What’s It Take To Be Number Four?
by Micah McCrary
In college I wrote a Young Adult, Sci-Fi novel about aliens. It was actually a drafting I’d started at seventeen, but I did finish a novel. I started thinking about agents. About publishers. About book tours and signings and fancy interviews where I’d get to talk about all my hard work. I was ready to be a book star.
And this new term, the book star, is exactly what James Frey, author of the controversial “memoir” A Million Little Pieces, is willing to make you if you sign on with his new writing company. The company, called Full Fathom Five, is one in which Frey signs on work-for-hire writers, for little or no pay, for the chance to become the next Twilight or Harry Potter-sized author. As New York Magazine‘s Suzanne Mozes, an alum of Full Fathom Five, describes it in a recent feature on the company:
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.
Frey is currently touring, visiting MFA programs such as Princeton University and Mozes’ Columbia University writing programs, seeking writers to join his venture and “go to work and try to do cool things,” as he himself once put it.
“A lot of artists conceptualize a work and then collaborate with other artists to produce it,” Frey told a journalist in early 2010. But is this the same as collaboration? Collaboration, as most people understand it, is a democratic process through which open dialogue is more acceptable. Here, though, Frey takes the reins himself, claiming quite sternly that he can (and will) brand your product as his own, providing you with the beginnings of limelight and leaving everything else to chance.
It isn’t a commerical democracy. It’s a commercial dictatorship.
So I’ve asked Mozes herself what she thinks. “It’s an opportunity,” she tells me, “but that opportunity can only be measured by each individual writer….There’s no way to quantify a writer’s chances in such an unpredictable market. But I think one would have to go into the project with the expectation that their book wouldn’t sell, and the opportunity lies in understanding how your idea is created, drafted, published and marketed.” Basically, there is no guarantee of a multi-million dollar deal for you, no guarantee of worldwide recognition, and no guarantee that, even if these things were in the cards, Frey would let you have them all. He can publish your novel under a pseudonym and claim you had nothing to do with it. If you argue, you’re in breach of contract and liable to pay a fine up to $50k. There is one guarantee: you’ll get a good-lookin’ $250.
The company’s largest success to date was is the Young Adult novel and feature film I Am Number Four, written under pseudonym Pittacus Lore (the name of a character in the book), and produced by Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay. The book was published in August, 2010, but its film rights were purchased over a year earlier by Spielberg’s DreamWorks Pictures. The film itself was released last February, with mixed reviews and moderate box office success.
The book’s actual author, a former Columbia University MFA student by the name of Jobie Hughes, had worked with Frey through Full Fathom Five to get his alien Y.A. action/suspense novel in the hands of hungry agents and producers. After a long and private legal battle, Hughes left Frey with his lawyer requesting 20 percent of all future proceeds connected to “The Lorien Legacies,” the book series Frey proposed to Hughes to supplement the writing already done for I Am Number Four.
The big questions: what’s really in it for the writers? What would drive a writer, MFA student or not, to join Full Fathom Five for only a guarantee of $250? Is it worth it? “Yes and no,” Mozes chimes in. “If a writer has nothing to lose, and (s)he has explored all other options, then it’s an opportunity for an opportunist. Like any other, (s)he hopes it opens doors.” But are these doors that we think can be opened by Frey and his own fearless opportunism? How will students in nation-wide MFA programs prepare when Frey makes his way to Chicago, or Los Angeles, or Boston or Seattle? And, equally importantly, will it stir debate in our writing circles about the worth of an advanced degree in writing when all we have to do is join Frey’s club? His company currently has 28 writers all primed and ready for their contracts and advances and cashing in of literary gold. With Frey’s help, will some of us be more desperate to “do anything to make anything” in a discipline with a visible line dividing commercialism and literary eminence? Will it, in effect, change the efficacy of the writing program at-large?
“It’s in his best interest,” Mozes defends, “and frankly, it’s smart business to search out a rich vein of talent eager to succeed.” And while she in no way believes students in graduate writing programs are more desperate than non-MFA writers, “these students (or most of them) have found [in Full Fathom Five] a community of like-minded individuals, and the solace that accompanies that.” Solace, of course, found by signing away for the commercial over the academic. Solace gained by an eagerness and willingness to not only be number one, but to be the next Number Four.
As for the future, Frey has his eye on the stars. Vampires and magic are done, he says. Aliens are the next logical phenomenon. What sort of extraterrestrial epics are currently being cooked up by his small army of unknown writers? It’s anybody’s guess. But a word of advice for all those students out there with great ideas about strangers from strange worlds, eager to become Frey’s next star protégé: Please remember to read all the fine print.
Micah McCrary is a freelance journalist, Adjunct Instructor and an MFA candidate in the Nonfiction Program at Columbia College Chicago. In addition to being a regular contributor to Bookslut and Chicago-based Newcity, his work has appeared inTimeOut Chicago, Examiner.com and SCREEN Magazine, and has received mention in the online edition of The New Yorker.
He is currently an Assistant Editor at Hotel Amerika, and has previously served as an editor at the Oyez Review. This is his first contribution to The Heated Forest.