Thursday, December 09, 2010

Book Mills and the Inevitable Abuse

A few years ago I noticed a trend among some writers to "co-author" books. James Patterson is probably the most notorious in my mind. He went from writing two books or so a year to pumping out a new one every month; or so it seemed. I forget which of the co-written titles I picked up, but suffice it to say I thought it sucked-- on ice.

But fine. Whatever. I was pretty sure that the real deal involved unknown authors now penning books for Patterson and putting it under his name to sell books. Again, fine. As long as everyone is okay with the deal who am I to complain?

But this is a system that is bound to cause problems. How long can you stand to have someone else take credit for your work before you lose your mind? Writing is one of those things that's very personal, but it's also a career that has a lot to do with name recognition. Maybe the writers doing the work for Patterson usually work as ghost writers and don't mind the second-fiddle status of their writing careers. And, to be fair, it is a decent launching pad. But it appears that are some problems cropping up with this system.

Enter James Frey. You may remember Frey from his excruciatingly uncomfortable appearance on Oprah after the talk show host realized that Frey's memoir, "A Million Little Pieces" was more of a work of fiction than any kind of biography. I saw that interview and actually felt sorry for Frey at the time. Oprah, in full high-dudgeon, railed at Frey for a full hour. I remember thinking that Oprah seemed more offended that she was duped than anything else. Oh sure, she couched the haranguing in moral terms but ultimately it seemed more about her than Frey's artistic licence. As the diatribe ended I felt a little sorry for Frey. He exaggerated and passed fiction off as fact, but he had been embarrassed on live television -- on Oprah no less-- so the debt was paid. Right?

Well, maybe not.

How do I put this delicately? Once a douche always a douche? I shouldn't have said that, but I laughed at my own joke-- so it stays.

Frey, it seems, has entered the business of book-writing sweatshops. When I posted the trailer to "I Am Number Four" yesterday I didn't know who Pittacus Lore (the author of the book the movie is based on) was-- and I didn't really care. I assumed it was an attempt at a clever Lemony Snicket-y sounding name designed to catch the attention of YA readers. What didn't occur to me what that James Frey, the pseudo-memoir writer, could possibly be attached to the book. Who knew the guy wrote YA fantasy fiction? Well, turns out, he doesn't.

Thanks to Stephanie over at Scribbler to Scribe I was clued in to what Frey has been up to since his flogging on Oprah.

Frey, it appears, has no particular ethics when it comes to selling books. After getting nailed with his name attached to a book, Frey released another book that was openly sold as fiction and then mostly seemed to disappear. But Frey didn't really fade into obscurity. Instead he started a writer assembly-line known as Full Fathom Five (it's Shakespearian so it's clever). In a detailed piece over at the The New Yorker we're given a small glimpse into the mind of James Frey, and it's not really pretty. On the heels of his fall from grace Frey managed to convince himself that he didn't do anything wrong. That attaching the word "memoir" to a book doesn't mean it needs to be accurate or anything. It's really just a question of style as far as he's concerned.

Frey makes these statements at a seminar in front of students in the graduate writing program at Columbia University. They also just happen to coincide with a pitch to the young authors to come write for his company in a "collaborative" effort. Sold as being as being like the contracts Hollywood script writers sign, only adapted for publishing, the eager writers are told that Frey will offer them guidance and a really good chance at being published. And there's no question that Frey understands marketing. His ideas are cynical and generally meant to pander to the "Twilight" crowd but after the advent of reality-TV, can we really complain about the lack of quality in our entertainment these days? The guy is nothing if not a good observer of human nature and he knows there are certain types of books that sell-- and he's interested in selling them.

Frey also knows that young, fresh-out-of-college writers are energetic and up-to-their-ears in debt. So it's a no-brainer that dangling a paycheck and dreams of major-market success is going to bring aspiring writers in droves. And it did. One young author by the name of Jobie Hughes signed on the dotted line and was the real author of I Am Number Four. Here's where the story gets murky. Thanks to a confidentiality agreement Hughes can't really comment on what really happened after going to work for Frey. Frey claims that the story was his idea and that he mentored Hughes through the process of writing the book. Hughes, who isn't saying anything, appears to have ended up pretty disgruntled with the whole affair and has bowed out of further involvement with the project.

What we do know is that the contracts writers sign when they go work for Frey are really, really one-sided. Frey has all the control and all the ownership and the writers are pretty much stuck with whatever Frey tells them they're going to get. They are told they are going to get a percentage up front of the profits, but what isn't included in the contract is any kind of audit provision. So, basically, Frey can tell the writer what they earned and they have to take his word for it. Nice huh? Worse, Frey can put the work out under any name he wants to. It's clear that he doesn't really attach his own name to anything anymore so it's almost a given that he's going to use a pseudonym. There are even rumors that Frey is the pen behind the books authored by the mysteriously "off-the-grid" John Twelve Hawks. Frey is perfectly comfortable pocketing money under a phony name and what that means to these young writers is that they're doing a whole lot of work for very little recognition. I had never heard of Jobie Hughes before today-- had you?

