Full Fathom Five & Why I Boycott Their Books

Posted January 31, 2014 by Debby in Columns / 64 Comments

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You’re probably thinking, “What the hell kind of post is this Debby? What’s Full Fathom Five? Why should I care?” Well that’s what I want to address in this post. Full Fathom Five irks the hell out of me, so I want to raise awareness about why that is. FFF is James Frey’s packaging company. You might know about James Frey. He wrote a “memoir” A Million Little Pieces which was later exposed as being largely fabricated. This led to a series of dramatic encounters with Oprah. He also recently got a $2 million dollar book deal for a book that is unquestionably a major rip off of The Hunger Games, which also received $2 million dollars for the movie rights. Uh. No.

But you may know him better as one half of the pseudonym Pittacus Lore, author of The Lorien Legacies (I Am Number Four and its sequels). This series marked the start of Full Fathom Five. He recruited Jobie Hughes, an aspiring writer, and suggested they team up to write this story about aliens landing on Earth. Hughes went along with it, hoping that this would be his chance to break into the publishing world. Instead, he got handed a set of frustrating conditions, including a confidentiality agreement where he could never admit to being attached to the project. After screaming matches on the phone concerning the draft of the second book, The Power of Six, and the lack of rights, Hughes walked away from the project. Call it creative differences. (Let it be noted that all my liking for the series also died after the first book; of course, I was reading them before I knew anything about FFF.)

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. Source
Now, you can probably get an idea there about why exactly this company pisses me off so much. Full Fathom Five has been referred to as James Frey’s author sweatshop, and I can’t help but feel like that’s a very accurate description. The same article from the quote above has an interesting story about an aspiring author who went to Full Fathom Five and her experiences there. Basically, James Frey comes off as quite the prickly little boss.

The Authors Guild got back to me with serious concerns over the contract. Anita Fore, its director of legal services, suggested that I attempt to negotiate if I wanted to go ahead and sign with Full Fathom Five. I later spoke to Conrad Rippy, a veteran publishing attorney, who explained that the contract given to me wasn’t a book-packaging contract; it was “a collaboration agreement without there being any collaboration.” He said he had never seen a contract like this in his sixteen years of negotiation. “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.” He described it as a Hollywood-style work-for-hire contract grafted onto the publishing industry—“although Hollywood writers in a work-for-hire contract are usually paid more than $250.” Source
Also the company tries everything to make a book-to-movie adaptation as likely and appealing as possible (which may or may not be a bad thing – up to you). Everything is about commercialism and profit potential.

He encouraged me to start imagining product placement—“think Happy Meals”—because merchandise is where you make money in these deals. He mentioned the Mogadorian swords in I Am Number Four, which were described with unusual specificity. “We added that after Spielberg told us he needed stuff to sell.” Source
I don’t want to go on for too long about this stuff because well, who reads long posts, and I dislike giving myself an aneurysm. But there’s a lot of information out there about James Frey’s questionable ethics and his author sweatshop, so you may want to just go out and search and educate yourselves. The way I see it, when you buy Full Fathom Five books, you’re hardly supporting the authors – you’re lining James Frey’s pockets and giving him more and more power and standing. I don’t want to do that. I’m not blaming authors for working for him, because I understand that publishing can be tough, and you may want to do whatever you can do to put your name out there, but my money will go elsewhere.

Known Full Fathom Five Books

On Goodreads, Christina made a Listopia list of Full Fathom Five books. It’s hard to find out exactly which books they put out, but if you hunt well enough through publishing deal announcements, you can find them. So these are books I will absolutely not be reading. Ever. I will not give them an ounce of promotion, and this is the first and last time they will be mentioned on this blog. I’m not saying you’re not allowed to read these, or that you shouldn’t. That’s entirely up to you. But now you know exactly where they’re coming from, and where your money is going.

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As a final note: this company, Full Fathom Five, doesn’t even have a website. It doesn’t proudly display which books are theirs. So if that doesn’t tell you that something’s not right, I don’t know what will. In any case, I’m thinking it means that they know that if they do publicly display their books, they won’t sell as well. Another logical business decision. Mitigate the risk. Secretly pull the puppet strings from within the murky shadows. Well played.

