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James Frey, Young Adult Author?

James Frey has turned his attention to the young adult market.


James Frey’s Fiction Factory by Suzanne Mozes at the New York Magazine (including Read the Brutal Contract) and James Frey’s Next Act by Katherine Rosman and Lauren A.E. Schuker at the Wall Street Journal combined give an interesting, inside look at Frey’s choice to become an entertainment packager for young adult books, movies, and TV shows.

Go, read both articles, come back so we can discuss.


Here is what I learned.

I learned that writing young adult books involve nothing other than tossing off a one-sentence idea, selling it unwritten to Hollywood, then rewriting the book based in part on the Hollywood script. I learned that this is an entirely proper and respectable way to view the young adult book market.

Bloody hell! What about the young adult readers? What about the books? From reading both of these articles, Frey and the associated authors view the young adult market as something no different from a widget to be packaged and sold, with millions to be made to support them while they write a “real” book. The pseudonym is part of the appeal — who has to know you wrote that book!

A little respect, please.

There is no respect in writing a book for future sales of toy and media sales: Mozes reports, “[Frey] mentioned the Mogadorian swords in I Am Number Four, which were described with unusual specificity. “We added that after Spielberg told us he needed stuff to sell”.

There is no respect in Frey’s advice to young adult authors being “Her parents, they should be dead.” (Rosman & Schuker).

There is nothing in these articles that indicate that anyone connected with these ventures reads any current young adult books. Or, for that matter, that any of those wanting to work with Frey ever wanted to write for young adults.

What did you learn?

For those of you who are wondering, “why are writers this desperate,” I point you to Maureen Johnson and The James Frey Problem. Part of what she points out is how no, the financial deal Frey offered in his contract was not all that and a bag of candy. Mozes also quotes people familiar with publishing contracts (including attorneys) who point out the unfairness of the contract. Both articles, and Johnson’s post, also point out existing book packagers.

So why would a writer sign? Mozes explains, “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.” 

Why Frey? Mozes, one of those Columbia MFA students who tried to get a finalized contract with Frey’s company, explained how other promises are made: “Frey suggested that he would be highly involved—he would guide us through the process of writing a commercial novel, which wasn’t exactly a skill highly prioritized at Columbia, and he would connect us to his social network of agents, publishers, and directors”. Rosman and Schuker quote one of those who signed with Frey: “Ms. Topp says she is comfortable with the financial arrangement with Full Fathom Five because her work will be exposed to Hollywood decision-makers. “I look forward to the day that I’m irritated that he’s making millions and millions and I’m only making millions.”

As noted by Johnson and those quoted in Mozes’s article, some of those promises are not reflected in the actual contract. I also suggest, especially for those in the Columbia MFA program, perhaps attending one or two Kidlit Drink Nights (and even being aware they exist) may be a better way to network.

Edited to add: John Scalzi weighs in: The Man In The Frey Flannel Suit. “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.”

Edited to add: Over at Gawker: Welcome to James Frey’s Young  Adult Fiction Sweatshop. Which is included for the very awesome observation, “It’s like Judy Blume meets the Borg”.

Edited to add: Sarah Rees Brennan weighs in because the power of Frey compelled her: “I feel I must make a post telling everybody how to get published. (Finally – the secrets revealed!) Probably you will all find it childishly simple! But I think of it as Publishing 101. And maybe someone can email this link to people at Columbia.”

Edited to add: Ask Daphne About Book Packagers explains that what is wrong with Full Fathom Five is not that it’s a book packager but rather how this packager works: “Let me throw a couple of names out at you. Ann Brashares. Cecily Von Ziegesar. Scott Westerfeld. Maureen Johnson. I could go on, but perhaps you already recognize those names. If not, let me try mentioning some of their best known books: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Gossip Girl, Midnighters, 13 Little Blue Envelopes. All of them are very popular authors of very popular or bestselling YA novels who started out in the business with book packagers. Hell, some of your other favorite authors may have ghostwritten a book or two for a packager in their time, or done some work with them.” and “So beyond the simple experience of it, why would you work with a book packager? For the chance to see how the publishing industry works from the inside, to a schedule, on a deadline.” In other words: you’ve read these books and loved them. It’s not book packaging, it’s Frey’s version of it that it that concerns.

About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is


  1. This is incredibly disturbing.

  2. Frey takes greed and the greedy to the next new lower level. Hey, there’s a bridge close by in my Brooklyn neighborhood for sale. I’m doing the negotiations, it a deal. Call: 1800-ASSHATS!

