.

  91. @74, Jenn

    What was worse for me was when I graduated with my B.A. (concentrated in Creative Writing, remember), I still ended up spending another $300 on books for CONCRETE advice about writing (such as how to plot, how to write dialogue, and so on). When I talked to others about how appalling it was that a creative writing program not only wouldn’t teach about the business aspects, it also apparently didn’t require profs to teach the more concrete aspects of actual writing and required 4 more classes in lit analyses than it did in writing classes, I was told, “Oh, that’s because we focus on preparing teachers.”

    Um, what?

    I think colleges and universities really need to get with it and realize there’s more to preparing a person for the job market or the field that want to go into than making sure they have a “well rounded education”. It really doesn’t help if you don’t know squat about how to succeed in your field and how to avoid douchebags like Frey.

  92. At what point has the child sewing the $100 jeans ever been paid more than a penny a yard and then featured on the commercials? Pretty much a writing sweatshop James Frey has concocted here. Sure, they could have said no, but when you’re desperate to get published you might latch onto something like this. There’s a reason Frey didn’t go to a literary agency or some other established business with this pap because he knew he’d be tossed out on his arse. He has proved in the past that his ethics are questionable.

  93. The picture with the article shows a room full of people typing away–except for Frey, who is standing around holding a clipboard. Makes me wonder who wrote his other books.

    Lou Arinica had a similar operation, but I heard the pay was pretty good.

  94. Yes, folks, if you want to write YA novels for a packager, the advances from legit operations start at $2,500 and go up to $10,000. Don’t waste your time on this douchenozzle and his nonsense contract.

  95. Why would I rely on someone whose books they sell at Big Lots to help me with a writing career? That would be as much help as Megan Fox teaching acting classes.

  96. Megan Fox has been incredibly successful and makes a lot of money. This whole thing isn’t about Frey; it’s about the deals Frey has managed to wiggle. They see those deals and they figure if they get in, they’ll eventually make some money and make high level contacts. What’s kind of interesting about this is that’s what MFA programs were supposed to do, at least for print. You got taught essentially to do a teaching career, but also in top level schools like Columbia, though they may not have been teaching you how to read a royalty statement, they were supposed to groom you for and introduce you to agents and publishers with whom the programs often maintained relationships. You were supposed to be launched into that network which actively searched the MFA programs for authors and then you’d have a good shot at a top money, literary novel career like Michael Chabon (UC Irvine MFA.)

    Does this mean publishers are turning away from the sort of fiction commonly written by MFA students? No, that sort of fiction is doing better than ever. But it does seem to mean that the network that $45,000 to Columbia was supposed to get you has decayed. And the expansion of YA has attracted them as something they imagine wrongly as being easy to write and offering lucrative ghost writing deals with ins into Hollywood. Frey would actually get better writers if he went to librarian graduate programs probably, but he’s going to MFA ones for the “artistic” street cred. And possibly because he thinks it’s funny.

  97. OMFG … That’s all? $500 dollars. And a contract which sucks so bad that it kind of pulls everything around into a sort of black hole, for writers who are hoping to hit the brass ring and bet the costs of an MFA program on it. Who signs something like this – the same kind who answer Nigerian scam spam?
    I’m glad I’m an indy – seriously. The writing work I do for hire subsidizes the writing that I love. And my last work for hire contract paid a hell of a lot more than $500, for three chapters of a specialty study guide.

  98. One of the things that I keep wondering about was how few of the folk signing these contracts bothered to even read them. I’m a web geek, so I have to sign a contract at every job I take. 9 times out of 10, the person on the other side of the desk is amazed that I’m taking the time to read what I’m signing. And if you are dazzled by the presence of someone who’s actually *been published* and *made money in Hollywood*, I think it’s even less likely that you’d read the contract in the first place.

    Vaguely related thought: I wonder if just clicking “accept” at computer license agreements is effectively teaching lots of people to just agree and not read what they “sign”?

  99. BethanyAnne @129: the contract also says that the person signing it talked to a lawyer first. This is designed to prevent the signer from later arguing that they wouldn’t have signed if they knew what it meant.

    In my experience people tend to sign these things because they assume it’s just a bunch of blahblah that’s only there to keep the lawyers happy, but has no real effect whatsoever and anyway, it’s not like anything bad is going to happen.

