Yesterday afternoon, CNN picked up a Reuters report that Penguin cancelled controversial author James Frey’s two book deal. The article stated that “after writing A Million Little Pieces for Random House, Frey moved with his editor Sean McDonald to Penguin imprint Riverhead Books, which published his second book, My Friend Leonard, last June. Riverhead then contracted Frey to write two more books, one of them a novel, for an undisclosed sum. Penguin said last month that deal was ‘under discussion’ and Frey’s representative, Lisa Kussell, said Thursday the deal had been canceled. ‘All I can say is he no longer has a deal with them,’ Kussell said, declining to give any more details.”
Early in February, Frey was dropped by his agent and now he’s lost his book deal, wrapping up an excruciating six to eight weeks. It has been about a month since Oprah publicly flogged the exaggerrating author on her television show. It was the bloodiest example of entertainment punishment we’ve seen. After watching Oprah’s evisceration of Frey, I closely monitored the credits, searching for the show’s director, certain I was going to see Mel Gibson’s name.
But in spite of that public hanging, Frey continues to swing from the New York Times bestseller list. My Friend Leonard was number five on the Hardcover Nonfiction list and it was noted that Frey’s sales were barely distinguishable from the book occupying the four spot. After more than twenty weeks, A Million Little Pieces continues to cruise in the number two slot on the Paperback Nonfiction List.
So the loss of his book deal shouldn’t push Frey to digging through KFC dumpsters for dinner. At least just not yet. The Reuters report points out that Frey sold “more than 1.77 million copies last year after being chosen by Winfrey for her Book Club.” I’m not exactly sure what the royalties are for paperback books. But former McAdam/Cage editor Pat Walsh’s book provides some figures to help us make a guesstimate.
In Walsh’s magnificent 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might, he states that for a hardcover book with a list price of $24.00, “the author gets 12.5 percent on average over the first 15,000 copies shipped, or $3.00.” Walsh doesn’t detail the financial breakdown of paperback books, but just for discussion, let’s assume it’s half the hardcover. With that assumption, Frey took home $1.50 for every copy of A Million Little Pieces sold, bringing his total score to $2,655,000. Minus fifteen percent for his agent and let’s say forty percent for the tax man, that still leaves Frey with about $1.2 million. Not a bad haul, especially considering the fact that Oprah didn’t even anoint his memoir until September. Even if he only receives a single dollar for each paperback sold, that’s still $1.77 million gross.
Keep in mind that all of those figures are pure speculation. I don’t have any concrete information about Frey’s financial details (was there a paperback advance? was the deal re-worked after the Oprah selection? did he have to make payments to the Devil for his soul?) so it’s just a guess. But it is safe to assume that he made a ton of money in the past six months or so.
And one final thought, as we wrap up this speculative deconstruction of Frey’s finances, is that when Simon & Schuster cancelled publication of American Psycho in 1990, it was widely reported that Bret Easton Ellis got to keep the $300,000 advance. Each contract is different, but in certain cases, if an author receives an advance and the publisher backs out for certain reasons, the writer does not have to reimburse the money. If the author turns in a shitty book, or just neglects to bother turning in a book at all, (yeah, that’s you P. Diddy), then obviously the publisher can recoup the advance. But if the author fulfills his obligations and the publisher just changes their mind, then that cash can stay piled up under the mattress.
Like a fired football coach who gets paid to sit at home, Frey may still get to keep some of the cash he received from Riverhead and then turn around and sell the books somewhere else. That should leave him with more than enough money to buy salve for the wounds he received at Oprah’s whip.