James Frey’s Fiction Factory

Photo-illustration by GluekitPhoto: Christopher Lane (Frey); Gluekit (body); Archive Holdings Inc./Getty Images (background); Getty Images (typists)

In February, James Frey was invited to speak to a small seminar in the graduate writing program at Columbia called “Can Truth Be Told?” There were nine of us, and we were reading books like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Kathryn Harrison’s memoir The Kiss for our discussion about the ethical questions that emerge when writing nonfiction. We had read A Million Little Pieces, Frey’s 2003 memoir about his harrowing drug addiction and time in rehab, as well as The Smoking Gun’s report detailing Frey’s false claims. We were surprised Frey actually showed up.

The class took place during an intense blizzard. Frey arrived in a white T-shirt and khakis, promptly removed his boots, and walked around on a soggy carpet in his socks. Grinding down on a piece of gum, he asked the name of the class. Leslie Sharpe, the professor who had invited him, explained that we were studying the differences between “factual truth” and “emotional truth” and how memoirists address those disparities in their work. We all laughed awkwardly.

But he was game. “You don’t have to hold back,” he told us. “I’ve been asked everything.” And for the next two hours, as the snow piled up on the arched windows behind him, Frey delivered his opinions on the memoir genre (“bunk,” “bullshit,” a marketing tool that didn’t exist until several decades ago); fact and fiction (there’s no difference); truth (it doesn’t exist, at least not in the journalistic sense); Europe (where he turns for validation); America (which is obsessed with honesty and raises people up only to tear them down); the best writers (Mailer, Vonnegut, Hemingway, Baudelaire, Henry Miller, Cormac McCarthy); documentary (“a thesis on truth that hasn’t been proven yet”); Oprah (“I should have never fucking apologized”); the kind of writer he wants to be (the most controversial and widely read of his time); making literary history (he’s in it to “change the game” and “move the paradigm”; he won’t write anything that doesn’t change the world); self-editing (a trap for young writers); mistakes (part of the spontaneity of a work of art); and, most important, how to write (“don’t give a fuck”; sit for ten hours a day, 600 days in a row; “write what you want to write, and make sure there is one hell of a disclaimer at the beginning”).

When he was working on A Million Little Pieces, Frey told us, he wanted to write in the tradition of Tropic of Cancer, “A Season in Hell,” and Paris Spleen—transgressive works by transgressive authors. As he pointed out, heavy hitters never write like the established writers of their own time. Hemingway used short, declarative sentences; Miller wrote about sexuality in the first-person present tense; Mailer blurred the line between fact and fiction. These men created their own styles. Frey said Mailer even told him, right before he died, “You’re the next one of us.”

Frey said he never considered whether A Million Little Pieces was fiction or nonfiction—and anyway, before the memoir craze of the nineties, it would have been published as a novel. “If Picasso painted a Cubist self-portrait,” he suggested, “nobody would say it didn’t look like him.” Much of his performance for us echoed comments he’d made to journalists. “My best friends are almost all artists,” he told a Canadian reporter earlier this year. “I have very few friends who are writers … I’m a big fan of breaking the rules, creating new forms, moving on to new places. Contemporary artists like [Richard] Prince, Hirst, and Koons do that, but there are no literary equivalents. In literature, you don’t see many radical books. That’s what I want to do: write radical books that confuse and confound, polarize opinions. I’ve already been cast out of ‘proper’ American literary circles. I don’t have to be a good boy anymore. I find that the older I get, the more radical my work becomes.”

Frey also talked to the reporter about how contemporary artists make their work. “A lot of artists conceptualize a work and then collaborate with other artists to produce it,” he said then. “Andy Warhol’s Factory is an example of that way of working. That’s what I’m doing with literature.” At the end of the seminar, Frey elaborated on this concept and made an unexpected pitch. He was looking for young writers to join him on a new publishing endeavor—a company that would produce mostly young-adult novels. Frey believed that Harry Potter and the Twilight series had awakened a ravenous market of readers and were leaving a substantial gap in their wake. He wanted to be the one to fill it. There had already been wizards, vampires, and werewolves. Aliens, Frey predicted, would be next.

Full Fathom Five’s first book, written by Frey and Jobie Hughes under a pseudonym.

Frey said he was interested in conceiving commercial ideas that would sell extremely well. He was in the process of hiring writers—he said he’d already been to Princeton and was planning on recruiting from the other New York M.F.A. programs as well. We had probably heard of Jobie Hughes? Hughes was a former Columbia M.F.A. student who had graduated the previous spring. Frey told us that he and Hughes had sold the rights to an alien book they had co-written to Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay. Before he left the classroom, Frey spelled out his e-mail and told us to get in touch if we had a good idea.

“I feel like I need to go take a shower,” one student muttered in the hall after the seminar. But many of us felt an adrenaline rush: Against all odds, Frey was still at it. He was thrilling, condescending, rude, empowering, and haughty. “He didn’t show an ounce of self-doubt,” says Philip Eil, then a first-year nonfiction student. “Not a second of wavering. He was 110 percent that there was no truth, that he would live forever through his books.”

Mostly, though, we talked about his invitation. 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.

Frey suggested that he would be highly involved—he would guide us through the process of writing a commercial novel, which wasn’t exactly a skill highly prioritized at Columbia, and he would connect us to his social network of agents, publishers, and directors. And rumors had indeed been racing all over the program about Hughes: Frey had paid off Hughes’s debt and was promoting him as a rising talent; Hughes was flying to L.A. to meet Spielberg; he had bought his mother’s house and an apartment in the Village; he was a multimillionaire. That’s what we heard, anyway. So why shouldn’t we pitch to James Frey?