  3. My problem is that in my naive little way, I like to think that writers don’t care about becoming famous. That they write not based on the trends of the moment or to rake it in but because they are compelled to write. That they’d be writing even if they weren’t getting published. This turning books, which can change lives, or at the very least provide an escape, into a money making SCHEME that fleeces writers, is appalling.

    And why is it that people view the success of the YA market and think, oh, let’s copy those ideas and get that money, when maybe the success of the YA market comes from the originality and wide range of ideas within the genre?

    “Someone is going to replace Harry Potter,” he recalls thinking. “Maybe it’ll be me.”
    With the way he’s dealing, there isn’t the slightest chance of that.

  4. BTW – I will make sure I avoid all of these books.

  5. Coincidently, just this afternoon I was clearing out old books to sell, and came across James Frey’s “How to Write a Damn Good Novel.” I flipped through it and was reminded that, to put it politely, I didn’t agree with it at all, and into the sale bag it went.

  6. Well, at least he’s honest now about the fraud he is and always was. Hopefully teens might care enough that when they see a book published by Full Fathom Five, they’ll realize the head honcho pretty much sees them as idiots with Mommy & Daddy’s cash. And if Frey’s going to keep this whole pseudonym/fake author vibe going, then his cash cows are not even worthy of a book tour. Teens deserve better.

    P.S.: thank goodness I only borrowed the book, and never recommended it for my library’s YA blog.

  7. Lenore, yes,

    Beth, I think a person can be a writer AND think practically about business matters. If anything, the writer who doesn’t think about practical matters may be more likely to fall for a Frey-type contract because they don’t know how a place like Alloy or ghostwriting works. I have a lot of respect for the person who wants to be a published writer and plans to use that income to pay rent, healthcare, childcare, mortgage, etc. Writing shouldn’t require having a trust fund or a spouse who works; it shouldn’t require a person living in a studio and eating ramen noodles. A writer shouldn’t have to defend charging for their work, or charging for school or other visits, etc.

    At the same time, the person who thinks “oh, Harry Potter is a kid’s book so easy to write so I can knock one off in three months and sell it to Steven Spielberg SWEET” isn’t going to write anything I want to read. I love when people like Shannon Hale and Maureen Johnson talk the truth about writing, getting paid, etc. How you can be both inspired but realize that this is a business and think practically about it.

    Lenore, I hate to prejudge books. But yes, this whole thing just is “eek.” For I AM NUMBER FOUR, I tried about 50 odd pages and thought it flat and relying on some tired conveniences: the superman qualities of the aliens, the box of rare stones that meant a person didn’t have to work. I’ve talked to librarians whose teens do like it, and thought about giving it another try.

    Moira, but the chance to compare the “how to” of that book with some of the Full Fathom Five books would be priceless!!

  8. MHG, yeah, it’s the greed. And I also thought of the old saying, “you can’t cheat an honest man.” Yes, the writers getting involved are getting a bad deal and part of it may be desperation; but part of it is also looking for a shortcut, not wanting to write their own book and get an agent and do it the old-fashioned way.

    Three things I learned in law school: negotiate a contract instead of sign it as-is; always invoke your right to an attorney; be the first to plea out, you’ll get the best deal. Wait, the last two may have been from watching Law & Order.

    Deb, I was impressed with just how blatant Frey appeared to be about the whole thing. I wonder if there will be a “but I love John Green books!” response. Given how the contracts are structured, and that Full Fathom Five isn’t publishing their own books, it will be hard to tell what is attached to them. I AM NUMBER FOUR: the copyright is in Pitticus Lore. You have to dig to find out about the authors. Other books, well, check the copyright. Also — I absolutely think a book from a packager can still be good. The issue, for me, isn’t that Frey is doing it, it’s how he’s doing it, and that he’s setting himself up as an expert in an area that he appears to known nothing about.

  9. I was disgusted and depressed after reading The New York story about Frey’s new venture.

    Disgusted because, as you say Liz, there is such disrespect for YA novels and YA readers. (Interesting that, as far as I know, Frey has not approached the MFA programs that actually SPECIALIZE in writing for children or teens, such as the program I graduated from.)

    Beth, as someone who hopes to eventually become a published YA author (and who has spent a lot of time and money working to make the best stories I can), I can tell you that most people write YA because that is the time period that “burns hottest” for them (those are the stories and characters that come to them) and that they enjoy reading most. The late, amazing Robert Cormier said he wrote for the smartest readers he could find, and those people just happened to be 16.

