Last week, in an article for New York magazine, a Columbia University MFA student unveiled the ins and outs of James Frey’s book packaging company, Full Fathom Five.
Packaging companies vary in their specifics but usually come up with ideas and outlines for books, and then hire writers to write the books. The company owns the idea, the writer gets paid without having to worry about how to get editors or agents to look at their work. It’s an interesting quid pro quo that I think often really works.
I’d like to weigh in, not on Frey’s company but on the book packaging world in general.
I have worked for book packagers. There. I said it. And here’s another thing: I found the industry not only interesting from a business standpoint but from a creative one.
When I was an assistant for Anonymous Company, it was an exciting weekly meeting that got me compelled and supportive of this industry. Talented literary types would brainstorm concepts, ideas, plot lines, characters. They would discuss what was missing in the industry, where they saw holes that needed to be filled. Then they crafted outlines for stories, working from a clear, full understanding of storytelling, traditional rising action structures, and passion for the kids who would be reading these books.
These were not the evil corporate types we think of when we learn about packaged books. These were people at the top of their game, profiting from their innovation and creativity and understanding of a complicated marketplace. I learned a lot during my time there. About story construction and market research and the way a book idea comes to life. I was inspired by the Anonymous Company. I respected their work. I buy their books.
Where Full Fathom Five comes into question is that the writer is coming up with the idea AND writing it. Anonymous Company provided their writers with chapter by chapter outlines—creating a true collaboration between idea and craft, plot and voice. From my (very limited and unresearched) understanding of Full Fathom Five, they aren’t doing much of either. This leaves the question of what service they are really providing. If the writer has to pitch the idea and write it, why don’t they own it?
I, for one, would be totally open to writing a packaged project for Anonymous Company or companies like it. I have actually done a fifty page sample for one of these companies before, and it was a positive experience. The plot — the thing I struggle most with — is laid out for you, and you are filling in the gaps. I enjoyed the writing process, having to stick to a traditional plot, and not having to exhaust my brain by generating ideas. I felt it was a fair trade: I was still able to do my own writing, and had the actual brain space to do it, while working on an interesting project that required less intellectual or emotional engagement. Kind of like the best day job imaginable.
I’d like to thank Anonymous Company for teaching me so much about story and concept and industry and plot. They were an inspiring group of professionals and seeing them work through ideas was more than exciting, it was what pushed me to address plot and concept more seriously in my own work. They made me a better writer.