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James Frey’s Fiction Factory


James Frey and Some of His Social Circle: Larry Gagosian and Salman Rushdie.  

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.

In the weeks after Frey spoke to our writing seminar, I watched as other students began contacting him. Not all the pitches were accepted. One Columbia student, Jesse Thiessen, submitted an idea about high-school theater students who coalesce around a father figure who develops skin cancer; Frey’s assistant replied, “I’m sorry, but we’re looking for high-concept ideas that we can pitch in one sentence. We know it sounds cynical, but it’s what we know we can sell.” But two students who were in the February seminar were eventually accepted by Frey, as were at least four more from Columbia’s M.F.A. program.

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.

After Frey’s forced mea culpa on Oprah in 2006, Riverhead dropped his two-book contract and his agent Kassie Evashevski moved on, explaining to Publishers Weekly that “it became impossible for me to maintain a relationship once the trust had been broken.” That wasn’t the worst of it, though. There was a barrage of lawsuits from Frey’s readers, which resulted in a class-action lawsuit that settled for $2.35 million. Tracked and harassed by reporters, he fled to the south of France for two months. Upon his return, his reputation and the media frenzy were as he had left them.

By the spring of 2008, however, he was again becoming a fixture in the downtown art and literary scene. He had released a novel, Bright Shiny Morning, for which he received a reported $1.5 million advance. It was met with mixed reviews and featured a cover designed by Richard Prince. Frey collaborated with photographer Terry Richardson on a book called Wives, Wheels, Weapons. At a Strand book signing, Frey said, “The idea was just to do a cool book that would piss people off.” He also launched Half Gallery, a collaboration with designer Andy Spade and former BlackBook magazine editor Bill Powers, in a tiny gallery space on Forsyth Street.

Now 41, Frey and his wife, Maya, live with their two children in a loft surrounded by a stunning collection of modern art. In July 2008, the couple lost their newborn to spinal muscular atrophy. “I’ve been through some difficult things in my life,” Frey told Vanity Fair last year. “Nothing comes close to this.” He and his wife have since adopted a young boy from a Russian orphanage. This summer, he finished a new book, called The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, a novel about a man living in New York City who might be Christ but also might be the Jewish Messiah. He told us at the seminar that a limited edition of the book—bejeweled, platinum-covered, designed by Damien Hirst—is set to release next Easter. (It now appears that these limited editions will be not by Hirst but by Richard Prince, Ed Ruscha, and Richard Phillips instead.) It will then sell in a conventional hardback form in dozens of countries, but Frey had pointedly told us he had decided not to sell it in the U.S.—a thumbing of the nose at the American literary Establishment, though it appears now that he has reneged on his threat and will publish here after all.

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