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James Frey’s Fiction Factory


Frey's Social Circle: Terry Richardson and Paula Froelich  

I asked, “So there’s not much to lose? Except my time?”

Frey smiled, sat back in his Eames lounger, and said, “I have nothing to lose.”

He encouraged me to start imagining product placement—“think Happy Meals”—because merchandise is where you make money in these deals. He mentioned the Mogadorian swords in I Am Number Four, which were described with unusual specificity. “We added that after Spielberg told us he needed stuff to sell.”

The whole conversation was very L.A. As we were wrapping up, I started to say, “It’s funny to be in a room … ” and then I paused, looking for the right phrase to express my surprise that we were in New York and not Hollywood. Frey filled in the silence with “ … to be in a room with big, bad James Frey?”

When I received the contract, I sent it over to the Authors Guild, a trade organization whose legal department advises writers. While I waited on their comments, I asked Full Fathom Five for a few changes on my own, over the telephone. They were now willing to negotiate, as they claim they always are, but only a little. They offered to redraft the contract to give me the option to walk away from the project at any time but were not willing to negotiate on copyright ownership or revenue. In an e-mail, Almon wrote, “James suggests you speak with Jobie. If the book sells, your experience will likely be very similar to his.”

The Authors Guild got back to me with serious concerns over the contract. Anita Fore, its director of legal services, suggested that I attempt to negotiate if I wanted to go ahead and sign with Full Fathom Five. I later spoke to Conrad Rippy, a veteran publishing attorney, who explained that the contract given to me wasn’t a book-packaging contract; it was “a collaboration agreement without there being any collaboration.” He said he had never seen a contract like this in his sixteen years of negotiation. “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.” He described it as a Hollywood-style work-for-hire contract grafted onto the publishing industry—“although Hollywood writers in a work-for-hire contract are usually paid more than $250.”

In the end, however, the decision to participate with Full Fathom Five wasn’t mine to make. Twenty-eight minutes after I sent an e-mail requesting amendments to the contract, I received an e-mail from Frey rescinding his offer to collaborate. “We loved the idea that we eventually arrived at together,” he wrote. “At this time, though, we don’t think this is going to work out.”

It appeared that putting out my first book wouldn’t be as easy as Frey had made it seem. But Full Fathom Five was proceeding apace. In June, Almon put out word that they were looking for new writers for four untitled young-adult projects: a project about a girl raised in a cult who “suddenly begins to remember her previous life”; an “untitled paranormal love story” about teen lovers, one dead, in which “we watch the couple struggle to communicate: he miserable in heaven, and she understandably distraught”; an “untitled apocalypse idea” about a girl who enrolls in a summer camp and “finds herself in for a hell of a lot more than rope climbing”; and a “high-school revenge project” in which “four girls from separate cliques at a high school discover they’ve all been date-raped by the same guy and team up to plot vicious revenge.”

And meanwhile, things were ramping up with the production of I Am Number Four. The movie, which stars Timothy Olyphant, Dianna Agron, and Alex Pettyfer, has a reported budget of $50 million to $60 million, and filming had begun in Pennsylvania. Hughes hoped for a cameo. He was also preparing for a vacation to Rome, his first time out of the country. But the success felt bittersweet, Hughes told me at the time. He still hadn’t sold Agony at Dawn. He was starting to sour on Frey—he believed that he had learned everything he could from his mentor and thought he was owed more of the proceeds. He told me he was behind on writing the second book in “The Lorien Legacies” and was considering leaving Full Fathom Five and writing his own spinoff.

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