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James Frey’s Fiction Factory

James Frey’s Fiction Factory

This recent article from New York Magazine, is a must-read account of how infamous author James (A Million Little Pieces) Frey is using college students to create an assembly line of novelists. The first major result, is I Am Number Four, a young adult novel that will have its film adaptation released in February. I Am Number Four is a supernatural teen thriller, constructed in a lab to resemble pieces of the Harry Potter and Twilight stories. The original novel is credited to a pseudonym: Pittacus Lore, who is really James Frey and newcomer Jobie Hughes. How did Frey and Hughes forge their forced but profitable partnership? According to this article, Frey has become known for scouting unsuspecting talents in the halls of New York colleges:

Hughes told me he first met Frey at an event at the Columbia film department in March 2008 and wrote him a fan letter afterward. He was smitten with A Million Little Pieces and Frey’s use of the RETURN key. Over e-mail, they developed a friendship. The following January, Frey approached him to co-author a young-adult novel—a commercial project he said he didn’t have time to write. “I remember Frey said he liked Hughes because he had been a high-school wrestler,” recalls Sara Davis, another student in the seminar, “so he knew he could take coaching and direction and had discipline.” Frey was also impressed that Hughes had actually finished a novel, called Agony at Dawn, about a twentysomething protagonist aspiring to literary greatness. Whether it was good wasn’t really the point; what mattered was that Hughes had demonstrated the ability to finish it.

When Frey asked him if he would be interested in working together, Hughes had every reason to say yes. He was looking to sell Agony at Dawn, and while he hadn’t enrolled in Columbia to become a genre writer, he figured that a relationship with Frey might deliver him into the arms of Eric Simonoff, Frey’s powerful literary agent.

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. Through early 2009, Hughes told me, he delivered three drafts of the first book, I Am Number Four, to Frey, who revised them and polished the final version. Hughes wrote the novel without any compensation and signed a contract, without consulting a lawyer, that specified that he would receive 30 percent of all revenue that came from the project. The book would be published under a pseudonym, and the contract stipulated that Hughes would not be allowed to speak publicly about the project or confirm his attachment to it. There was a $250,000 penalty Frey could invoke if Hughes violated his confidentiality terms.

Simonoff began circulating the manuscript as an anonymous collaboration between a New York Times best-selling author and a young up-and-coming writer. Publishing houses weren’t certain how to respond. Then, in June 2009, a bidding war ignited for the film rights, between J. J. Abrams and a joint proposal from Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay. Spielberg and Bay won, for a reported high-six-figure deal. This, in turn, sparked publishing interest, and HarperCollins won the book rights. Together, Frey and Hughes signed a four-book deal. Rights to I Am Number Four have since been sold in 44 countries, and, at last count, has been translated into 21 languages.

As you soon discover in this piece, though, this union would not remain civil.

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