EDIT: As of August 2014, FFF does now have a website.

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64 responses to “Full Fathom Five & Why I Boycott Their Books

  1. Wow.

    This is a fantastic post. I had never heard of any of this stuff, certainly not James Frey or FFF. I’m really thankful that it has been brought to my attention.

    I can imagine how easy it is for some people to take advantage of new authors. As somebody that hopes to break through one day myself I can’t say whether or not I would accept this sort of deal, if it meant my book was out there! It’s tough when you are in this for the passion of writing, rather than just to make a quick buck. So I can see why people agree. But absolutely, more people should be aware of this stuff!!
    Natalie recently posted Writing Tips for Young Writers: #5My Profile

    • Yeah, I can get that. From what I’ve read in articles, however, many authors that do pitch their manuscripts to FFF and then get accepted to work together get tons of notes and critiques. If they decide not to make those changes, they can get dropped. So yeah =/ not sure the thing you’d put out at the end would be anything like you wanted it to be. And it definitely wouldn’t be yours – at least in a legal sense.

      I’m not a writer, at all, and when I hear about things like this, I’m relieved.

  2. I caught wind of this recently-I was pretty well shocked and appalled because I didn’t know this was going on. I’ll be skipping Dorothy Must Die and all of these. I attempted I am Number 4 but bailed pretty early on because I wasn’t enjoying it. I will continue to keep an eye out for which books are made like this and try to avoid them because the overall concept bothers me. Just feel so wrong. And UGH about his upcoming book! I’d not heard about it yet and that is such a rip off. How can that even fly? Ugh, plagiarism on the highest level.
    Kristen@My Friends Are Fiction recently posted Review of The Shadow Society by Marie RutkoskiMy Profile

    • Yeah, I didn’t know about this until a few months ago, but it is definitely disgusting. I am Number 4 was pretty entertaining but I would even say the movie was better. It was clearly aimed at cheap entertainment and commercialization.

      I’m keeping a close eye on the Listopia list and will probably start doing some digging of my own as well. I want to avoid all of these books as best as I can.

  3. Thanks for getting this out there, Debby. I bought a copy of So Close to You back before I knew about book packaging companies and it still sits on my shelf unread. I will get to it at some point, but this all does really leave a poor taste in my mouth. I am really sad about Dorothy Must Die though because I wanted to read it, but I won’t buy it. Hopefully the library I use will get a copy.
    Kara @ Great Imaginations recently posted Forgotten Fridays – And Then There Were None by Agatha ChristieMy Profile

  4. Huh … No One Else Can Have You. That’s interesting given the uproar over the last few days…

    I’m majorly bummed that Dorothy Must Die is a FFF title because I was looking forward to that one and now in good conscience don’t feel good about buying it.

    Great post Debby, and thanks for linking to Christina’s list because I had meant to go and bookmark that and forgot. It’s important for the bookish community to be informed of crap like this because most people won’t know or care. We at least can avoid hyping and promoting these books. *waves at Dorothy tearfully*
    Terri @ Starlight Book Reviews recently posted Book Chat: Your Go-To Pick Me UpsMy Profile

  5. Woaaaah. I’d never heard of this before and I’m glad you put up this post because I feel like I wouldn’t have ever really known about it otherwise.
    It’s strange because while I thought the first book in the I Am Number Four series was not bad, the books really seemed to decline in quality as the series went on (stopped reading at book three) and I guess I now know the reason why. And there was definitely a sort of “ready for movie” vibe about them (possibly because there was a lot of telling and not much showing). Well now I’m definitely not going to continue with the series.
    Nara recently posted February FlailageMy Profile

