Desperate Times Call for Desperate Writers

James Frey, author of “A Million Little Pieces,” whipping boy of Oprah, fictionalizer of facts, wearer of a beard, seer through droopy eyes, wants to publish your book.


He’ll pay you a whopping $250 up front.

Excited now?

$250 is barely enough to buy a shotgun and ammo at Wal-Mart to shoot dead your literary career.

Yet writers are signing on with Frey’s Full Fathom Five publishing company. Frey and his company are profiled in a recent New York Magazine piece, James Frey’s Fiction Factory.

Here’s what Conrad Rippy has to say about the contract Frey is offering:

It’s an agreement that says, “You’re going to write for me. I’m going to own it. I may or may not give you credit. If there is more than one book in the series, you are on the hook to write those too, for the exact same terms, but I don’t have to use you. In exchange for this, I’m going to pay you 40 percent of some amount you can’t verify — there’s no audit provision — and after the deduction of a whole bunch of expenses.”

Here you have MFA students likely growing more in debt by the semester hoping to earn enough off their writing to pay off their loans and maybe eat, agreeing to do oodles of work for $250 up front. I’m auditing a class (Literary Journalism) at my local university, Ball State, this semester. One credit hour costs over $300 (only $40 to audit).

Frey’s getting bashed. One of my favorite authors/bloggers, John Scalzi, wrote:

Just to be clear, if James Frey (or anyone else) tried to offer me this contract to write a book, here’s what I would do: Have my agent schedule a meeting with him for the clear and specific purpose of kicking him hard and square in the balls.

Yes, that is why I read John everyday. (John also has some interesting thoughts on the need for MFA programs to educate their students about the business of the publishing industry.)

But Frey’s crappy offer and the fact that folks sign up for it is a symptom of the level of desperation with a simple root cause: it’s damn hard to make a living right now as a writer.

It’s not easy to get a book deal or earn a living freelancing or have a job at a newspaper or magazine. Media and publishing are in flux. Selling ebooks for twice what a hardcover book costs or selling ads for your site seem like better ways to make a living at this point. Pimping your site and marketing your self-produced goods seem like more important skills than producing content of value or of any artistic merit. I’m not as jaded as that sounds. (You don’t see any ads or ebooks for sale here, do ya?) But I can see why some might believe this to be true and pursue a payday or promise of a writing career at all costs.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published a piece titled, The Shadow Scholar about a fella who writes papers for students from undergrads to PhD candidates. This year he is on pace to earn $66,000!

How did he get into this? He was desperate to make a living as a writer.

I was determined to write for a living…When I completed my first novel, in the summer between sophomore and junior years, I contacted the English department about creating an independent study around editing and publishing it. I was received like a mental patient. I was told, “There’s nothing like that here.” I was told that I could go back to my classes, sit in my lectures, and fill out Scantron tests until I graduated…I was, begging anybody in authority to take my work seriously. But my classmates did. They saw my abilities and my abundance of free time. They saw a value that the university did not. It turned out that my lazy, Xanax-snorting, Miller-swilling classmates were thrilled to pay me to write their papers. And I was thrilled to take their money. Imagine you are crumbling under the weight of university-issued parking tickets and self-doubt when a frat boy offers you cash to write about Plato. Doing that job was a no-brainer. Word of my services spread quickly, especially through the fraternities. Soon I was receiving calls from strangers who wanted to commission my work. I was a writer!

In short, he was desperate!

He’s even helped future principals and school administrators cheat!

I’ve written essays for those studying to become school administrators, and I’ve completed theses for those on course to become principals. In the enormous conspiracy that is student cheating, the frontline intelligence community is infiltrated by double agents. (Future educators of America, I know who you are.)

I don’t do work that don’t make me smile. That’s always been my mantra (thanks Crosby, Stills, and Nash!). I’ve never written a word just for the money. That said, I don’t have any students loans that need paid off. I live in Indiana where living is cheap, and I have a wife that brings in a regular paycheck. I’m able to bring in enough income from writing and speaking that I don’t have to sacrifice what I want to write for the promise of a payday. My writing career developed over a period of eight years. Patience and focus are required.

But not every writer has the luxury of patience and therefore they are vulnerable to creeps like Frey or professions like helping students cheat for a living.

The Shadow Scholar writes, “I live well on the desperation, misery, and incompetence…” So does Frey.

Larry says:

You have to wonder, given Frey’s turbulent career in publishing, why anyone would entrust their work to him. As you say, desperation is a hungry mistress. Great post Kelsey and thanks for your wise thoughts.

Chris M. says:

Maybe he’s back on the drugs and needs money. You’d have to be on drugs to either make or accept such an offer.

Bourse impressionnant, ideal vendeur merci ! !

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