“It’s funny to be in a room … ” I paused. He filled the silence. “With big, bad James Frey?”

Out of the nine of us in class that morning, at least five sent him ideas, myself included, and even the one who needed the shower.

Frey encouraged those of us who were interested in working with him to speak with Hughes about his experience. Hughes had been an outsider throughout most of his time at Columbia. He grew up in a small Ohio town of under 1,000—“a welfare kid who came from nothing,” as he often described himself—and had taught himself to write in college by reading Hemingway (he tattooed the initials E.H. to the inside of his left wrist). Hughes’s aggressive, masculine personality matched his writing style. He was sensitive to criticism and received a lot of it.

Hughes told me he first met Frey at an event at the Columbia film department in March 2008 and wrote him a fan letter afterward. He was smitten with A Million Little Pieces and Frey’s use of the RETURN key. Over e-mail, they developed a friendship. The following January, Frey approached him to co-author a young-adult novel—a commercial project he said he didn’t have time to write. “I remember Frey said he liked Hughes because he had been a high-school wrestler,” recalls Sara Davis, another student in the seminar, “so he knew he could take coaching and direction and had discipline.” Frey was also impressed that Hughes had actually finished a novel, called Agony at Dawn, about a twentysomething protagonist aspiring to literary greatness. Whether it was good wasn’t really the point; what mattered was that Hughes had demonstrated the ability to finish it.

When Frey asked him if he would be interested in working together, Hughes had every reason to say yes. He was looking to sell Agony at Dawn, and while he hadn’t enrolled in Columbia to become a genre writer, he figured that a relationship with Frey might deliver him into the arms of Eric Simonoff, Frey’s powerful literary agent.

Frey handed him a one-page write-up of the concept, and Hughes developed the rest of the outlined narrative. Frey’s idea was a series called “The Lorien Legacies,” about nine Loric aliens who were chased from their home planet by evil Mogadorians and are living on Earth in the guise of teenagers. Through early 2009, Hughes told me, he delivered three drafts of the first book, I Am Number Four, to Frey, who revised them and polished the final version. Hughes wrote the novel without any compensation and signed a contract, without consulting a lawyer, that specified that he would receive 30 percent of all revenue that came from the project. The book would be published under a pseudonym, and the contract stipulated that Hughes would not be allowed to speak publicly about the project or confirm his attachment to it. There was a $250,000 penalty Frey could invoke if Hughes violated his confidentiality terms.

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

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.

Frey's Social Circle: Richard Prince. Photo: Patrick McMullan

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.

Frey's Social Circle: Terry Richardson and Paula FroelichPhoto: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images (Richardson)/Patrick McMullan (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.

Frey's Social Circle: Bill Powers and Andy SpadePhoto: Derin Thorpe

In late July, Hughes filed his first draft of the second book. He and Frey had an hour-long screaming match over the phone, Hughes told a friend. Frey complained the draft was too rough. Hughes threatened to walk from the project. Frey said he would rewrite the second draft himself if he had to.

I Am Number Four was published on August 3. It made it onto the Times best-seller list for children’s chapter books, but it failed to make a larger cultural impression. By this time, Hughes was aware that I was writing about my experience with Full Fathom Five, and so he declined to comment. But according to friends of Hughes, he felt muzzled—and exceedingly frustrated. He couldn’t publicize the book without authorization from Frey, or defend it when others dismissed it as a mediocre young-adult book.

In mid-September, Hughes was invited to be the featured reader at the Freerange Nonfiction series, a small monthly reading at the Cornelia Street Café. Hughes included in his bio that he “is the New York Times best-selling author of I Am Number Four.” His authorship was an open secret—HarperCollins had named him in a press release last year announcing its acquisition of the series. But after the Freerange listing was posted online, Hughes told friends, he received distressed calls from HarperCollins and Full Fathom Five. Another argument with Frey ensued.

By the end of the month, Hughes had walked away from the project. He hired a lawyer, and they prepared documents requesting 20 percent of all future proceeds related to “The Lorien Legacies.” Hughes and Frey’s legal dispute has reportedly been settled, but the terms are unknown.

“You could see it coming,” said one of Hughes’s friends. He didn’t understand why, after all his work and the news items about I Am Number Four, he still couldn’t come out as the book’s co-writer. None of his work with Frey had helped him sell Agony at Dawn—it had been rejected by dozens of publishing houses—and the stress that came with being invisible wasn’t worth it anymore. He refuses, he tells friends, to go back “to nothing.”

Full Fathom Five has shrouded itself in a degree of secrecy unusual in the publishing world, and Frey declined to participate in this story. But the company continues to sign up more writers—there are now 28, not only students from M.F.A. programs but also magazine editors on both coasts and established novelists. On September 30, an e-mail went out to students of the New School about available jobs. “Full Fathom Five, the New York–based best-selling book-packaging-, film-, and TV-production company, is currently seeking young writers to take on book assignments, in particular, creative-writing M.F.A. students or graduates in the New York City area.”

Full Fathom Five has yet to announce a sale as successful as “The Lorien Legacies”—the film version of I Am Number Four, scheduled to open in February, is being hyped as the first film to be released by the reconstituted DreamWorks. But the company recently sold the King Arthur adaptation, and Will Smith’s production company is reportedly preparing a film version starring his son Jaden. And on November 2, Publishers Marketplace ran a notice that Full Fathom Five had sold to HarperCollins something called The Montauk Project, “in which a Long Island teenager inadvertently travels back in time to 1944 and must struggle to write her own future while trapped in the past.” No author was named.

See Also:
The Brutal Contract From James Frey’s Fiction Factory

James Frey’s Fiction Factory