The Value of Stories


We’ve talked before on this blog about the worth of the writer, and lamented about places that expect writers to provide content for little or no money, often trying to entice new writers with the idea of gaining clips and getting ‘exposure.’ Paper mills and content mills (like Helium) suck writers, desperate to be published and earn a living at writing, into their stables, often paying pennies or less.

Now comes James Frey (yes, he of “A Million Little Pieces” fame, famously scolded on national television by Oprah) with a new scam. If you haven’t already heard, he’s been trolling the MFA program at Columbia for his YA publishing venture, offering possibly the most ludicrous, shady contract ever seen to anyone who will sign on. There are three very fine blog posts about this already that I’ve read, from John Scalzi (which is still smoking, I think), and don’t miss his open letter to MFA writing programs, Maureen Johnson, and Sarah Rees Brennan, to which I can add nothing except many ‘Huzzahs!’

So why is it not ok to take these flaky contracts? Why should writers demand their fair share? Why not write for nothing while building a name, a brand, a portfolio?

More to the point, why SHOULD you? Rose Fox at Publishers’ Weekly’s Genreville said it best:

Stories are so important. If they weren’t, there wouldn’t be so many people trying to steal them.

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13 thoughts on “The Value of Stories

  1. Absolutely not. I think it’s a myth that writer’s must go hungry while they start out. Writing a skill, and there is no reason to give it away for free.

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    1. Hi Jessica,

      Thanks for coming by and your comment. Absolutely it’s a skill, that’s why they have MFA programs. It’s amazing to me how many so-called start-up magazines and e-zines will stipulate “We can’t pay you yet…” Well guess what, I can’t write for you yet, then, should be the response.

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  2. I’m speechless. I can’t even call James Frye the Devil because at least the Devil is a compelling character in his own right, but y’know the idea that somebody smart enough to get into Columbia would be dumb enough to sell his/her OWN NAME to a world-famous liar and crook like that is, well, stupefying. In a different context, my dad used to say “if your father can’t give you anything else, he gives you his name.” To piss it away like that, for a lousy couple of dollars and the vague promise of “more, maybe, under unspecified circumstances, if we feel like it, if you’ll absorb the legal expenses if anything goes wrong” … hell, I’d rather spend eternity like those weird guys who wander around urban neighborhoods, selling photocopies of their poems for whatever change passers-by will throw in their coffee cups.

    I’m reminded of that Margaret Atwood essay in which she compares the artist/writer’s dilemma to the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. They wrestled all night, with Jacob demanding a blessing, and the Angel refusing, until he would say his name. There’s a reason why DD put so much thought into her pseudonym – geez, dear, it’s clear even you FICTIONAL CHARACTERS’ names are precious to you. Your name is what you are; it’s where you’re from; it’s the heritage that’s left after all other history has slipped away. To sell your name to a bunch of charlatans who don’t care what they attach it to, and you might as well sell your soul. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’d be more honorable to shovel sh!t against the tide for minimum wage.

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    1. It boggles the mind that anyone would take this deal. Of course we all understand the financial plight of being under mountains of debt for these courses and student loans, I can sympathize with wanting to grasp at any way to make some money, but he’s not even guaranteeing they’ll be able to do that (not that anyone could make such a guarantee). What’s even more amazing to me is that Columbia would allow this pitchman in to peddle this. What’s in it for them?

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      1. Good question. I’m guessing (hoping!) that they figured, dude’s a name brand, it can’t hurt for our students to meet somebody famous, and didn’t realize that the terms of the contract would be so egregriously awful. It reminds me of all those unschooled, talented young Motown artists who made millions for Berry Gordy back in the 1960’s, and wound up penniless b/c they didn’t realize they’d basically sold the rights to their own work for a few dollars and a couple of nice suits of clothes.

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  3. Holy Moly.

    Paying writers mere peanuts is something we’ve all lamented here about. That is horrible enough. But then, to add that their name can be used in any future works?

    Great. Some other writer could hack out something…and you would receive the bad reviews.

    Frey’s an ass. But I agree with Scalzi that the schools also have an obligation to teach and protect their (paying!) students against schemes like this.

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