Monday, February 14, 2011

James Frey strikes again - why you shouldn't give "I Am Number Four" your money

Perhaps you recall the name James Frey from a controversy that happened five years ago. His "memoir" A Million Little Pieces - sold as the true story of one man's battle with drug addiction - had been a runaway hit, due in no small part to the support of Oprah Winfrey, of all people. Oprah made the memoir her Book Club selection for September 2005. When questions arose in early 2006 about the book's integrity, Oprah initially defended Frey, going so far as to calling into Larry King and citing what an inspiration the book had been to her viewers.

Before long, Frey admitted that many of the allegations leveled against him were true - that large portions of the book were exaggerated or completely fabricated. Feeling her integrity was now on the line, Oprah brought Frey onto her show and took the man apart in a blistering confrontation that was called by some to be nothing less than a flaying. In fact, Oprah in putting on such a strong attack, Oprah did herself a disservice, for there were many viewers who felt it wasn't a fair fight at all that underdog Frey was being beaten up by one of the most powerful in media.

If that's true, then the abused soon became the abuser.

I saw an article in New York Magazine a few months ago, detailing Frey's latest venture Full Fathom Five. It's the sort of publishing house that individuals write entire books about, warning susceptible and desperate writers to keep their distance from these kinds of scams. They specialize in Young Adult novel series, and in recruiting authors, Frey trolls graduate writing programs, peddling his slimy contract in a manner much akin to snake oil salesmen traversing the country.

I Am Number Four was the first book from this "fiction factory," growing from a premise that Frey came up with and developed with a Columbia M.F.A. graduate named Jobie Hughes. The New York Magazine article explains:

Frey handed him a one-page write-up of the concept, and Hughes developed the rest of the outlined narrative. Frey’s idea was a series called “The Lorien Legacies,” about nine Loric aliens who were chased from their home planet by evil Mogadorians and are living on Earth in the guise of teenagers. Through early 2009, Hughes told me, he delivered three drafts of the first book, I Am Number Four, to Frey, who revised them and polished the final version.

Hughes wrote the novel without any compensation and signed a contract, without consulting a lawyer, that specified that he would receive 30 percent of all revenue that came from the project. The book would be published under a pseudonym, and the contract stipulated that Hughes would not be allowed to speak publicly about the project or confirm his attachment to it. There was a $250,000 penalty Frey could invoke if Hughes violated his confidentiality terms.

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.

Frey's game is to sign writers to develop these young adult concepts, hoping to make the projects an attractive package for Hollywood adaption. That in itself isn't too unusual in the young adult publishing world. I have only a casual familiarity with the process and it seems somewhat typical. What isn't typical is the Draconian contract that Frey makes all of his workhorse writers sign:

What's in the contract? I'm glad you asked. Per the article:

This is the essence of the terms being offered by Frey’s company Full Fathom Five: 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.

Some writers consulted lawyers; some just signed on the dotted line. “It’s a crappy deal but a great opportunity” is how one writer put it.

To wit:
- You don't own the idea.
- You don't own your name.
- You don't own the pseudonym they make you use.
- If you tell someone you wrote this book, without getting Frey's permission first, he can sue you for $50,000.
- You make a paltry $250 for all your hard work.
- You're promised a share of the profits, but anyone who's dealt with Hollywood accounting knows that no one ever sees "profits." There are accountants who can prove to you that a Harry Potter movie that made nearly a billion dollars still lost money!

And after all that, it's done nothing for your writing career outside this publishing house because you can't even claim a best-selling novel as your own without opening yourself up to legal action. The article details Hughes' frustration with the process and though he eventually did renegotiate and there were threats of lawsuits, the actual terms of the settlement are shrouded. Still, a prolonged legal process can be expensive and draining. It's a nightmare that no writer should want to endure, nor should they sign up for a bad deal with the certainty that they'll be able to challenge it in court later.

Guys like Frey are predators, and they surely exist in every creative field. They thrive because of the ignorance of their victims and the only way to put these guys out of business is to cast a light on their dark deals. New York Magazine did its part in exposing Frey, but as the film adaptation of I Am Number Four nears release on Friday, I see no better time to remind readers that they need to be smart about their business deals.

This film has given us another opportunity to put the spotlight on a James Frey scam - let's not squander it.


  1. Thanks for this blog post. I had no idea there was history of this magnitude with this film.

    I don't find the concept that appealing to me, so I never planned to watch the film, but now I have absolutely no interest in considering a watch.

    I will, however, like to follow the story between Hughes and Frey as it unfolds. I wonder if perhaps there'd be a movie about that someday.

  2. Great post. Stuff like this is sickening. Also, I think it's no coincidence that Frey preys on the most gullible and vulnerable sections of the market -- readers of "inspirational" true stories and readers of youth fiction.

  3. I know it's a terrible deal, but I really empathize with Hughes. While he probably should have contacted a lawyer first, I understand being willing to overlook the bad contract for the chance at a hit. I hope it works out for him in the end.

  4. Funny enough, my friend JUST lent me "I Am Number Four" to read. I started and thought it was good, but the author had a funny name I’d never heard of…a quick trip to Wikipedia told me why…pretty sure most people want nothing to do with James Frey and this whole venture sounds like a way for him to make money off young writers while not re-exposing himself to wide ridicule. Speaking of bad deals for authors from Hollywood book adaptations, you should read lit agent Kristin Nelson’s recent posts about the subject:

  5. Wait $250. Really? When I read that in the first paragraph it was mentioned I assumed it was a typo and they meant $250,000. But really 250 dollars? And they signed a contract that bad?

    I seriously can't imagine a person dumb enough to sign that contract having the intelligence level that would allow them to write a whole novel.

    This very much seems like the kind of contract you could get out of though in a lawsuit. I don't at all know what the rules behind that are but I'm pretty sure there's laws about signing the children and the mentally handicap to predatory contracts.

    Which, I think would be pretty easy to prove once you admit "your honor I signed my name, publicity, pictures, and biographical materials away for $250."

    If you're that desperate for $250 you'd be much better off turning tricks.

  6. Fray is a shark, Hughes was a moron.

    $250? And you don't bring the contract to a lawyer? Too stupid to live.