Notes From the Underbelly of Publishing

Exposed last week in New York magazine: Full Fathom Five, a book packager* founded by author/entrepreneur James Frey (yes, that James Frey)–a kind of sweat shop for writers with an outlandishly awful contract.

The article has spurred quite a bit of outraged discussion, particularly of the contract. Book packaging is not generally known as an industry that is kind to writers, but according to people with experience, Full Fathom Five is in a class by itself.

Who would sign such an awful contract? Who’d give away all their rights (including copyright and the right to put their name on their book) in exchange for a measly $250 plus a royalty that sounds generous–40%–but isn’t–since it’s paid on net and the company can deduct unspecified expenses at its discretion? Who would be so ignorant? So desperate? So stupid?

Unfortunately, if there’s one thing that twelve years with Writer Beware has taught me, it’s that writers will sign just about anything, with just about anyone, in order to be published. I’m not talking about trade publishing, either. Say what you will about Full Fathom Five, it at least functions within the commercial publishing world, where sales, visibility, and film and foreign rights deals are possible, if not necessarily probable.

What I’m talking about is trade publishing’s underbelly, a dark realm of author mills, amateur micropresses, unprofessional epublishers, and pay-to-play outfits. In that alternate publishing universe, hideous contracts and author exploitation aren’t the shocking exception, they’re the norm. Every day, desperate and/or inexperienced writers willingly sign those contracts and accept those terms, often over the prompting of their own better instincts, or sound advice from experts.

Writers, you MUST take the time and make the effort to educate yourself about your chosen field BEFORE you try to enter it. Frey and Full Fathom Five are concentrating on MFA writing programs in their search for authors–a smart move for a company with a bad contract, since MFA programs are not exactly known for focusing on the business of publishing. But MFA candidates are not alone in attempting to enter an industry about which they are largely ignorant. Better than 75% of the thousands of writers who contact Writer Beware each year know little or nothing about publishing. For many of them, this is a recipe for disaster. The best defense against the scam agents, the bad publishers, the crap contracts, and the greedy packagers is knowledge. I know I’ve said this about a thousand times, here and elsewhere. But it can’t be repeated too often.

If you don’t understand the terms of a contract you’re offered, seek knowledgeable advice (that’s advice from someone who’s qualified to give it, such as a lawyer or a professional writers’ organization, not the kind of advice you’ll get by posting a question on, for instance, LinkedIn). Don’t just assume you understand, unless you’re already an expert (and even then; I have a lot of experience with contract terms, and I don’t trust myself to fully comprehend some of the twisted language in the Full Fathom Five contract). Don’t try to logic your way into a confusing clause–you run the risk of being wrong. And never, ever rely on extra-contractual assurances (for instance, if your contract says something scary, but your publisher promises you that they never actually invoke that clause). If it’s not in the contract, it doesn’t exist. Conversely, if it is in the contract, expect to be bound by it. I hear all the time from writers who thought they wouldn’t have to worry about this or that contract provision (such as a termination fee), only to discover that–whoops!–it was actually a big problem.

Most important: you must, you absolutely must be ready to walk away. This is the tough part, because your emotions are involved, which can make it incredibly difficult to exercise good business sense. But if the contract’s bad, or the publisher is unprofessional, or if something you can’t quite put your finger on is triggering a bad feeling in your gut, closing your eyes and telling yourself it will all work out is not the way to go. As painful as it may be to say no, in the long term you won’t regret it.

Writing is an art. Publishing is a business. The two are uneasy bedfellows. But to survive in a competitive and often harsh industry, the wise writer must strive to master–and balance–both.


* If you’re not familiar with what a book packager does, Jessica Faust of BookEnds Literary Agency offers a helpful explanation.


  1. James Frey is a hero…helping young students catch a break. Why is everybody on this man's back? Anyway traditional book packagers only use agented authors/writers, not MFA students fresh from school. Frey is listening to their ideas, giving them a chance to be heard. $250 is better than what 99.99% of writers make anyway. Not everybody can write a fanfiction-like vampire romance with sparkling vampires & pedophile werewolves and have agents & publishers fighting over it to get it published. Frey is smart and he knows YA readers love poorly written, unedited material, which is why his book I Am Number Four was riddled with cliches & had characters named 'John Smith' in it: because he knows YA readers HATE originality, plots that make sense, characters that are not Mary/Gary Stus, ect. Frey has won me over! I'm going to slap some fanfiction together for the YA market & send it to Frey. I am NOT being sarcastic, I adore Frey's mentality.

  2. Another question the New York piece raised: Does James Frey's belief that there is no difference between fact and fiction and that truth does not exist also carry over to FFF's accounting department?

  3. steeleweed, you are correct. Packagers like Alloy and Teknobooks work with existing MSS, as well as developing projects from scratch.

  4. Janus, work-for-hire is not a "scam". Writing for hire is a job. You sign a contract–which is a contract that spells out clearly each party's rights and responsibilities–and you get paid for the work you put in.

