Friday, 19 November 2010

I Am Number Four, Full Fathom Five and Children's Book Packaging

The ash from the fire has settled. Full Fathom Five has been well and truly burned.

I know this is a bit late for the Full Fathom Five debate, but I'm a bit distressed that the argument has been so one-sided and wonder if there's something wrong with me because, the more and more I've read about it, the more and more I want to--in some respects--defend James Frey. (Please don't kill me too.) I want to give him credit for his commercial business concepts. Put down you're weapons and hear me out! I think he has some good ideas, but the execution of these ideas is where Full Fathom Five falls apart.

Normally, in packaging, authors are paid for what they do. When I worked in children's packaging, if a book was proposed to be 50,000 words, then the company wrote about a 40,000 word concept proposal. A proposal would include one-line synopsis, series synopsis, background information, principal character outlines, key series qualities, similar titles, book-by-book outline for each in the series and chapter-by-chapter outline for the book being written. It's a lot of information and a lot of work, and this allows a packager to say with integrity that the copyright is well and truely theirs. This might be the thing that bothers me the most about Full Fathom Five. While James Frey seems to have come up with the general idea for I Am Number Four, it doesn't appear that he fleshed it out like other packagers:
"Frey handed him a one-page write-up of the concept, and Hughes developed the rest of the outlined narrative. Frey’s idea was a series called “The Lorien Legacies,” about nine Loric aliens who were chased from their home planet by evil Mogadorians and are living on Earth in the guise of teenagers." (source: NYMag)
That said, he apparently did enough to sell the book to a film company before it was even written. Which confuses me a little. Either way, the whole project then ended up being a very collaborative effort between the film makers, Full Fathom Five and Jobie Hughes. So, in the end, who owns it? More than that, I think there's something terribly wrong about Frey's numbers. Here is what NYMag says about author payments:
"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."
Frey: right idea, wrong numbers. You're aiming at YA. These manuscripts are going to be minimum 50k words, though I would expect more in the region or 60k-80k as you're probably not interested in contemporary, which tends to run a bit shorter on word count. Authors are world building and creature creating and that requires page space. $250-$500 for a manuscript? I don't even want to think of what that is on an hourly rate, especially if Frey wants anything close to a decent manuscript. Frey further argues that the author's income is built into the royalties. I would still say give them more up front, and less royalties or take it against royalties if you need to--publishers do it. 60k words, that's over a month's work, more when you haven't fully developed the concept.

If I were the in charge of Full Fathom Five, I would do it this way (sorry peeps, I'm working in GBP, not USD--you can convert (£1=$1.6):

I believe that an author should be able to write 300 words every half hour, take a half hour off, then write another 300 words, and so on and so forth. If you did this over an 8 hour day, you get 2,400 words a day or 12,000 words a week. So, the big question: what should a new, unpublished author make? £30k a year? Sounds good to me, especially if you're with a company that will give you more work AND you're receiving royalties. That should come to about £600 a week. So for a short 8k word book, I would give them a weeks wages at £600 plus royalties at, say 15%. Does that seems fair? So for a 60k word book, you'd be looking to work for 5 weeks at £3,000, plus 15% royalties. It's not a lot, but it also not bad! If I owned Full Fathom Five, the intellectual property would always be from the company, meaning I don't think I could rationalize paying an author much more, that is unless it was an established author (but then, why would they be writing for me anyway?). It's Full Fathom Five's concept, or is it?

This is what NYMag has to say regarding Full Fathom Five and author liability:

"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."
No! If the concept is well and truly the property of the company, they are responsible. Full stop! Here the lines of ownership are really getting blurry. That's the whole point, isn't it? To own the property? That what Full Fathom Five has created is theirs, the good and the bad. Frey, poor form that you are trying to have the author's cake and eat it too. That said, I don't see anything wrong with a pseudonym, especially if the series is likely to be written by several different authors.

Children's Book Packaging is not new and pseudonyms are the norm. This isn't anything new and I can pretty much guarantee you've read books that were created in this way. Children's publishers (I could list a number that I've worked with) develop concepts in house and then outsource the writing. It's a common practice and I think it's ridiculous that anyone, especially authors, would turn their nose up at this. These books are a guaranteed income for the publisher. They basically fund the publishers' creative endeavors: taking on new authors, trying out new media, experimenting in other genres, etc etc. So, don't bite the hand that feeds you!

But when concepts are developed in the way that Full Fathom Five does, it get's difficult to say who the author is. The creator? The writer? The person at the who thought of the awesome plot point that took the series from great to awesome? Maybe the editor at the publishing house should get a by-line too. Now, for I Am Number Four, it seems like Frey has gone about this completely wrong considering the author's heavy involvement with the project from the development stage. But, in general, packaging does have a clear creator that is the packager itself. Packaging... Right idea Frey, wrong (and fuzzy) application of it.

Frey focuses on collaboration and teaches authors about commercial writing. Frey seems to do a one-on-one master class on writing commercial fiction. This is fine, but when Frey has authors sign away rights to their own work for tuppence? That's just wrong. Look, if Frey wanted to charge an author for a manuscript or concept review, then that's great. I think there's a lot that young authors can learn from successful seasoned veterans. Or, if he wanted to buy the concept from the author and then develop it further himself. That's also fine. It would then be between Frey and creator to determine a price. Or, if he wanted to hire the author to work for him as an employee and develop series for a living, that's fine too. But his approach to acquiring these concepts really rubs me the wrong way. Right idea Frey, wrong practice.

I'm just not sure Frey fully understands what it means to create intellectual property. The integrity of IP is actually the major thing I struggled with when working at a packager, but in a different way that I struggle with Frey claiming rights to IP that he hasn't fairly developed or paid for. There are some things that you just can't do in packaging with integrity. When an author is writing their own work, things happen, plots change and characters evolve in ways you didn't expect in the development process. As you're putting pen to paper, things just happen and when you're writing for yourself, they're allowed to happen. But an author, writing from a packager's brief, no matter how sensational their ideas might be, they can not appear in the book. To wander away from the concept is to add to an intellectual property that isn't yours. It's a shame, but it's the only way packaging works.

What's so wrong with being market focused? Film and series... that's where the big bucks are; it would be irresponsible if they were ignored! James Frey says that he focuses on series that are easy to translate to film. For one, film is where authors go from just paying the bills to becoming properly uber-wealthy scribes. So why is everyone against the approach that a company would create series books (which have a better long term return) that are film friendly (where good profit can be made)?

And as for those who criticize the 'fiction factory' approach? It's what I like to call market awareness. I don't understand those who poo-poo this approach and call it a 'fiction factory'. Publishers are doing the same thing: they call it looking to fill a gap.

As I've said: Writing is an art, but publishing is a business. I think some of James Frey's ideas are spot on, but his execution of his ideas seems to be hanging both him and his company.

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