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Writing for Hire… and for James Frey

I read this article about James Frey’s fiction factory with great interest, since he was recruiting writers from a room I could have been in, had this happened some years ago. For those who haven’t been following this story, James Frey is writing YA novels now. Well, he’s not exactly writing them. But he’s getting them written—and sold. And, sometimes, sold big.

What he’s doing is hiring a whole stable of writers to write the books for him.

“It’s a crappy deal but a great opportunity” is how one writer put it.

So, if I’d been sitting in that classroom and scribbled down James Frey’s email address in the margin of my notebook on that fateful day… would I have contacted him?

Big question. And complicated answer.

“We were desperate to be published, any way we could. We were spending $45,000 on tuition, some of us without financial aid, and many taking out loans that were lining us up to graduate six figures in debt. 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. We wouldn’t even need day jobs.”

First, some about me: I was a student in that MFA in writing program at Columbia, one of the schools he’s recruiting writers from. I went straight in to the program from college, at age 22, and if a New York Times bestselling writer thought I was good enough to write with (really for) him, believe me, I would have been swayed. But that did not happen. So I graduated Columbia eventually… I took as many years to turn in my thesis as they’d let me, and that thesis was a novel that was never published outside of a few short stories adapted from it. Years passed. I wrote another novel that did not get published. More years passed. And then I began writing work-for-hire. My own contracts were directly with the publishers—I got a flat fee and no royalties, which sometimes worked in my favor when a series I was writing for got canceled.

At the time I was a work-for-hire writer, I was also a bitter and, I thought, failed novelist. I hadn’t tried writing my own YA novel yet, and I thought I’d never get anywhere. I’d visit bookstores and go check out “my” books on the shelves. Nowhere on them did my name appear, even though, in some cases, I could have chosen to use my own name if I’d wanted. I wrote at least seventeen work-for-hire books, some novels but most movie and brand tie-ins. There is not one book I wrote during this time that I’m proud of. And, thanks to all the deadlines, I was far too busy to do my own writing.

It was a little depressing.

But somehow, through connections I made doing this work, I was able to publish a book under my own name. Only after that did I get the chance to publish my first YA novel—my first true novel, my heart—with the help of the best agent I could have hoped for. As of June 14, 2011, it’ll be a dream come true and all that. But it was an odd twisting road to reach that dream. James Frey’s road could get a writer the same thing it got me.

So that’s me. Filled with the misled MFA glory and gone desperate from reality after graduation. Naive enough to sign away my rights in a snap. And well used to writing possible crap for very little pay and no byline so I could pay my bills.

My first reaction to hearing about James Frey’s new company was—momentarily forgetting my own YA novel coming out next year and the fact that I’m contracted for another to follow—hey, maybe I need a new day job… I’m a Columbia MFA grad… where can I sign up?

Then I kept reading. And realized my agent would never let me get involved in this (if he did; I’d be shocked; check out the contract terms). And I want my own ideas for my own novels. But, yeah… it sounds tempting at first, doesn’t it?


“It’s an agreement that says, ‘You’re going to write for me. I’m going to own it. I may or may not give you credit. If there is more than one book in the series, you are on the hook to write those too, for the exact same terms, but I don’t have to use you. In exchange for this, I’m going to pay you 40 percent of some amount you can’t verify—there’s no audit provision—and after the deduction of a whole bunch of expenses.”

So, sure that sounds scary. But I can easily put myself in the shoes of any writers who leaped at this chance—and, surely, as this is ongoing, still leaping.

But my second reaction, when I thought about it, was a surety that I wouldn’t have jumped on that chance had it been handed to me when I was a “young writer” as he says. Why? Because that was before I went through all those years of rejection. When I was still a student, I really believed in myself in a way I don’t even believe now. I had faith. Naive faith. Signing up to write for James Frey means letting go of some of your own faith that you can make it on your own. In my mind, it’s giving up on your dreams. Or at least putting them on hold for a while.

Fact is, James Frey is smart to recruit from MFA programs like Columbia, possibly the most expensive program in the country. Smarter still would be to recruit from graduates a couple years after… when those massive loans come due and all the literary agents said “you’re a very talented writer, but I’ll have to pass.” Who’s to say, just a few years ago, that I wouldn’t have signed up for this had he asked me?

