Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Cake or Death?

St. Joseph native James Frey is back in the publishing news again. He's the literary establishment's equivalent of Brittney Spears or Levi Johnston: tabloid fodder guaranteed to generate controversy.

(Long-term readers may remember my Frey-based rants back in 2006 when fallout from his fictitious memoir hit the proverbial fan and when Oprah lambasted him for lying. I mentioned him again last May when Oprah reversed her earlier decision and apologized to Frey for saying that his lying to her was a bad thing. I have nothing against Mr. Frey. Honestly. It's just that he keeps doing stuff that merits... discussion.)

Yesterday's post brings us up to speed on Frey's latest Death-By-Dishonor venture: the book packaging company and intellectual property black hole of Full Fathom Five.

Their motto should be: "Why Should You Profit From Your Words if We Can Instead?"

For a fascinating dissection of Full Fathom Five's contract, see YA Writer Maureen Johnson's blog post that also takes prestigious MFA programs to task for graduating students gullible (or desperate) enough to sign such a contract.

Here's the thing: James Frey is not evil. He may be a huckster, a liar, and a fraud, but he is not holding a gun to the heads of these writers and forcing them to sign their lives away. He's only capitalizing on inherent flaws in a system that includes self-appointed gatekeepers and elevates platforms over merit.

This is the system that publishes Snooki's novel and the "memoir" of 16 year old Justin Bieber.

It's the system that puts a multitude of "Cat Who" books in print when every reader and writer knows that if an unpublished author were to submit any one of the last 10 titles in the series for publication, they would meet with instant and unequivocal rejection.

It's a system built upon desperation. And Full Fathom Five's stable of overtalented, underpaid, uberdesperate writers only shows what the going rate for "desperate to be published" is.


I am not disparaging work-for-hire writing contracts. Far from it. The first book I ever wrote that got into print was a write-for-hire. I made enough money writing it to put food on my family's table. It gave me the opportunity to work with a brilliant horse trainer. It introduced me to a wonderful group of publishing professionals. It provided the impetus that drove several other book deals that weren 't write-for-hire.

However, in the past year, I turned down a "sure thing" ghostwriting project. The book would have been published. I would have had the chance to work with a legend in his field. I would have made significantly more than $250. But it wouldn't have been enough to live on.

Since I know how much time it takes me to write a book from scratch start to polished end, the project literally would have paid me pennies per hour. I suggested a more equitable compensation for my time, but our numbers were too disparate.

So we parted ways (amiably) and moved on.

The brilliant comedian Eddie Izzard has a classic routine in which he asks "Cake or Death?"

Obviously, if given the choice, no one in his or her right mind would choose "death." But one could easily substitute the words "creative career or Frey cook?" Evidently, at least 28 would choose the second option.

As long as there are writers desperate for publication, there will be people ready and willing to exploit their talents. In any case, someone's going to make a killing.

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