On Boycotting and Full Fathom Five

James Frey Image

As someone who is relatively new to the world of book blogging, there are obviously many things about the publishing industry that I was unaware of, and have now been introduced to; the fact that BEA exists (and I will sadly never be able to go), the fact that NetGalley exists, and obviously the fact that this wonderful bookish community is available at my fingertips.

Recently, I read a post on Book.Blog.Bake that served to be a massive wake-up-call for me, and made me realise just how naive I, and I’m sure many others, can be…

“Book Packagers” are organisations that come up with an idea for a book and hire someone else to write them. These initial concepts are developed with the intention that they will be big commercial ideas and therefore a movie/TV Show/merchandise deal should be expected to follow, examples of this include Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries. Who knew?

Vampire Diaries TV Show

Certainly not me. I lived in a bubble where people wrote books, pitched them to a publisher, and if they were successful they became published authors. Now that I know book packagers exist I’d be interested to find out more about this type of publishing – what kind of deal do the author’s get? Do their follow-up novels have a greater chance of being published? How much of the story is theirs and how much is given to them by the book packager? How do they feel about publishing their work in this way?? Some initial reading seems to indicate that this is not a secretive, nor a sinister form of publishing, and both the companies and the individuals seem to do pretty well out of the deal.

This leads on to authors developing their own form of “Book Packaging” companies. Lauren Oliver has created the book packaging company Paper Lantern Lit, where authors “audition” to write for the company, and if successful develop the concepts that are assigned to them. Again, this doesn’t seem to be “wrong” in any way, and information on Paper Lantern Lit is readily available online. However, in the case of the author James Frey, the “book packaging” concept appears to have taken a turn for the worse…

James Frey (featured image) has already faced controversial backlash over his alleged fictional memoir, A Million Little Pieces. I haven’t read enough about him or his book to make a very informed statement, so I won’t. But he is the founder of Full Fathom Five. So what is Full Fathom Five, and why do I disagree with it?

Full Fathom Five have produced I Am Number Four, Eat Brains Love, Dorothy Must Die (which has been doing the rounds on the book blogosphere lately) and No One Else Can Have You. Searching the Internet for information on Full Fathom Five is fruitless, the company don’t have their own website (which in this day and age is a bit strange really) and discovering exactly which books have been released by them is a little tricky. Why so secretive? I would have a guess that the company is secretive due to the terrible terms and conditions the authors must sign in their contract, which include:

  • 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% if the idea was originally Frey’s, 40% 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.

Professional bodies and individuals with years of contractual experience commented that these contracts are not typical “book packaging” deals, that they are, “a collaboration agreement without there being any collaboration. 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.” 

Ultimately, the question is do we really care? And how much do we know about traditional publishing deals to know if Full Fathom Five’s methods are that unethical?

There was probably a time when readers wouldn’t have cared as much about this – partly because we wanted good stories and we aren’t, or weren’t, overly concerned about how we got them, and partly because before the Internet and mass digital communication we wouldn’t have known any better. I think the general consensus on this issue is that it is unethical and I know of many bloggers who are now choosing to boycott books released by Full Fathom Five, where they are known. This may seem unfair to the authors who are working for the company, but that is a choice they have made and similarly, the choice to boycott is up to each individual who uses their hard-earned cash to support the author/publisher releasing the book.

I think in the case of all “book packagers” there should be a visible disclosure or symbol on the front/back cover, or in the first few pages, that identifies the book as being from a book packager – that way the reader won’t feel cheated or misinformed and we will know where our favourite reads have come from. Being more open about this practice will dispel many doubts and concerns surrounding the issue. I also think that this would be fairer on those authors who do go through the slog of finding a publisher and who have generated the ideas for their books themselves, giving more credit where it is due.

Will I boycott books from Full Fathom Five? I’ll reserve my opinion until such times as more information becomes available. I do think the practices of this organisation could improve, but I won’t be rushing out to get my hands on the work of a company whose sole mission is to only produce stories with mass-commercial appeal while treating the creative developers involved so poorly, and treating their readers like idiots while they’re at it. However, I do plan to conduct some further research on James Frey and Full Fathom Five as I don’t feel I have enough information at the minute, and the issue seems to have taken a “snowball” effect since it has become a popular topic on blogs.

What are your views on Full Fathom Five and the practices of other Book Packagers? Were you aware of this previously? And do you plan to boycott?


About Rachel

Avid reader & #bookblogger. Lover of all things business. A fan of drinks & dancing. Ever optimistic. Feminist.

10 Responses

  1. Really interesting post. I hadn’t heard of book packaging before. But the thing about the contracts is: the authors CHOOSE to sign them. They’re not forced to publish they way. They may think they can’t get published any other way and decide this is the way to go. I don’t think the contracts are reasonable, but I don’t think it’s worth boycotting the books. If the author gets “famous” through one of these deals, they can use their name to sell their own books. It definitely has pros and cons, but if the author chooses to do it, I’m not going to boycott their book – that’s harming the author equally as much as the book packager.


  2. Their name is so tacky.

    Is this concept the same as ghost writing? Because I think I remember reading about I Am #4 being a product of such measures.

    But honestly, this type of stuff doesn’t really surprise me considering every single country in the world involves themselves in something similar even if it’s not creatively invested.
    So if it’s not at the top of the unethical food-chain, I don’t imagine myself giving devoting my time to spread potentially vile behaviour. Am I saying it’s practices lacking transparency is fine? No. But creative ingenuity or not, at the end of the day…money goes where money comes.

    Just my two cents–hope I didn’t come off as ignorant or anything though.

    joey via. thoughts and afterthoughts


      1. That’s fair. I think I’m just rather pessimistic about humanity constantly being a sheep that I’ve rather given up on basket cases that aren’t social equality driven.

        I haven’t read any of the books you mentioned despite even seeing the IA#4 movie–oh look, cash cows taking my money. Glad the movie was a bust though..?


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