  6. While I do agree that James Frey’s actions with both his “memoir” and publishing company are appalling, I think it’s also important to remember that if we don’t buy/check out/read these books, we’re essentially boycotting these authors as well. I don’t know that the authors are at fault here, especially some of the debut authors like Danielle Paige and Kathleen Hale, but I think it’s very important to support new authors. It seems to me that there must be a better way of getting the message to James Frey and his company that doesn’t also hurt the authors.
    Shayna recently posted Feature & Follow: Book Spine PoetryMy Profile

  7. Awesome post Debby! I’ve heard things here and there about this company and I definitely don’t agree with their business practices. The trick is figuring out which books they write, so thanks for the link to the Listopia list! Fortunately, I’ve so far not been intrigued by anything they’ve put out, so that makes things easy too 😉
    Anya recently posted Sci-fi and Fantasy Friday {SF/F Reviews and Giveaways}My Profile

  8. I’m trying to understand how this works… So FFF actually recruits authors trying to make into the business and then sells their books to publishers (it looks like the vast majority go to HarperCollins)? Are these authors going into these deals without agents? I’m just curious as a writer who is hoping to pursue publication in the future. From what I’ve heard, good agents are life-saving in the publication process, and one who has your best interest at heart I don’t think would let you sign a contract that sounds as bad as the ones referenced. And changes are inevitable when your getting your novel published, but everything is done to enhance the story, or it’s supposed to be. If the edits aren’t going to improve your story, you don’t agree to the deal. Anyhow, I’m just trying to understand since I’ve never heard of this company or a packaging company in general.
    acps927 recently posted Round Up: The Secret Diary, Super Bowl, and The HobbitMy Profile

  9. Oh my god I had no idea things like this actually happened? I knew that there were ghost writers, but I didn’t think it was this bad! This is horrendous! To be honest, only $250 to write a whole book and let someone else sell it off as their own? I don’t think that’s fair, imo.

    Also, when I saw that list of books that were through FFF, I might’ve cried a little on the inside. I was reading the Lorien Legacies! All I had to do was read the latest book :l And I own Eat, Brains, Love. Of course, I got bored halfway through and gave up, but I was going to finish it eventually. (I think I still will. The review won’t exactly be favorable. My friend read my copy and said the ending sucked.) And I wanted to read Dorothy Must Die so much.

    Yeah, not so much anymore.

    Thank you so much for this post! (:
    I’m glad I know now.

    T
    Tori @ YA Book Queens recently posted Maya’s Review: Uglies (Uglies #1) by Scott WesterfeldMy Profile

  10. Funnily enough, as I was going through my to-read shelf on GR the other day (I’m trying to remove all the ones I’m not interested in anymore), most of these books (the ones you showed)were on there. Even funnier, I deleted them because they didn’t appeal to me anymore. I’ll definitely be bookmarking that Listopia page, though, because I don’t want to support this. Do I want to support the author? Yes. But I don’t want to support this entity – it’s not right.

  11. I was never a fan of I am Number Four, but I always had it on my mind to go back and give it another go. Little did I know that Pittacus Lore was him! No Once Else Can Have You’s inclusion makes me snort because only recently she dissed reviewers and bloggers. I don’t want to contribute to his ‘sweatshop’ but I really want to read Dorothy Must Die.
    Stuti recently posted Half Bad (Half Life #1)My Profile

  12. I saw James Frey’s movie and book deals and I couldn’t believe he would get 2 million for both deals. Like, don’t these people see it is so clearly a Hunger Games rip-off? I don’t get them wanting to publish it at all.

    But besides that, I’m so not going to support him EVER by buying any of the FFF books, because of his bad business practices. I don’t understand authors would even want to go sign with him! Like you mentioned before, they can do whatever they want with your book, your idea, even your name. If you’re signing just because you love your story so much, who knows what James Frey will do it and maybe you won’t even recognize it as your own story. Just no.

