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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.
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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 email@example.com.
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