    THAT being said, I was also extremely depressed by the article, particularly this part: >>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.<<

    As Liz Lemon would say, What the What!?!? That kind of money and sales are highly unusual–and for it to go to someone like Frey makes me vomit in my mouth. Life isn't fair, but that….that's hard to grasp.

    Finally, I'd add that the YA community is very giving and supportive of each other. To see Frey getting rich by exploiting young writers is unbelievable. Interesting that even the Number Four "author" wishes he hadn't done the project now. The whole thing reeks.

  10. Kellye, What the What indeed. And here’s the thing…I totally agree that I AM NUMBER FOUR has a great pitch. I loved Roswell! I have it on DVD! I love the Syfy channel. I love genre stuff. I may even enjoy the movie. But knowing they add swords to sell them at Toys R Us…sigh. I knew they did that on one level, but still. And to then have that crassness end up with the sword that didn’t exist in the book being added for those sales? Double sigh. As for the YA Community, that’s part of the puzzle. I mean, really? I have to think these are authors who have no idea the ya community exists, otherwise why would they think this is a just arrangement? No — as I said above, I think its good to realize publishing and books is a business. But to take the extra step of it being a widget business, designed to sell more crap, its just depressing. Thank god for books like those by Melina Marchetta and Megan Whalen Turner and Libba Bray and and and.

  11. I heard a report a few weeks ago on NPR about the priorities of kids in high school/college today. Their number one priority was not a decent paying job somewhere, but to be famous. I wonder if Frey is just cashing in on that. We’d all love to be JKRowling or Stephenie Meyer, and yet, that’s nearly impossible. And for Frey to be preying on those sentiments is a new kind of low.

    Thank God for real writers.

  12. Liz, I read the book after reading a GREAT review of it… I hated it and remember thinking that it had an interesting premise but the writing was terrible. It even had some typos, which I think is just indicative of… well, something. (To be fair, I also felt somewhat the same way about the Percy Jackson series… great premise, but I wish more had been done with the plotting, etc. But there was at least some heart in Percy Jackson.)

    It is probably too late, but I hope enough people/young adults hear about this and are so sickened by it that it affects sales.

    And I will definitely not be seeing the movie.

  13. Melissa, what’s funny about that –and I agree with you — but what is funny is that the confidentiality clause means no fame!

    Darsa, I’m really torn. I don’t like the process that gave birth to the book, but should that be held against the book? I strongly believe a book should stand on its own, not on outside factors. So it’s possible a book that came about this way could be well written. Personally, for me, I am Number Four didn’t work. Why it didn’t — well, I didn’t finish, so it wouldn’t be fair to go further about the book.

  14. Interesting. I wonder if I would feel differently had I loved the book to begin with. I’ll bet I would be feeling a little cheated or something right now.

    Well, I’m guess I’m just glad I thought it was terrible, because I would be little sad that such a process (not “packaging” necessarily… just packaging the Full Fathom Five/James Frey way) could produce a wonderful book… (I’m irrational that way. : ) )

    To end on a positive, you mentioned Megan Whalen Turner in a comment above… I just finished THE THIEF and loved it (I will pick up THE QUEEN OF ATTOLIA tomorrow); I just started POWERLESS by Matthew Cody this afternoon and am really into it… and I just bought Jennifer Donnelly’s REVOLUTION tonight. Yay for all of the fabulous authors and books out there!!

  15. Liz – I definitely wasn’t saying that good writers should be starving and sacrificing for their art. I love it when good writers become famous and wealthy. I don’t like it when they write solely for that reason. My apologies for the incoherence.

  16. Darsa, it’s definately easier with it being a book I felt “meh” about. I’ll look for POWERLESS by Cody.

    Beth, this whole thing is making me pretty incoherent! On the one hand, horrid contract. On the other, no one is making them sign or do it other than the old-fashioned way: write a book, find an agent. Short cuts don’t generally work. And anyone who thinks “I can write YA solely for money because of Stephenie Meyer and JK Rowling…” just makes my head hurt with the failure of logic, to the point where I almost think “you and Frey deserve each other.” That Frey IS actually making money with this throws all sense of anything out the window. He’s laughing all the way to the bank.

