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James Frey’s Fiction Factory

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Frey's Social Circle: Richard Prince.   

In June, Frey invited me to his office, on the corner of Spring Street and Sixth Avenue. At this time, Full Fathom Five was growing quickly. Jessica Almon, Simonoff’s former assistant, had switched offices and bosses to help Frey full-time with editing and giving feedback. The company said it had thirteen writers working on various book, film, and television projects, and it expected to have at least 30 before the end of the summer. I was possibly number fourteen.

He described it as a Hollywood-style work-for-hire contract, “although Hollywood writers are usually paid more than $250.”

Frey met me in socks, and together with Almon, we talked about my concept. The idea I had cooked up was as commercial as I could imagine—something I thought I could write in a short time and fell within my interest in pre-Raphaelite art. I’ve been working on a biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, so I imagined him as a child and granted him the superpower to enter into his painting. Frey had read my synopsis of the adventures of young Dante, and Almon had written to me that while I had a “strong grasp of character and detail, and an original voice,” my idea lacked tension. Would I be open to changes? Yes, I was open to changes. I wanted it to be commercially viable, and I trusted their judgment. In the meeting, Almon handed me a two-page outline, something that Frey said he uses in all his projects, to help my book with pacing. It was a classical Greek three-act structure, with suggested page numbers and advice on tracking the emotional narrative of the book, similar to a redemptive Hollywood movie.

Frey emphasized that this was collaboration—not my own project—and that he needed writers who will listen to him. He gave as an example a King Arthur adaptation he was working on with another writer. That author had listened to his criticism and rewritten it in a different voice; because the author was receptive, Frey was positive the book would sell, and big. Another project, a Gossip Girl–like series he had worked on with two writers employed at Star magazine, he said had gone south. The writers hadn’t made his requested character changes, so Frey had recently fired them.

He reintroduced the idea that he was modeling his company on Damien Hirst’s art factory, a warehouse in which a reported 120 employees work to create fine art signed by Hirst. He considered Full Fathom Five an improvement on the way traditional book packagers like Alloy work. Generally, a book packager conceives an idea, hires writers to generate the content, and sells the package to a publishing house, much like a film-production company selling a project to a studio. The book packager’s writer will sometimes share in the revenue but usually just take a standard fee, to the tune of $10,000. Frey seemed to think that writers who had a bigger share in the profits would deliver better books.

Hughes had told me about the confidentiality clause he had signed, and when I asked Frey about it, he said, “I’m a fair and reasonable guy.” He understood that people talk, and I wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t talked to Hughes, but he didn’t want Hughes speaking to reporters. “He sounds like a fucking idiot when you put a recorder in front of his mouth,” he told me. If Frey didn’t like whom Hughes was speaking to, he could invoke the confidentiality clause and hold Hughes in breach of contract. But since Frey was a fair guy, that wouldn’t happen, as long as Hughes behaved. Hughes had given an interview to a freelance reporter, and Frey had warned him that “there would be trouble” if he didn’t fall in line. But after the first book sold, Hughes renegotiated a 49 percent stake in all future deals, and Frey had no hard feelings. Even the two writers he had dismissed on the Gossip Girl–like project were treated generously. “They’ve done good work for me,” he told me. “I don’t have to give them anything, but I am.” He explained he would give them a small percentage of the revenue if their project sold, and he would find a new writer to build on their previous work.

“So, worst-case scenario, what happens if you can’t sell my book?” I asked. Frey walked me over to the window and pointed to a building across the street where former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman had started an e-book company, OpenRoad Integrated Media. “She told me she’ll buy whatever we can’t sell elsewhere,” I remember him saying. (Frey denied this through a representative.)

Frey and Almon told me they would send me a contract but warned me that I shouldn’t bother trying to negotiate. They weren’t acceding to other writers’ requests and wouldn’t accede to mine.


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