THE JAMES FREY PROBLEM
James Frey has done a bad thing, and the bad thing happens to involve a world I’ve very much a part of –the YA world. He’s gone into my old MFA program, along with several others, looking for young and hungry talent to write for him for pennies on the dollar.
Here, in a nutshell, is what happened. A few years ago, James Frey (author of “A Million Little Pieces,” the book that was claimed to be a memoir, was picked by Oprah, then turned out to be fictional, ending with an appalling session on Oprah’s couch) decided to put together a company in order to grind out YA books. The writers who sign up to this company sign mind-boggling contracts that essentially pay them more or less nothing and offer them zero protection. They might be legal, but they certainly aren’t moral. This story was busted wide open this week. You can read the full expose here, and you can read the actual contract here.
I think that for a lot of people, the initial reaction will be horror at the idea of this “fiction factory.” These sorts of things already exist, and they’re not ALL bad. I speak from experience here. This contract is completely beyond the pale.
Aside from being a huge sloppy mess, this contract is quite specifically designed to hose the writer. The only people who would sign this contract would be people who a). have no knowledge of contracts, or lack the appropriate representation to prevent them from signing such a contract, or b). are simply so desperate or desirous of signing ANYTHING that will get them published that they’d willingly hang themselves out to dry.
How bad is this hosening? Let’s look.
The contract says that the company can give you credit or not give you credit, as it desires. They can force you to write another book, or they can drop you like a hot potato, for no reason.
The contract has no audit provision. What does that mean? It means that they can pay you ANY AMOUNT OF MONEY and you just have to accept that the percentage you’re getting is the percentage you are due, and that you are getting an accurate reporting of the number of books sold. And let me tell you, even on good and honest contracts, human error is common. Companies make mistakes on their reports all the time. It’s not necessarily malicious—things just get messed up. So in James Frey world, his company could provide you with statements saying the book sold one thousand copies and that the advance was fifteen dollars, and you might know that the book has sold many thousands of copies and the advance was a hundred thousand dollars, but there would be nothing you could do about it. You will literally never be able to verify the advance the book sold for, the foreign rights deals, or the sales.
There’s a weird clause about expenses. If James Frey and Co. want to charge you $25 for every staple they use on your documents, they can do it!
I’m not a contract specialist. A contract specialist would probably go on ten times as long. I’m just giving you a few highlights.
I was asked on Twitter: “FatBaldFrank Why do u take offense at Frey’s contract? It’s one-sided, but nobody is forced to work for him, right? Just say no.”
I know where you’re coming from, Frank. I understand that no one is being forced to sign this contract at gunpoint. However, I do take offense at someone who is blatantly and knowing taking advantage of his own people—writers. People whose desire to work in publishing might blind them to the risks involved in signing on the dotted line. Or they might not understand the consequences.
There’s no point in just hand waving about how awful James Frey is, because I seriously doubt he cares. But we can draw some lessons.
The first is for aspiring writers. Don’t sign things you don’t understand. There are plenty of organizations that can help you, such as the Author’s Guild. For people who know the risks but are tempted to sign anyway . . . I’ve been in your position. I know it’s a hard call. But agents can help protect your from predators. There were times, back when I was getting started, when I was offered arrangements that were clearly awful, but they paid, and they offered “a shot.” The person who would later be my agent encouraged me to turn them down, and I did. It was hard at the time, but I have never once regretted those decisions. I celebrate them. Seek good counsel and listen to that counsel. Things that look too good to be true usually are, and uncredited projects with shady paperwork . . . well, those things don’t generally end well. Read this article and take notes.
The second thing is directed at those who run MFA writing programs.
MFA students have probably been hosed already. I’ve written about this topic before. I went to Columbia, where he pulled many of his writers, including the writer of “I am Number Four.” I know how much it costs. I know the sacrifices people make to go there. I still pay Columbia about $800 every month in student loans. I’m one of the few people I know paying off my MFA by working in the profession for which I was trained. If you’re in an MFA program, you’re probably already on the hook for a lot of dough, so if you see a job opportunity in writing, you’ll take it.
I’m going to go one step further and call Columbia and all writing MFA programs on the carpet here—if you don’t offer your students a class or seminar in the business of writing, you should be ashamed. They didn’t offer them when I was there, and I don’t think that’s changed. (If it has, please correct me at once. I’d love to be wrong about this point.)
Look, MFA programs, stop being so snobbish. You’re not making your students better artists by sending them out into their fields with NO KNOWLEDGE of the business side of things. You’re leaving them vulnerable to bad deals, and putting them into a position where they can be taken advantage of. You set up the conditions in which your artists end up slaving away because they didn’t know any better than to sign on the dotted line. You make this James Frey situation possible. Devote a few weeks to teaching your students some survival skills. After all the money you’ve taken from them, they’re going to need to know how to make some more.
In the article, James is quoted as saying, “Andy Warhol’s Factory is an example of that way of working. That’s what I’m doing with literature.”
You’re no Andy Warhol, James. He liked his money as much as you do, and he would probably have had a good and appreciative laugh over the comparison, but you haven’t got his style or his wit. Andy Warhol said cool stuff like, “I like boring things” and “It would be very glamorous to be reincarnated as a great big ring on Liz Taylor’s finger.” He got why it was funny to make paintings of money and then sell them off. The old shyster had class. You got yelled at by Oprah.
He also said, “I’ve decided something: Commercial things really do stink. As soon as it becomes commercial for a mass market it really stinks.” And when you find a Nico or a Lou Reed or a Candy Darling or a Billy Name or even a Valerie Solanas, then we can revisit the issue.
I realize that a lot of people will say, “But look at all the money he is making! Surely, he must have talent!” Talentless people make money ALL THE TIME. Do you know who’s writing a book now? Snooki. Money is no measurement of talent—it’s a measurement of money. This system isn’t James Frey’s fault. He’s not that important. And unlike Andy, he’s not going to develop the new Velvet Underground—more like Milli Vanilli.
But because he set out to deceive and abuse, on behalf of the YA community, I’d like to politely invite him to blow it out his ear.
Posted: Saturday, November 13th, 2010 @ 6:42 pm
Categories: bad ideas, danger, life lessons, rants.
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