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).