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.

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