    This isn't a standard work-for-hire writing contract. The pay is, AT BEST, a tenth of the standard pay. The lack of an audit provision is obscene (especially given the other signatory of the contract–taking James Frey's word about what your book earned is just ludicrous, given that we're talking about someone who wrote a supposedly non-fiction book about the great friend he made in the prison he was never in). And then there's the "you have to do this all again if I want you to" proviso, which I seriously doubt is even enforceable.

    Writing for hire can be a way to earn money and pay your bills, but you have to exercise the same due diligence that you do with other contract work.

    The worst part of all of this is that Frey is implying that work-for-hire is a "foot in the door" of getting one's own creative work published. It is not. Anyone signing at Frey's outrageous terms because they think they can hitch their wagon to his star will be sadly disappointed.

    People: doing work-for-hire might make sense financially. But it is a "foot in the door" only to more work-for-hire.

  5. The name James Frey is enough to keep me away from this mess. The hack from A Million Little pieces of Fraud is looking for a Million suckers to rip off. He's not selling books, so taking advantage of writers is his new hustle.

    Work for hire? LOL! A chump change advance of $250 and give away ALL the rights and no credit? Only a NOOB would rush into a contract this bad.

    This is the kind of deal a writer should RUN from and RUN as fast as they can. I'd rather self-publish and KEEP all my rights rather than give em' away to a con man like Frey.

    If a writer wants credit, there are a ton of blogs and free papers an author can write for and get credit for their work.

  6. …I read it.

    I am NOT a contract lawyer, but I think I understand it. Shudder.

    $250 advance – sadly that's not THAT bad compared to small presses. But NOT for work for hire. I wouldn't do work for hire on fiction anyway, and I wouldn't do it on non-fiction for such a small sum.

    On top of that, that 40% is not only of net, but is only on the book. If Frey sells the film rights, the author gets NOTHING.

    If Frey decides to put a pen name on the book, the author doesn't even get credit.

    And then look at some of the other stuff. 14 days for rewrites on a novel? (I could do it, a lot of good writers couldn't). Termination if you're sick for three weeks?

    Oh, and the lovely clause about anything coming from this being theirs…which means they could claim ownership of ALL of your work on some spurious grounds like 'Oh, that character has the same hair color'.

    I have to assume anyone who signs this contract is not only desperate but didn't actually read it. Sadly, there are a lot of people so desperate they won't read contracts.

    Oh, and steeleweed, no. The kind of person you're thinking of is a book *shepherd* not a book *packager*. Easily confused, but a book shepherd is a professional consultant and editor who assists a self-publisher with the business side of the publishing venture…and if you're going to go that way a good one can be valuable.

  7. It's sad but true that many people will ignore any information that contradicts their desire to find a shortcut.

    There are no shortcuts in the book business.

    Every tragic story I hear seems to start with a writer who dreams of (fill in the blank) who thinks he or she has found an easier/cheaper/faster way to get there. And it's not only writers but also new or small presses that get stuck.

    I spend half of my consulting practice trying to straighten out the wreckage after some of these brainstorms.

  8. I read the article you posted re: Full Fathom Five on facebook yesterday.

    It seems like a very special kind of hell to me.

    Today's post should be read by everyone. Sound advice I would have thought obvious, but apparently isn't.

    Thanks again for your hard work on our behalf.

  9. Great post!

    I completely agree that writers need to be fully informed and engaged before they sign any contracts. That's why belonging to professional associations is a must.

    The Writers Union of Canada (the professional assn of book authors) has an invaluable contract review service that is free to members. (they offer the same service to non-members for a fee.) We're not in this alone if we belong to/associate with the right organizations!

  10. I have shared "Writer Beware" information for years and you are on my blogroll, yet I can not get the writers in both groups I founded and I am the president of to listen. A quick publication does not make a good book.

    Thanks again, for all you and others do to bring us the truth.

  11. I especially like the last line, " writing is an Art, Publishing is a business….".
    If new Writers, Illustrators, Performers of all kinds could say, not I am an Artist but instead I have a SKILL, it changes things immensely.
    " I am a SKILLED writer, you are a Buisness that requires my SKILL in order to survive and grow, let's talk money and terms!"

  12. I agree that authors need to get expert help, but it's worth noting that they can't delegate responsibility for the contract to their agent. Agents don't always pick up on some of the things that should matter. Authors really do need to learn to understand the basics of contracts.

    Also, note that The Society of Authors has a free contract review service for members.

  13. I would stop considering a publishing company as soon as I found out James Frey was involved in it. Unfortunately, not everyone will have the same knowledge I do.

    It's great Writer Beware is spreading the word.

  14. I read John Scalzi's entry about this. If I was reading it correctly, isn't the main point of contention that the contract is even more outlandishly awful than most scams of this sort? Would I be correct in saying that the contract is awful above and beyond the call of duty?

  15. From the link, the implication is that packagers work with book proposals – hire writers, editors, artists, etc. Aren't there packagers who work with existing MSS to edit, arrange cover-art, format, etc.?

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