Whose book deal is it anyway?

Back in 2010, I was a bookseller, and had learned a lot about what goes in behind the scenes in publishing. How James Patterson can be so prolific, for one: He readily admits that his co-written books are largely written by the co-author. Patterson himself provides characters and a lengthy plot outline, the co-writer actually writes the books. Patterson then oversees edits and polish and the book comes out under both their names. I tussled with that notion for a while, “But he didn’t REALLY write it!” battling with “He treats his co-authors really well, and some of them have gone on to have successes of their own – helped by their association with him.” The latter argument won, largely because Patterson is a behemoth, almost an industry unto himself. He’s fascinating to read about, even if you don’t particularly like his work, or find it baffling that he seems to want to have hit books in every genre under the sun.

From that New York Times article, it was easy to see how a writer might be happy to share billing on a novel with Patterson.

Later that same year, NY Magazine published a piece about an author who had already spawned oceans of ink (virtual and real) due to the fact that this best selling (and Orpah endorsed) memoir was largely a work of fiction.

This piece was different from the others in that, rather than examining (again and more) the problems with a fictionalized memoir, it focused on what the author, James Frey, was doing next. Or rather what he had been doing and was continuing to do. So far, so good. It turned out that what he was doing was recruiting authors from MFA programs to produce books for his production company, Full Fathom Five. You could be forgiven for thinking of Patterson and applauding Frey for his efforts. Except that James Frey doesn’t have the sales numbers Patterson has. He is known for one book, and an extremely controversial one at that. His publisher offered refunds to readers who were upset that what they thought was true was made up out of whole cloth. There was a very costly class-action suit. Oprah was upset. Booksellers moved his book from biography to fiction and got yelled at by readers who refused to believe he had lied. On that basis, at that time, it’s hard to see how tying your name to Frey’s would have offered any benefit to a writer, aside from adding a whiff of second-hand scandal to their work.


Frey, in his trips to MFA programs, pitched Full Fathom Five as a writer’s version of the art-world’s ateliers, think Andy Warhol’s Factory, or Damien Hirst’s workshop. He spoke of opportunity, he spoke of potential earnings. Some writers were seduced, dreaming of paying off their student loans; others far less so, concerned about owning their own words and the potential restrictions of such a model. It’s probably not too much of a spoiler to say that the naysayers were probably right. Further in the article details are given of the standard Full Fathom Five contract offered at the time:

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.

There are a couple of alarming possibilities in that brief paragraph. Firstly, that for $250-$500 upfront, the writer is personally liable for any and all legal action taken against the book. Even though they don’t have copyright, even though they don’t own the characters, even if they’ve given up the right (or had that right taken from them) to have their name attached to it. I don’t know how often people get sued over books, but that part gave me the willies. How much time with a lawyer does $500 buy you? How much does it cost to defend a lawsuit, even a nuisance one?

Secondly, the money. Let’s say you get $500 in two payments. If the book bombs, no more money. Well, you could say that means you’d better write a good book. Trouble is that writing a good book takes time, drafting, redrafting, polishing. You may be talking a year’s worth of work for $500. Again, easy to say that most writers starting out spend months, if not years, working on projects that may earn them nothing at all if their manuscript is not sold.

On the other hand, if the book is a smash hit – the potential is there (eventually, authors usually have a long wait from handing over the final ms to seeing their first royalties) for big earnings. Toss in movie rights and any number of potential tie-ins (multimedia, games, merchandise) and the potential gets bigger still, right?

But…but if you make lots of money and no-one knows it was you that wrote that smash hit book? If you get a pen name imposed on you, a fake photo and bio, and are not involved in any of the publicity for the book – then how can having written that book kick-start your writing career? If you’re tied into writing more of the same (Full Fathom Five is big on the series idea) and prevented from seeking a deal for your own work because of it? If you do stand up and demand recognition, you’ll be in breach of contract, open to fines, and excluded from any further work on those characters, or the world that you created. You don’t get to own anything except a percentage of the money. It’s a Faustian deal.

Let me put it another way, have you ever read a book by Jobie Hughes? No? How about Pittacus Lore? Maybe yes, maybe you saw the movie. Well, Jobie Hughes and Pittacus Lore are one and the same. I’ll qualify that by saying that Frey edited and polished Hughes’ manuscript, so there’s a percentage of him in there too. He also gave Hughes a one-page synopsis to work from, so another percentage. From the contract details above, Hughes got 30% of the money made from I am Number Four – even if it’s also clear that he did more than 30% of the work. (He did manage to increase his share to 49% for the sequel.) However, as it turned out, Hughes was frustrated by not being able to stand up and say “I wrote that!”, and when he did (a couple of times, in front of small audiences) he was threatened with fines. He felt hemmed in and frustrated by the contract he’d signed. He couldn’t sell his own manuscript because he couldn’t point out that he already had a bestseller out there. It’s worth noting that Hughes can now say in his blurb that he’s the author of two New York Times #1 Bestsellers, but without naming the books. A lot can happen over a couple of years.

Full Fathom Five has continued to recruit authors, to ink deals, but quietly, and without as much success as they saw from Pittacus Lore. That’s why it was interesting to see this, yesterday.  According to the piece:

[Frey] has a multibook, multimedia deal with HarperCollins for a young-adult series called “Endgame.”

Later in the article, these two points:

The publisher announced Wednesday that Frey’s production company, Full Fathom Five, will turn out three novels and nine novellas.


The first book will be “Endgame: The Calling.” It is due out in October and will be co-authored by Nils Johnson-Shelton.

Other media outlets followed suit, reporting that Frey has a new book deal. Jezebel, for example, mentioned the co-author, mentioned Pittacus Lore and Jobie Hughes, but still framed it as Frey’s deal. No mention of how Full Fathom Five operates, no context given. Most commenters there and on twitter seem to be more concerned with potential similarities to the Hunger Games books.

Call me a cynic, but I can’t help but wonder if Johnson-Shelton signed the same sort of contract as Jobie Hughes did, and whether or not his name will be on the cover of the book, or mentioned anywhere in association with it again.

I’ll be looking out for the book in October and hoping that Frey and Full Fathom Five have learned from the past, and that Johnson-Shelton gets more from his association with them than Jobie Hughes did.

Again, here’s the link to the NY Magazine piece, it’s long but very much worth reading.  We’re very quick to forget things in the information age, but some things shouldn’t be forgotten.








Join in - have your say!