    I’m keeping a close eye on the GR list so I’ll now which books NOT to buy. I do hope it will become easier to spot which books are from FFF. I would be really bad if I buy a book and read and love it, and then to later find out it’s from FFF. I dread this happening. Great post and thanks for explaining about this topic!
    Kim @ The Nomadic Book Hoarder recently posted Review: GracelingMy Profile

  13. Those practices are absolutely horrifying. Thank you so much for this post, Debby. I only heard about Full Fathom Five and James Frey during the Kathleen Hale Twitter controversy, and it’s been quite difficult getting to the bottom of it all, but this post has really explained everything about it. I’ll be bookmarking that Listopia — these are definitely not books I want to support.
    Nikki @ The Paper Sea recently posted Book Review: AllegiantMy Profile

  14. I honestly had NO idea about this. Like I’m seriously sitting here, jaw dropping as I read all the information about Full Fathom Five that you’ve included in this blog post! It really makes me sad, as I’m a fan of the The Lorien Legacies. To hear about what happened with that series simply breaks my heart, and makes me wary of wanting to continue on with reading it (even though I’m dying to know what happens). So sad 🙁
    Alexa S. recently posted A January 2014 RetrospectiveMy Profile

  15. Wow… this was incredibly eye opening. I knew about the drama around his memoir and I knew he was the second half of Pittucus Lore, but I had zero idea about his book packaging company. It’s a terrible way to treat authors. I will still be reading No One Else Can Have You, as I have it for review but it’s such a shame. I think the authors are going to get even more of a disservice because people won’t want to read their books now… so sad. I will be keeping that Listopia list on hand. Thanks for sharing this information Debby!

  16. I was really happy that when i heard of this, I wasn’t a fan of the series because I would be so conflicted over it. It’s hard to deal with something like a scandal when you’re already so invested in the series.

    And now I just feel so bad for all the authors that signed with him. The first thing to think about is that James Frey is a total cheater, and so boycott the books, but I just really feel bad for all the other writers. They’re in such a conflict, and I can’t really blame them, because it’s like almost all of those books are being published by Harper. How can a new budding writer resist a book deal?

    I also want to ask Harper Teen if they know anything about this. Can’t we do anything about this? Isn’t this against the law or something?
    Shannelle C. recently posted Gayle Forman Book Signing!My Profile

    • You’re welcome! Yeah, I agree, I wish it was easier to know, but meh, they’re hiding themselves for a reason. =| It’s like a nightmare of mine that one day I’ll order a book and then when I open it, I’ll suddenly see Full Fathom Five. ugh.

  17. I’d never heard of this before. I knew of a scandal surrounding a ‘memoir’ but hadn’t pieced it all together, and it wouldn’t surprise me if loads more people didn’t know of this either. I was planning to read Dorothy Must Die but I’m boycotting all books by FFF. This is ridiculous and I feel pretty disgusted actually that this can go on, one thing was right in his ‘memoir’ anyway, he’s definitely a ‘criminal’. Thanks for sharing, I’ll be doing a post on this issue soon, I think the more who know the better.
    Rachel recently posted The Danger of the “Assumption”My Profile

  18. Thank you so much for bringing up this topic!

    James Frey totally deserves to be in the spotlight now so the public will be fully aware of what he’s doing and how his actions are greatly affecting the literary world! It’s so unfortunate to hear about the actions of this and I hope that one day…he’ll get exactly what he deserves!

    AGain awesome topic!
    Elyssa Marie recently posted Sunday Post (13)My Profile

  19. Thanks for this article, I saw on various sites that people where talking about Dorothy Must Die and how it was an Full Fathom Five book, but what that held, not much was said. Now I totally understand what it is about. Ugh it sucks, Though that might explain the quality of the books. I tried a few books on that list of yours and let’s just say… blergh/boring/nope. I will be avoiding the rest on the list. Thanks so much, my reading list is happy. 🙂

    It is also quite shocking that authors are selling their soul/signing up for this kind of deal. I can imagine you want your book published and all that, but isn’t there a better way? A better thing? And can’t we, like, well do something about this?

    Thanks so much again, now I know all about the FFF and that Frey guy (didn’t even know him, though I know enough authors who publish books and claim they are memoirs or autobiographies and those claims turn out to be not true).

  20. Nooo! I already read one of these. I’d heard of this company and its shady dealings, and thought I was safe by just giving I Am Number Four a pass.

