Suzanne Mozes, a second-year writing student in Columbia’s School of the Arts, was one step away from being hired to write the next “Twilight” or “Harry Potter.”
Bestselling author James Frey, known for his controversial fabricated memoir “A Million Little Pieces,” has another skeleton to add to his closet—the fiction factory known as Full Fathom Five, which Mozes exposed in a recent article in New York Magazine. The publishing company run by Frey hires dozens of MFA writing students in the hopes that one of them will produce the next hot work of young adult fiction. Mozes was on board to join the team until tense negotiations prevented her from working out a contract with Full Fathom Five.
Since the publication of Mozes’ article, there has been a wave of newspaper articles and blog posts about Frey’s venture, with many concluding that the Full Fathom Five contracts are exploitative.
Although writers involved in Full Fathom Five can hope to receive 30 to 40 percent of their books’ profits, once a student completes a manuscript, the company can use the writer’s name without permission in the future. Writers are also subject to a $50,000 penalty if they reveal ties to the publishing house. But what’s the real cost for students trying to enter an industry in which there are no guarantees?
There is a basic belief that writers should receive credit where credit is due. However, Mozes said that it is a mistake to view the MFA students of Full Fathom Five as pure victims. People may assume “that these writers are innocent lambs, and frankly, they might be, but likely they’re smart individuals,” she said. “You’ve got to risk big to play big.” The lure of cooperating with Frey to potentially deliver a profitable novel definitely qualifies as playing big.
Indeed, the young writers are taking quite a gamble in getting involved with Full Fathom Five. What is perhaps most concerning about the operation is that, when a writer signs on a contract’s dotted line, Full Fathom Five effectively reserves the right to exploit his or her name brand.
“Twenty years down the line, if I’m a bestselling author, Full Fathom Five can capitalize off of that at any point in the future,” Mozes said. The publishing house can reprint an entire book series under a writer’s name while he or she has no connection to it, just because of the contract’s fine print. “The contract being offered isn’t protecting the writer—it’s protecting Full Fathom Five,” she said.
While Mozes managed to avoid the complications of becoming involved with Full Fathom Five, Jobie Hughes, SoA ’09, was not quite as lucky. Hughes joined Full Fathom Five and co-wrote the hit sci-fi novel “I Am Number Four” with Frey under a pseudonym. The film rights to the book were sold to Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay, who produced a DreamWorks movie version set for release in February. Hughes’ contract, however, prohibited him from identifying himself as an author of “I Am Number Four,” and recently, he broke away from the project after a legal dispute with Frey. It was a bittersweet success.
The perpetual intern
So why would a writer like Mozes hope to join Frey’s fiction mill and offer to pen a work only to have his or her control over its authorship stripped away?
“To fund my art,” Mozes said. “It’s a constant stream of income that would allow me to really work on my first narrative nonfiction book.” It also helps with covering tuition, which Mozes described as “like a Verizon bill and heating bill that I’ll have for a long time.” All this, of course, assumes that the book written for Full Fathom Five would be successful in the first place.
For students, it’s interesting to note the similarities between the way Full Fathom Five and many unpaid college internships operate. In both cases, students often work for little to no pay in the short term and submit the fruits of their labor to a higher power without necessarily receiving proper credit for their work.
However, Mozes noted important differences between Frey’s company and unpaid internships. “Internships are about picking up the tricks of the trade,” she said. “You don’t get that with Frey. … You don’t understand how his packaging business is working. There’s no transparency.” The no-nonsense and all-business character of Full Fathom Five comes at the expense of the valuable mentorship expected in a legitimate internship.
Before considering joining Full Fathom Five, Mozes endured her fair share of unpaid internships, which gave her a taste of different aspects of the publishing industry. “I had interned at a newspaper, book publisher, and magazines before deciding that I would go into magazines,” she said. “Sometimes you’re just taken advantage of for slave labor, and sometimes you’re valued as a prized resource.”
Students involved in Frey’s operation or unpaid internships generally hope to further their budding careers, but success is never a sure thing. Yet, the companies that employ students are also gambling in a way. Mozes noted that, especially in the publishing world, many companies—including Full Fathom Five—attempt to attract fresh faces and experiment with the innovative ideas of industry newcomers. It’s a two-way street: Publishing companies use novel entrepreneurial models and place their bets on the profitability of new talent, while students working for these companies hope to end up with jobs.
Mozes said, “I personally am trying to look at it as cowboys in the Wild West trying to strike it rich.”