  100. Bleh. Why is it that, in the entertainment industry, our smarmy is so much MORE smarmy than just about any other field’s smarmy? Same sort of thing goes on in the theatre all the time. Is it too late to change careers?

    I repeat, bleh.

  101. Wait… 500$ per novel? Forget traditional publishing, they could put the novels up on the kindle store for 3 dollars a copy and make more money than that.

    As usual, there are no people in the world dumber than writers who want to get published, huh. These MFA classes could at least stop getting Frey to lecture…

  102. “Mr. Frey, You’re One O’clock is here to see you.”
    “Was that the young lady with the horror-transcript?”
    “No, it’s Mr. Scalzi, about the gonad kicking.”
    “Oh… Is he in the building?”
    “Yes, he’s in the lobby. He got here very early.”
    “Can you tell him I’m not here?”
    “I doubt it. He was the fellow who was enthusiastically shining his boots in the lobby when you came in this morning. I told you, he got here very early.”

  103. My wife was a para-legal for a while, and when we signed the mortgage for our home, we read all of the paperwork. Fifty-seven different documents about this, that, and the other. With the aid of modern computers, three of those documents were correct on the morning of signing. We’d asked to read them earlier, but were assured there would be no errors. Over half had my father’s name instead of mine. A dozen had my wife’s mother’s name instead of hers. Social Security Numbers were wrong, the house address was wrong, the zip code was wrong, … , the name of the bank was wrong. What was supposed to be a half-hour starting at 8 am ended at 6:30 pm. Repeatedly we were told that documents had been corrected once this had started, and while the documents had changed, sometimes new errors were introduced. We almost walked out; knowing that we were dealing with one of the most reputable firms in town, and the looks of astonishment on the various lawyer’s faces, is the only thing that really kept us there. It’s hard to proofread documents that you expect to be correct; you see what should be there, not what is there.

    This is not the problem with the contract Mr. Frey is proposing.

  104. elld @ 108: “*after a detour because of the Secret Service raid. Yes, really.

    What, did you write a supplement for Steve Jackson Games?

  105. John wrote: “Seriously, people. $500 and unauditable net points for a novel? That contract probably also specifies that the writer has to spring for the lube.””

    Oh, thanks for THAT. I was drinking coffee! Now I must clean up my entire desk area.

  106. @137 – Yep. I co-wrote GURPS Scarlet Pimpernel with my former husband. Our manuscript was one of those on the computers that were confiscated by the Secret Service during the infamous raid. Didn’t figure at all in the legal case AFAIK, but I still grin when I think that something I wrote was involved in a seminal cyberlaw case.

  107. Wow! It’s unbelievably sad that any MFA program would let this guy in to prey on these impressionable, desperate-for-success students. But it’s even worse that these budding writers value themselves so little that they would throw away all the rights to their work in that way. Exploitation at it’s finest! Save the slave labor and just self-publish…you would lose a hell of a lot less!

  108. OK, the writing M.A. program at Johns Hopkins DEFINITELY teaches better than to be taken in by this. At least, they tell you how publishing works, how to write a query letter, and how to get an agent with an eye for decent contracts, thank goodness. Just wanted to speak up for a program or two, here.

  109. You know, this is sad, and cynical, and reprehensible. And he’d find plenty of suckers nonetheless. Give him a good hard kick for me, and be sure to wear the steel-toed boots.

  110. @143 – you remind of the following line from one of the greatest fantasy stories ever written:

    “The girl gasped a tortured groan from her clamped lungs, her sea blue eyes bulging forth from damp sockets. Cocking her right foot backwards, she leashed it desperately outwards with the strength of a demon possessed, lodging her sandled foot squarely between the shaman’s testicles.”

    Jim Theis, =The Eye of Argon=

  111. I discovered this site by accident and I’ve just spent 30 min reading these awesome comments. I wish I had something to add other than, I too, would love to kick this guy in his “junk” for being such a terrible shit…

  112. Geez, make up your mind. You can’t have it both ways, you have to make up your mind. Which is it going to be? Kick, or knee?

    Oh, wait, sorry; on this one you CAN have it both ways. You just have to decide which to do first.

    Carry on, then.

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