    Eat, Brains, Love was pretty weak (and derivative… and now I know why; can they not come up with any original ideas?). At least I didn’t love it and give it a glowing review or anything. And I got it from the library, so they didn’t get any of my money!

    With the ease of self-publishing today, I’m baffled as to why any author would sell their literary soul to sign up with such a company.
    La Coccinelle recently posted Top Ten Tuesday – Top Ten Books About FriendshipMy Profile

  21. I had no idea about the Eat Brains love being one. That was okay . Yeah I remember the whole blow up with Oprah. I am not a fan and try not to read books by his team 🙁 and I disliked No one else can have you …thanks for getting this out there.
    julie@m5monkeys recently posted Guy in Real lifeMy Profile

  22. I had no idea about the controversy until I saw a review for Dorothy Must Die on YouTube. I was very much looking forward to reading this as I love the Wizard of Oz movie – and have several adaptations. That was until I watched bookishandnerdy’s “Discussion:DMD & FFF”. I am disgusted that someone can, and legally it seems, take advantage of writers this way. And the fact that they don’t even have a website that you can go to to see what books they handle just proves how dodgy they must be.

    It’s a real shame as the reviews I’ve seen rated DMD as a great read. But as I don’t want to support this company in any way, shape or form, it looks like I will be forgoing the pleasure.

  23. Jessica

    I feel bad specifically for the authors. I don’t think they exactly know what they are getting into even if there are contracts. Also I know how desperate authors are to see their names in print and I think it is unfair how badly they are treated. The author of Dorothy Must Die is apparently a really nice person and I think it is sad that she could get fined thousands of dollars just for admitting being a part of the FFF without their permission ( I have a feeling they probably try to fine her thousands of dollars if she spoke about the company as anything but positive even if she did have permission to talk about working with the company). I wish there was a way to buy books from the authors without giving money to the publishing company and James Frey somehow. I wish there was also a way to help the authors to get better deals because It sounds to me they are sort of stuck, especially if they are a part of a series of books. Like they want to make a living doing what they love, they are just stuck in the wrong part of the business. That is really upsetting to me.

  24. Sorry guys, I can’t put my name on this post because I’m currently in talks with FFF because they want to publish some of my self-published titles. However something wasn’t sitting right with me from my first correspondence and although they continue to create a positive image to me, everything I am finding online along with some of the information they are trying to gloss over in their response to my questions makes it clear that I should run before any contracts are sent to me. There is no advance and I have to pay ‘some production expenses’? Hmmm…thanks, already did that when I self-published. Thanks for bringing all this to my attention.

    • Thank you for your bravery in speaking up anyway. Most of my sources are a few years old, so I don’t know if FFF’s policies have changed, but I would say tread carefully and consider having a lawyer look over the deal in detail before you sign anything.

  25. Wow thank so much for telling me about this. I’ve heard many dodgy things about him and the company. I met him and he said that he’d be interested in my manuscript. I emailed him and he told me to send my novel to him but I have no idea whether or not to. Help would be welcome. Thanks!
    Sama recently posted Noggin by John Corey Whaley REVIEWMy Profile

  26. During one of the pitch days (#pitmad, #pitchmas, #adpit) I received a favorite from an agency. After I submitted I received an email stating they were moving away from representing fiction. But, my piece would be perfect for Full Fathom Five. I did my homework and chatted with others and decided not to move forward. But, it’s worrisome that agents are nudging unpublished/unagented writers to FFF. I guess the hope is that our desire to be published outweighs our common sense.
    Kristin recently posted GoldMy Profile

  27. Wow… This blog is quite the eye-opener! We just submitted a YA SF series to FFF and now I don’t know whether to pull it outright or to wait to hear back from them. I think we’ll just continue submitting the manuscript to other publishers. Thanks for the heads up.

  28. I bough the book Dorothy Must Die, used, and my readers expects a review. This suck because this book is so loved by the readers. I already have the book so I will read it and review it but I will leave the link of this post and will recommend everyone that wants to buy it to buy it used from someone else.

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