The real rub here though is what do we, as consumers, do now that we know who the man behind the curtain is? Do we boycott the product? That'll show Frey, right? Well, maybe. But it may also hurt Hughes. Hughes might not get what he should get out of "I Am Number Four," but he is contracted to get something out of the book and the movie-- as he should. So it's a real dilemma if you're someone who is interested in seeing Frey have to show some accountability. I'm not a social crusader type to be honest. I guess I always worry about the unintended consequences. But I can't see any harm in shining a small light on Frey's antics because I guarantee he's not the only guy out there working the industry in this way.

The real lesson here is that young writers need to be careful before they sign up for something that sounds too good to be true. Heck, that holds true for almost anything really. Many jobs have confidentiality or no-compete clauses and it's easy to get sucked into the trap of signing on because everybody does it. But let me tell you kids, there are no shortcuts. And while I may not have liked her methods, Oprah did try to warn us about Frey. He's a sleazy character for sure. I won't hold my breath for his comeuppance-- Hollywood churns out his type by the ton. But I can make sure the truth behind "I Am Number Four" gets out there. I won't judge you for seeing the movie (hopefully it will be good for Hughes in the long run) so that's not really what this is about. What it's about is making sure young writers know who Frey is-- and know to watch out for him and others of his ilk.


Neth said...

wow, I had no idea about this. On one hand now I'm glad I turned down a review copy for I am Number 4 (I was just too busy and it sounded a bit too cliche for me at the time). And I hope that Frey isn't behind John Twelve Hawks.

SQT said...

Neth-- The Twelve Hawks thing is a rumor that no one can confirm. Frey is doing the "can't confirm or deny" thing with that. So I don't know. But it seemed worth mentioning. The New Yorker article is a good read.

Stephanie M. Lorée said...

Thank you so much for doing the post. I updated my own blog post linking back to here, so hopefully that generates more traffic and exposure to this issues.

What it's about is making sure young writers know who Frey is-- and know to watch out for him and others of his ilk.

Took the words right out of my mouth!

Blodeuedd said...

What an ass! I am glad I was told

SQT said...

Stephanie-- Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

Blodeuedd-- Me too!

Jamie Gibbs (Mithril Wisdom) said...

I heard about the sweatshop system they had going on for I Am Number Four and it surprised me. I didn't realise, however, how much of a douche (completely the right description, by the way) James Frey is.

I feel really sorry for Joby Hughes; I Am Number Four will now see some success (depending on how the movie pans out) and it's lost in this creative abyss of Frey's making. This sucks.

Lightning Bug's Butt said...

I had no idea the writing community was so corrupt. I always knew about ghost writers, but I didn't realize there were full-on book mills.

SQT said...

Jamie-- I didn't know the history behind "I Am Number Four" at all. Like Neth I turned down a review copy because I don't read that much YA fiction. So this was all news to me. Mostly I feel bad for Hughes. I hope this helps get some name recognition for him and enables him to make a name on his own terms.

LBB-- I didn't know the full scope of it myself. But it's not shocking really. I had a friend who worked for Harlequin and they're expected to pump out at least 4 books a year. The bottom line trumps quality all day long.

Brenda said...

I'll be honest. I thought "I Am Number Four" was horribly written, and I pretty much hated it, but that doesn't change the fact that Frey is, in fact, a douche.

SQT said...

Brenda-- I haven't read it, so I can't comment on its quality. But I think it's safe to say the Frey doesn't give a damn about quality. I guess he sold the movie before the book. Marketing, marketing, marketing.

Noobling said...

I just heard about this last month. This is just grimy. Yes, once a douche...

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I heard about this earlier but you explained it so much better. Maybe if enough words gets around the real author will get at least some of the credit he deserves.

Steve Malley said...

The comics industry was once well-known for such sweatshop shenanigans. Heck, the guys who invented Superman (Superman!!) spent a fair chunk of their golden years eating cat food.

A name-and-shame campaign forced DC to cough up a little dough, but nothing changed. The Big Two always paid a pittance and owned everything you did for them. Forever.


SQT said...

Noobling-- I don't know how I didn't know about this. But I'm glad someone clued me in.

Susan-- I hope so. I hope he's given the chance to get some of his own work out there.

Steve-- That's awful. I knew Hollywood could be abusive, but really never thought of the publishing industry the same way. Goes to show that there are douchbags everywhere.

mcgriffmusings said...

I honestly didn't know who Pittacus Lore was either until I read the comments on your post on the book. I had no idea Frey was behind all this and even worse, he's pimping writers -that's basically what it is. Like you said, getting the word out about him is very important as well as supporting Hughes, the real author behind the book. With a lot of publishing control being given back to indie writers, publishers etc these days writers have to be extremely aware of not getting suckered into these kind of deals.