  17. Like Lenore, I feel compelled to boycott books that come out of Frey’s “sweatshop” in fact I have I Am Nubmer Four on my shelves and know that I won’t be picking it up anytime soon. I don’t know how much I can add to the conversation that hasn’t already been written but I do have to wonder where the book publisher is in all this. I know something like this is likely about an attempt to make loads of money but it just seems like such a bad business decision over all. Particularly now that the sham is known. I suppose some faction of YA readers will boycott books but how much will that impact? Does the “typical” reader (ie: people who don’t follow industry news, blogs, etc) even know they’re getting the shaft? Do they even care? My guess is no!

  18. as a school librarian in a middle school, i am always trying to find quality reading for my students. they
    are now at the crossroads of being life long readers and any sort of junk will just push them further away
    from knowing what makes for a “good book.”

  19. I was kvetching about this to friends and was reminded that there are other Exploit-An-Author sites out there – Huffingtonpost for one uses a lot of young bloggers and writers for much the same reason, and they often don’t get paid at all.

    I really agree with Maureen Johnson that MFA schools need to really go over the business of writing and publishing with their students. We never had a specific class in that, but had workshops and our authors-in-residence were real world writers, so maybe we had somewhat of a better clue than Columbia. But this just galls me on so, so many levels… also? I Am Number Four is just not a great book, for all of that.

  20. Agreed with everything, especially the total lack of respect or knowledge about YA, and the total awesomeness of the Borg comment. And I agree with Maureen Johnson. I teach at Hamline’s MFA in Writing for Children and we do try to talk about the business of being a writer as well, though I think this is an instructive lesson on some things we should be including and I appreciate her speaking up. And I’m going one step further and blame Columbia, et al, for letting this guy in their door. And I wonder if it’s because they don’t take YA seriously either.

  21. Michelle, I’d say the typical reader doesn’t know about the much more above board Alloy (and much better treatment of its authors) let alone this. Based on what I read, it sounds like the book was pitched without Frey’s name (even after Hollywood picked it up), but with him described as a “New York Times bestselling author.” Which he is. It’s very possible that the publisher was unaware of this before they committed. Also, for when the book packager pitches to a publisher, especially via an agent (as Frey appears to have done), I have no idea if a publisher knows before hand.

    mar g, what have your readers thought of I AM NUMBER 4?

    Anne, thanks for sharing that some MFA programs do touch on business. It appears Frey came in to speak on nonfiction/memoir and used his post-class time to pitch his business. Since this pretty much broke over the weekend, I haven’t yet read any response from Columbia or Frey about the whole thing.

  22. I have to read all these related articles in a bit when I get home. I read and really liked I Am Number Four for what it was. I thought it was a good beginner book for boys who aren’t reading. I need to re-evaluate my recommendation.

  23. Pam, if you thought it was a good book for reluctant readers, then it is a good book for them. How it was birthed, in a way, shouldn’t matter. Except, to put a light on this so that other authors aren’t caught up in an unfair arrangement. I mean, I hope those MFA students are thinking, “oh, Alloy does this and its more legit and better terms, let me contact them” or some such. And honestly, Jobie Hughes (who seems to be the primary writer?) — I haven’t done any research on his interviews, at all, so don’t want to put Frey’s calculating view towards YA onto Hughes. Even that shouldn’t matter — it’s the book, not the author.

  24. Let me start by saying that Frey’s approach is abhorrent. It’s an insult to anyone who takes the craft of writing seriously.

    That said, let me lay a few cards on the table. What Frey is doing is merely exploiting how things work to an almost absurd degree. We’re noticing because what he’s doing is so extreme. But books that are tailor-made for Hollywood or a specific brand of reader? Nothing new here.

    There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth about certain book cover trends. First it was girl butts, now we’re getting covers with just big girl faces on them (whether or not it speaks to the contents of the book beyond having a girl protagonist). People shake their fists at publishers and say, “How could you do this?”

    It sells. As much as we all want publishing to be about the pretty words and the amazing storytelling, at the end of the day it’s about the numbers. I guarantee you that the reason you’re seeing covers like this is because there have been a dozen focus groups suggesting that these are the covers that attract the most readers. Not all readers, necessarily. That’s not the goal (it’s NEVER the goal). But it’s pure marketing to say, “Our audience is THIS. And THIS audience always responds to big girl faces on books. Ergo, our book must have a big girl face on it.” So, the book hits the audience it meant to and there may certainly may be those outside that target demographic who somehow stumble upon the book, declare it worthy of reading, and then rant about how the cover doesn’t reflect what’s in the book. Big deal. The cover wasn’t meant for THOSE people. It was meant for THIS audience and if you’re not in THIS audience, tough nuts.

