This week, perennial crook and sometime writer James Frey published the first in a new young adult series called Endgame. Ever the crabgrass of publishing (thank Charles Isherwood for that joke), Frey’s series bears more than a passing resemblance to The Hunger Games, and clearly that’s the hook for potential readers. Well, that and the massive multi-platform marketing campaign to accompany it.
In a couple of weeks’ time, Simon & Schuster will publish the Wattpad sensation After by Anna Todd, a former One Direction fan-fiction that’s been read tens of millions of times online.
I want both of these books to fail.
I want them to flop. I want them to undersell so much that even discount book shops and supermarkets can’t get rid of them at severely slashed prices. I want reasonably priced homes of the future to be insulated by the pages of the unsold masses. In short, nothing less than abject humiliation will do for me.
Expressing one’s disappointment or even outright anger at a book deal can often lead to the familiar cry of “You’re just jealous”. It doesn’t matter how reasonably or detailed your rebuttal to these claims are, they’ll still arise because the idea of disliking success one sees as undeserved is something many see as solely being rooted in envy. I can assure you that I don’t feel a modicum of jealousy towards Frey or Todd, partially because I don’t think either of them are talented but my issues lie more with the shady business deals and publishing decisions behind each book. I’ve talked about Frey’s lies, ethically questionable business practices and exploitative contracts for young writers before in my post in favour of boycotting Full Fathom Five. I’ve also repeatedly discussed my opposition of pull-to-publish fan-fiction, a formerly frowned upon practice that’s become the norm in publishing’s post-Fifty Shades of Grey era. I don’t expect publishing, or any multi-billion dollar industry, to be 100% straight talking and condemning of such choices. It’s capitalism, after all. But when the bare minimum of not being terrible can’t even be met, I can’t help but feel exhausted by it all.
I don’t know Frey or Todd as people. The vast majority of people who read their work won’t know them. They may be lovely and kind people eager to work on their craft. I’ll never know that and it’s not a driving factor on my book purchasing decisions. There are plenty of authors with little talent and terrible stories that make a lot of money, and while I question that success I don’t usually wish failure on them. The line, for me, hasn’t been crossed there. With Frey and Todd, the line hasn’t so much been crossed as it has been urinated on repeatedly with glee while people pay for the privilege.
Wishing failure on something is a loaded call to make. Numerous people have gloried in bragging about wanting political opponents to fail, even if the risks greatly outbalance the short-term schadenfreude. The success or failure of a book isn’t a one person responsibility. Thousands of people work in every facet of publishing, preparing a book from the auction to the bookshelf, and with the industry in as tenuous a state as it is, it’s understandable why everyone’s looking for a safe bet. Big names like Frey and authors with an established reader-base like Todd are seen as those easy bets. On one level, I get why many have overlooked the wider context, but I just can’t do it.
Hoping that Endgame and After fail isn’t a condemnation of the industry as a whole, but it is a plea for a wake-up call. If Endgame flops then perhaps Frey will finally be shunned by the industry, something that should have happened the moment it was revealed he was a liar. I doubt this, sadly, given that his Full Fathom Five digital imprint are a publishing P2P Twilight/Last Tango in Paris fan-fiction so ethics don’t seem to enter his vocabulary. A massive flop for After could lead to publishers second guessing the seemingly instinctive decision to scour FF.net for free material, thus ensuring fan-fiction as a non-profit fan-driven activity can continue without the blurred lines that have ruined many a fandom in recent years. Some lessons need to be learned. Publishing will always contain bad books and even bad authors, both artistically and personally, but strengthening some previously weakened boundaries would be a good decision for readers, authors and the publishing industry at large.