I’m going to do something a little bit different today, and post a general question from the blogosphere.
Why, the internets ask, on reading this article about James Frey’s “fiction factory”, would anyone sign that wretched contract? Or, more fully, on reading the brilliant and pithy Maureen Johnson’s post on the subject, why would ANY writer work with a book packager?
I don’t think I’m going to surprise anyone that reads this blog when I say that writers, on a whole, are striving to be published. For some, it is their only goal. Others, more sensibly, may list it as one of many life goals, perhaps also including owning a pair of Christian Louboutins or meeting their idol for tea. But for many authors, the idea that a bestselling author would want to work with them to help polish their project, and will be the one to put it in front of publishing and movie executives, well, this is like some sort of gold mine.
Many of these writers don’t understand legalese. They see Frey’s Full Fathom Five contract as offering a small amount upfront, sure, but the possibility of 40% of a big sale they might not be able to make otherwise. They don’t see the lack of accountability of FFF’s part, the chance they could see their own idea written by someone else without their permission, without any recourse. They don’t get that they might not ever be able to point to their name on their book in a store — that they might be legally bound to silence about the fact they even wrote the book in question. Never mind the fact that they technically can’t even TALK to other people about the experience of working with Frey, or ANY “personal experience” they might have had with Frey, his family, friends, or the company.
So why, in the name of ALL that’s holy, would any writer want to work with him?
Let me throw a couple of names out at you. Ann Brashares. Cecily Von Ziegesar. Scott Westerfeld. Maureen Johnson. I could go on, but perhaps you already recognize those names. If not, let me try mentioning some of their best known books: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Gossip Girl, Midnighters, 13 Little Blue Envelopes. All of them are very popular authors of very popular or bestselling YA novels who started out in the business with book packagers. Hell, some of your other favorite authors may have ghostwritten a book or two for a packager in their time, or done some work with them. Were they all deluded? Drinking the Kool Aid of possible publication so long and so hard that they forgot their senses?
No. There can be benefits of working with a book packager for the young and inexperienced author. For one thing, it’s writing experience. Is it for everyone? No. But for some, working with a packager is a one possible path to publication. Is that what we’re talking about here, then?
Hells no. The simple fact is that even in the realms of book packager contracts, the agreement that Frey’s company is offering is the worst I’ve ever seen. If you consider a short YA novel is about 50,000 words, and he’s offering $250 for your work — that’s $.005 a word. Half a cent. But hey, you get 40% of all income, right? That’s got to count for something, doesn’t it?
Again, no. As Maureen points out, and is mentioned in the article, there’s no clause for auditing, so even assuming that you get the full 40% split on the advance of the book — let’s pretend you get $40,000 on a $100,000 contract (that’s $60,000 to Frey’s company for doing what exactly? Whereas if you could your book directly to a publisher, with an agent, you’d pocket $85,000 and only give up $15,000 on the same deal) — you have no recourse to look at the royalty statements to be sure that you’re getting what’s due to you beyond the advance, or in any other contract, none of which you have any right to approve or deny.
And this is YOUR book. Your idea.
Look, if you have any faith in your words, don’t you want to be the one who benefits from a publishing deal for them? Why would you want to hand over 60% of your work to a notorious liar who’s already a millionaire?
So beyond the simple experience of it, why would you work with a book packager? For the chance to see how the publishing industry works from the inside, to a schedule, on a deadline. Would I ever recommend bringing our original idea to a packager? No. But I’ve happily recommended my authors, my clients, work with packagers on concepts that the packagers have developed — and even when they didn’t get the gig, I think almost all of them would say that the experience was a worthy one.
But it’s one that you absolutely have to go into with your eyes wide open — and never sign ANY contract that you don’t understand, that you haven’t had someone with some legal experience look over on your behalf, whether that’s an agent, a lawyer, or a representative of the Author’s Guild. And please, for the love of all that’s holy — take their advice. Don’t just sign your rights away for a chance to be a part of something that never going to get you any credit, and will only lead to headache. Take a lesson from Jobie Hughes.