I might have. That scares me.

But what scares me the most is the “conflict of interest” danced around in the contract that makes it seem like you can’t work on anything that would get in the way of what you write for him. What about your own stuff… would that get in the way? What if the book you’re writing for James Frey becomes an ongoing series, and for years you’re obligated to write only for him? Can you not publish your own novel, if that opportunity arose?

How long would your dreams have to be put on hold?

That’s a risk I’d be very afraid to take.

The thing is, if you want to try your hand at writing a commercial YA novel under a name that isn’t yours—and you can change your mind about that name thing later; I did—guess what? You totally can. Write the manuscript. Get an agent. If it’s your own idea, keep it and at least try to sell it on your own first.

But if you need money—and to those who don’t get it, I’d love to show you my student loan bills… only I’m too embarrassed—who’s to say giving up a few years to write someone else’s idea for novels is the worst way to go? I did just that… and if I’d done it for James Frey’s company, maybe I could have made a solid dent in my loans by now.

But if that’s what you want to do, I suggest try sampling for Alloy first.

So what do you think about this? Would you want to secretly write the next Great American YA Novel for James Frey?

Maybe it just inspires you to work harder at your own novel. Imagine the glory of publication when you see your name on the spine and you can honestly say to anyone who asks: That’s my novel and no one else’s.

Imagine that.

24 thoughts on “Writing for Hire… and for James Frey

  1. Interesting post Nova! When I was younger, I might have signed up for something like this. I’ve thought about (and sent in samples for) packaging companies in the past, but it’s never panned out. Now I’m glad. I still think about sending in a new sample sometimes (despite having writer friends with bad packaging/WFH experiences).

    The scary thing is there are a couple of small publishers (that pub PB to YA) that have a similar contract that has a conflict of interest/non-compete clause. One asked me to do illustrations to bid on a job (like it was a contest). As soon as I found out about the clause in the contract, I ran. I told them that the clause would make it impossible for me to write or illustrate anything, in any age group for children bc it would compete with their books. They didn’t deny that and have kept sending me emails, as if I’ll change my mind. I know several people that work for them and I always wonder.

    I also won’t sign over all rights, especially with illustrations. It’s too risky and I’m not willing to give up my art. Some writing I might give up all rights too. It would really depend on what it was.

    The other day I got another insane request for 15+ pages of art (for a PB) that needed to be done in less than 2 weeks, for $300 and they were taking all rights. It amazes me that people sign up for these deals, but I know they do.

    Congratulations on your new YA coming out next summer!

    • Wow, that offer you mentioned is shocking. I understand why you wouldn’t consider doing WFH… the non-compete clause is scary. (I didn’t have that in my WFH contracts… though, ironically, I was too crazed with my WFH deadlines to go out and do any competing anyway.)

      I do want to say, though, that I had a great experience writing work-for-hire. I learned so much about writing under deadline and being open to feedback and taking direction. And the publishers I worked with were always professional and paid me on time. I’m grateful for those years… I truly believe they led me to where I am now.

  2. Like you said, it has so much to do with where you are when the opportunity arises. My first year after grad school, I was lucky enough to be writing encyclopedia entries for Jack Zipes. But after that, I did a year of work for hire, some of it a LOT worse (on an intellectual or moral scale) than what’s described above. And now I’m in industry, doing research and rewrites on essays that don’t interest me, that are often published (I kid you not) under the byline Sue Doh Nym (NOT my idea) and occasionally under my boss’s name, although I am allowed to use my own name if I really want to. But I’ve only wanted to ONCE in 3 years.

    In the long run, no, now I wouldn’t want to work under the conditions outlined. I might have done it then, though, even with no student loans.

    • Yeah, I’m relieved an opportunity like this didn’t come to me when I was starting out. I say now that I wouldn’t have done it… but do I know, really?

      It sounds like your WFH work is keeping you crazy-busy! But like I said to the comment above, even though during those years I couldn’t write my own work because I had no time, it really did turn out to be a worthwhile experience in the end.

