Ask Daphne! About Book Packagers

November 15th, 2010 • Kate

shoeboxI’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.

Questions? Comments?

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13 Responses to “Ask Daphne! About Book Packagers”

  1. Jamie Harrington Says:

    Okay… so I have to know now–was Uglies a book packager idea? Or just Midnighters?

  2. Meghan Says:

    Wow, these articles were really enlightening! I'm glad you explained that there are some situations where it might be a good experience to work with a book packager – this makes more sense to me now. I still don't understand why anyone would want to work with FFF though! Like you said, "why would you want to hand over 60% of your work to a notorious liar who's already a millionaire?" A million times over, I would rather work with someone with a better reputation – even though, with Frey's terrible contract, no one would even know who exactly worked with him!

  3. Kate Says:

    Jamie – I don't think so. I only know that Scott worked with a book packager at some point in his early career. I think he's been open about that.

  4. Angela Perry Says:

    I also liked the clause that said any expenses that go into producing and promoting the book come out of the author's 40% without limitation (section 4.1).

    And then there was the clause that said FFF owns all the rights forever, but the author is forever responsible for any legal action taken against the book, even after the termination of the contract (9.3 and 9.4).

    Which is almost as much fun as the clause that says FFF can legally prevent you from doing anything they say might harm the company, but you can't do anything against them. Ever. Oh, and they don't have to provide proof of their claims against you (section 15).

    Um, yeah. I can see no benefit from writers participating in Frey's scheme, unless they want to intern with a con artist.

  5. Alex Says:

    I'm so glad you explained it, I tried to read the contract (when it was posted online) and I got bored and tired of it by the first page.

    I've heard many authors say that book packagers aren't all bad, that some are actually quite good at what they do. So I guess it's not ALL the system that's wrong but the way Frey is trying to manipulate young/inexperienced authors at their most vulnerable.

  6. Jordyn Says:

    I'm wondering what the use or benefit is of going through an MFA program. They're taking a lot of flack in this whole Frey outrage, but I know that lots of writers went through them and am wondering… what are they about? Should aspiring writers go through an MFA program? What's the real benefit there?

  7. Kate Says:

    Jordyn – A few months ago, Maureen had a great post on the value of an MFA program. It's well worth a look. An excerpt:

    "MFAs confer no power. The only thing they technically allow you to do is teach other MFAs, except those jobs usually only go to people with some kind of publication record, many (if not most) of whom won’t have MFAs—or, more annoyingly, to the English MAs who often have mandatory experience teaching Freshman Comp—so don’t rely on it for that. Editors don’t care. Agents don’t care. It doesn’t increase your chances of publication one iota. MFAs are so expensive and essentially useless that they are definitely NOT the place to figure out if you like writing. The ONLY thing you can hope the MFA will do is improve your skills. That’s it. (And there are many people who hold that MFAs make you WORSE, not better. I think mine helped me, but I can definitely see their point.)"

  8. Elizabeth Kaylene Says:

    I personally don't think any less of anyone who would work with a book packager. It's good to be aware, however, of how to protect yourself. This whole Frey thing makes me sick, but it doesn't surprise me.

    What are some reputable, trustworthy book packagers? I'd like to take a peek, just to see what kind of stories they are looking for.

  9. Elizabeth Kaylene Says:

    Oh — another question! If someone were to become involved with a book packager, should they still look for an agent, or does the book packaging company take care of all of the things an agent would normally take care of? (I'd definitely get an agent's or other professional's opinion regarding the contract; I'm just wondering whether it's overkill to have an agent on board if there are no red flags on the whole deal.)

  10. Dean Murray Says:

    It's been actually quite reassuring to see the speed and volume of the denouncements of Frey's contracts. It's nice to know so many different stakeholders in the publishing industry are willing to take a stand against something that they see as being wrong.

  11. Stop Bashing James F Says:

    No,from what I understood from reading is that Full Fathom Five (Frey's company) offers new & unagented young writers a chance. Those were just a bunch of MFA students with IDEAS. They didn't have connections or credentials. So yeah, they wouldn't have gotten a chance from any regular packaging company at all. And they cannot get literary agents. They've never been published and will never be able to. Writers who submit to the 'slushpile' get laughed at by Literary agents. The simple fact that it's even CALLED the slushpile is proof enough of that, so I don't need to argue that point, it's self-evident.But I digress:) James Frey is the only hope those 'students' ever have of having ANYONE even agree to hear thei ideas, let alone getting published. He is the only chance they have, and I think what he's doing is good. Connections and luck are they only thing that can get a person published, with the exception of submitting a Fanfiction Romance (I'm looking at Twilight on this one). Kudos to James Frey!! We love him!

  12. Kate Says:

    James? Is that you?

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