In an increasingly crowded book market, controversy is perhaps the surest way to garner instant publicity. And James Frey knows that better than most. After all, this is the notorious author of A Million Little Pieces - the 2003 "memoir" of drug abuse and addiction that was later revealed as fiction, leading Oprah Winfrey to very publicly berate Frey for duping his readers. It's now sold over five million copies worldwide, despite a reprint with an apology and an admission that it wasn't entirely true.
Now a new Frey project has been making headlines for the wrong reasons. Full Fathom Five is the name for his new writers' "factory", in which Frey and the unpublished authors he recruits come up with ideas for highly commercial books. They then work on them together, the intention being to use Frey's contacts to sell the finished product to publishers or - and this is where the real money lies - film studios. It's a method of working inspired by Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst's studios: where the artist might have the initial idea but doesn't necessarily create much - if anything - of the final work.
And while Full Fathom Five might sound like the evocative name for a band of superheroes, some in the American literary world are instead casting Frey as a money-grabbing baddie who exploits youthful talent. The writers reportedly receive only a $250 advance, with another $250 on completion of the book. Frey also promises 30 per cent of any possible future revenue, rising to 40 per cent if the author came up with the original idea.
But if it works, it has the potential (at least in the eyes of the budding young writer struggling to get published) to really work. Full Fathom Five's first success story came when Frey approached Jobie Hughes in 2008 with an idea for a series of young-adult books called Lorien Legacies, about aliens who are forced from their home planet and live on Earth in the form of teenagers. Hughes expanded the idea into the first book, I Am Number Four, with assistance from Frey, agreeing to the 30 per cent deal. And when DreamWorks came calling for the film rights, it also sparked a publishing war. To date, I Am Number Four has been published in 44 countries.
So what's not to like? Suzanne Mozes, an author with direct experience of Full Fathom Five, admitted in New York Magazine earlier this month to an "adrenaline rush" when Frey announced his plans to her group of creative writing students. "We were desperate to get published any way we could," she said - and Frey certainly provides that opportunity. What Mozes - and Hughes - soon learned, though, was that the contracts are, to say the least, contentious.
Look at the sleeve of I Am Number Four, and it doesn't have Hughes's (or, admittedly, Frey's) name on the cover. It's written by a "Pittacus Lore" - and Hughes, a writer hopeful of a career in the industry, cannot speak about the success of the book he wrote without permission. In fact, Full Fathom Five could use Hughes's pseudonym even if he wasn't writing the Lorien Legacies books anymore, and Frey's company retains full creative control and copyright of all the work published. There's even a system of fines if the writer breaks the terms. Finally, of course, if the finished book isn't sold or isn't successful, the author will have earned a pittance.
A publishing lawyer told New York Magazine that he had never seen a contract like it in his 16 years of negotiations, and in the end, Hughes became so dissatisfied at not being able to talk about his own book, he hired a lawyer and extricated himself from Full Fathom Five.
For his own part, Frey told the Guardian this week that he was "running a business in a highly litigious society. The contract is simply designed to protect Full Fathom Five and our partners like DreamWorks." He admits that some books will not have the author's real names credited, to enhance the literary device, but believes the system of payment based on actual revenue encourages writers to fashion better books. Certainly, the inference that Frey is running some sort of literary sweat shop has annoyed him.
"I know I'm the bad boy of American literature, but that's not what this is about. I'm doing this because I love books," he said.
Frey also says Full Fathom Five was inspired by the success of Harry Potter and Twilight- both wonderful series. Both were, however, singular visions from a writer completely dedicated to a deep, lasting story - not a product of a writing group focused on making money.
Time will tell whether the books produced by Full Fathom Five will enjoy the same level of success.