      Every little thing leads to the possibility of one little door coming open. (That’s what I told myself when I kept saying yes to WFH projects! And that’s why it was so hard when I had to start saying no.)

      Sue Doh Nym really is the worst pseudonym I’ve ever heard, though. Can we think of worse?!

  3. I definitely wouldn’t sign this James Frey contract. It sounds like a flat out bad deal for writers. And yes, it’s smart for him to recruit from Columbia, but it’s also kind of crappy, isn’t it? He’s going to one of the most expensive MFA programs, where the students are probably crazy for opportunities and connections and a chance to make some money — any money — from their writing…I don’t know, the whole thing seems a little slimy to me, especially with the vague payment terms, possible non-compete clauses, and the fact that you might be roped into writing entire series. But yes, if I were younger and hungrier for any kind of writing-related work, who knows if I’d be strong enough to pass it up.

    The kind of work-for-hire you did, Nova, sounds much more reasonable. Did you feel the pay was worth it based on the amount of work you had to do? Just curious, but did you tell your family and friends which books you wrote? Did you ever read online reviews, etc., to see what kids thought of the books? Or were you so “meh” about what you had to write that you didn’t see the point?

    That kind of work-for-hire sounds like something I *might* be interested in considering, assuming I’d be paid a predetermined fee without any crazy non-compete clauses, etc. I don’t know, though — I still somehow doubt the money would be worth the time and mental energy.

    • Oops, did I insinuate that I didn’t think James Frey is being slimy?

      He’s being slimy. Sorry, I thought that was a given.🙂

      Does anyone think he’s *not* being slimy? I’d love to hear that perspective!

      Anyway, for the WFH I did, the pay was standard for the industry and for what I was writing… but, sometimes it didn’t feel like enough because I’m a slow writer and it could take a lot of time for me, but that’s not the publisher’s fault. I had a full-time day job and was writing early in the morning before work and over weekends and sometimes during lunch breaks and it was flat-out exhausting. If you go through my archives here, you may see how tired I was! The biggest loss was that I had to put my own novels off for so long.

      Once a WFH book was written for me, it’s over. Once I got the d&a check, I didn’t look back. I’d peek at the shelves in bookstores when I was in them, but I had a hard time remembering when the books were coming out and was only reminded when I got a big box of contributor’s copies in the mail. When you write WFH, you often don’t see the book after you turn the final manuscript in. You often don’t review edits or copyedits. You don’t see 1st pass pages. It’s really writing for hire… and they can rewrite or chop or cancel as they see fit. In that way, it’s best not to get attached.

      I was once in an Urban Outfitters and happened upon a book that sounded oddly familiar. Had I read it before? Did someone tell me about it?

      I picked it up and flipped through it… then realized why it was so familiar.

      I wrote it.

  4. I’m sorry, this contract is much worse than you’re making it out to be (and yes, I know you’re saying it’s bad).

    It’s not just that he’s expecting an entire novel for $250 (less than the cost of having a professional typist type up a manuscript!), that you have no way to audit him, that he can charge you any expenses he cares to – it’s that if the novel is successful, he can then force you to keep writing more novels at the same ridiculously obscene price.

    This isn’t even vaguely reasonable – this is psychopathic.

    • Tom, you’re very right. Psychopathic is the perfect word for it. I hope writers staring at this contract can see that. And then I hope they run.

  5. Oh, no! Where did my wind-up heartbreak avatar go?? I’m typing this comment using a different email address, maybe that will bring him back? If not, *sigh*. I will miss him!

  6. It’s easy to say I would never go along with something like this, but if I were hungry and broke enough, I bet I would. I’m so glad I’m not hungry and broke. With all my heart, I want my work to be published and read, but not this badly.

    I suppose it isn’t surprising that James Frey would do something like this. I know he’s a fine writer, but he’s obvious an even better businessman. And I’m so glad I’m not hungry enough to be snared.

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  8. VERY interesting blog. And there were times I would have been very interested in selling my soul, but I think half of the thrill of writing is seeing my name on that page. But I do have some bills….

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