James Frey (author of A Million Little Pieces, the controversial non-memoir) is at it again.

A massive best seller, I Am Number Four, was created in his teen book factory, Full Fathom Five. It has already earned him a whole lot of money and a good number of enemies, neither of which seems to ruffle his teflon feathers.

Full Fathom Five‘s brief is to develop highly commercial, high concept novels for the YA market. Frey pays his writers a standard $250 advance + 30% of any profits generated by the work (the contract includes punitive clauses ranging from $50,000-$250,000 if the writer behaves in ways that Frey considers undermining to his empire), using creative writing students as cheap labor to churn out commercial books, and retaining the right to remove an author from a project at any time.

Anna Godbersen’s The Luxe series and the Gossip Girl series, I’m told, came about via similar ideas factories.

Now. I believe strongly in the free market and readers’ rights to read whatever they choose. Many of these high-concept factory books are very popular. And I know publishers and booksellers are struggling like mad, desperately trying to support “quality” books with the sale of celebrity biographies and the like.

But just because kids will scarf down a diet of chicken McNuggets, do we want to be the people selling them?

And wouldn’t some of the energy that goes into creating android books be better spent promoting the real thing — whether it be Twilight (like it or not, it was written by an actual person), The Hare With Amber Eyes, or my recent favourite, Go The *@!!£$%* To Sleep — a picture book for adults which is number one on the best seller list and won’t even be released till June.

Genuine innovation. Now there’s a novel idea.

(Read more about Mr Frey’s factory here.)



13 thoughts on “You’ve heard of battery chickens, meet factory books.

  1. francesca simon 8 years ago

    Meg! This is obviously where we’ve gone wrong! I’m converting my kitchen to a writing factory immediately!

  2. Kathryn Evans 8 years ago

    I think book packagers have a place but I find this ( and ‘celebrity’ books) profoundly depressing. I know a lot of unpublished writers whose manuscripts are streets ahead of some ‘commercial’ fiction but who just can’t make the break through – I’m lucky to have a supportive agent but when the market is swamped with these things it does get you down. The upside is – when a new writer does emerge – the standard of writing can be wonderful – I just take a look at the Bransford Boase list when I need cheering up….

    P.S. I don’t think anyone could accuse Meg Rosoff or Francesca Simon of going wrong….to quote my local Waterstone ‘oh yes, Meg Rosoff does very well for us’…;O)

  3. K M Lockwood 8 years ago

    I think he’s got a cheek nicking off with a line from Shakespeare and the title of one of the great Robert Westall’s books too. Never fear, quality will out – the best of us are quirky, wonky and free range with our ideas.
    Forward the Organic Writers’ Brigade!

  4. Amanda 8 years ago

    Hooray for the Organic Writers brigade. I’m a footsoldier in it for sure… Never catch me writing a “Katie the Royal Wedding Fairy” (Real Tween Book I kid thee not)
    And anyway, everyone knows that factory bred books aren’t as disease resistant as free range classics. Or as nutrient dense.

  5. Kirsten Baron 8 years ago

    There’s an interesting leap between pages 1 and 2: Frey wants to be extreme, radical, create new forms, not write anything that doesn’t change the world (page 1) – and he wants to oversee the mass production of purely commercial bestsellers. Cake, having & eating of?

    I wish I could believe that ‘quality will out’… but let’s face it, ever since the industrial revolution, humanity has been heading for this glorious time, the Age of Trash. Best one can do is to sit it out.

  6. Tamzin 8 years ago

    I think the Rainforest Alliance should also get onto this Frey character, because he seems to be responsible for the senseless deaths of quite a large number of trees.

  7. Rhubarb 8 years ago

    There is some serious cognitive dissonance going on when someone sees himself as a bad boy art rebel game changer for hiring college students to do work-for-hire mass market alien books. Just sayin.

    1. Meg 8 years ago

      Might have to agree with you there.

  8. MaryWitzl 8 years ago

    I read about this a few months ago; my first thought was that it was a joke. Honestly, how soulless and depressing these books sound — the equivalent of literature plywood, or Spam. I bet they’ll catch on like nobody’s business and make Frey a fortune. Another fortune, that is.

  9. faith 8 years ago

    If it’s any consolation, the book was terrible. But there is a market for it. Although when I think about all the books I read last year, I can barely remember the plot of this one. I also read the first Luxe and Gossip Girl book (YA librarian’s job, right?). Can barely remember the plots of either of those too.

    So maybe the question is, is it better to be known for writing something memorable (or worth remembering) or something that will make you (maybe) rich?

  10. Maria 8 years ago

    Shades of Roald Dahl’s ‘The Great Automatic Grammatizator’. Scary stuff!

    I second Kirsten – sit it out – and Tamzin.

    1. Meg 8 years ago

      YOu’re the second person who’s mentioned that!

  11. Elise 8 years ago

    To play devil’s advocate for a moment… These are still books by real writers and giving writing students a break, right? That people want to read… I think we’re mixing our markets here. Lots of people love crappy books, and lots love great books. I think there’s a spot for all of us, especially if these kids get to love escaping into a book (a book!)… It’s up to book sellers then to help them develop their tastes.

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