    Same thing when celebrities get book deals. Twitter practically gags itself on the indignant tweets when they know that a celeb who either didn’t write a word of the book or wrote it (and very poorly) is getting a multi-million dollar deal. They thrash about because it’s nothing they would read. You know what? That book’s going to sell. Guaranteed. Be upset about it but it’s going to sell.

    I’m not defending Frey but I’m pointing out that what he’s doing works within the system: he’s appealing to the lowest common denominator (which, strangely, seems to be the largest audience). “High concept books” have been on the market for years (long before anyone had ever heard of Frey). If anything, he’s underscoring how much of this stuff is churned out: fit to formula, hit the milestones, and go. The people who lash out against girl-face books or celebrity book deals are certainly the most vocal audience…but don’t be fooled for a second into thinking they are the biggest.

    Another point? The people who last out against girl-face books and celeb book deals and even high concept stuff like Frey is offering…. They aren’t the target audience. They are not teens (or if they are, it’s rare and far and few between).

    Now, what he’s doing to writers, with his little “You’ll get paid next to nothing and you’ll get less than you would if an agent had brokered the deal”… Well, that’s another story. Preying on writers desperate to be published is no better than agents who charge a reading fee or self-publishing rackets that require hefty payment from the author.

  25. Gary, that this is bringing this to people’s attention is part of what fascinates me with the whole thing. Apparently, some people still think Carolyn Keene exists. A comment on Scalzi’s blog post said Dumas did this, so I have some research to do. I wonder, do those celeb books really sell well? From a library perspective, at least for kids books, parents sometimes come in looking for them but after any initial attention (oh, Madonna’s book!!) they sit on the shelf. Or is it enough that the initial sales are big? One point you’ve left out that isn’t usually talked about is the big box bookstore role in things like covers and titles, and how a buyer for one of those stores can kill a cover/title/book. And covers, it really does change with the season. I look back to what attracted me as a reader as a teen, and not only is not what attracts me now, it’s not what is on current teen books.

  26. I think it’s very important for all creative people (well, everyone, really) to understand the business end of their crafts, such as reading contracts, finding good contract attorneys. knowing the going rate for the kind of thing one is trying to sell, etc. I’ve known too many people who’ve said, “But I’m an *Artiste.* I don’t dirty my hands doing *business*.”

    But selling the myth that you can learn how to make a Best Seller is just plain disgusting. One might say that a writer should know better than to fall for it, but, well, years ago *I* bought Frey’s “How to Write a Damn Good Novel.”

    “Moira, but the chance to compare the “how to” of that book with some of the Full Fathom Five books would be priceless!!” Oh lordy no, Liz! That would be too painful!!

  27. Moria, not just a contract attorney, but one whose specialty is publishing. I practiced law for almost ten years, most of it working on contracts. Yes, I’m a good negotiator; but I have no idea what the norms are for publishing contracts, etc. I know enough to get a good chuckle over some of the FFF provisions, but not enough to know what is more acceptable/better. If I ever dusted off that law degree and started offering workshops or negotiating contracts, I’d first need to study that particular area. In other words, “my friend/cousin/neighbor who went to law school” is not good enough to protect someone. Get an agent, or get an attorney whose specialty is this, talk to the Authors Guild — Scalzi and Johnson both give more specifics.

  28. I would have addressed the role bookstores play in covers but my post was already long enough. 🙂 But, yes, the chains do influence covers and they’re convinced that photographic/girl-face/iconic covers sell the best and are happy to pass on illustrated covers. So basically, getting all fist-shaky and grrr over covers should also be directed at the chains and not just publishers. But I still say: neither would be putting the covers they do on books if there wasn’t evidence to support that the target audience responds best to girl-face/photographs/icons.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Liz Burns, Liz Burns. Liz Burns said: My take on James Frey, Young Adult Co-Author […]

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tamara S, JoJosBookCorner. JoJosBookCorner said: RT @galleysmith Excellent post (w/ loads of links) regarding the Frey YA Sweatshop over on @lizb's blog Check it out […]

  3. […] which combine to paint a horrific picture. Liz B has an excellent roundup of related links over on A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy. It’s not so much *what* he’s doing as *how* he’s doing it that’s the […]

  4. […] reading some favorable reviews and purchased it; after I learned that it was a product of James Frey’s YA lit book packager, I was more skeptical. I already owned it at that point, though, so I gave it a read. So I thought […]