After a pleasant weekend spent reading I Am Number Four, the first book in the Lorian Chronicles series by Pittacus Lore (a pseudonym), I began to think about what would seem an expansion in the teen-books category and the traditional model of authorship. On the book’s jacket was iamnumberfourfans.com, which led me to a website devoted to promoting the series and the upcoming movie due out in 2011. Updates on the site reveal that a film tie-in edition has just been published, featuring the movie’s star, Alex Pettyfer, on its cover, replacing the original book’s graphic logo.

Based on how developed the website appears and the impending movie’s release date, it seemed to me that the novel and movie were created almost simultaneously and consequently orchestrated to promote each other in the marketplace.

After sharing this with my grad students, they pointed me toward a recent article in New York magazine (“James Frey’s Fiction Factory,” Nov. 12, 2010), which revealed that my assumption was right on—I Am Number Four was created as a multimedia product equally invested in storytelling and self-promotion by none other than James Frey of A Million Little Pieces (2003) fame.

As reported by New York magazine, among other outlets like the Guardian and the Wall Street Journal, Frey has developed a literary production company not unlike Edward Stratemeyer’s famous Stratemeyer Syndicate, a team of editors, writers and more who churned out popular series for teens. Frey’s version is called Full Fathom Five, a teen literary production company that employs fledgling writers, paying each a small fee to develop and write commercial series for teens. In return, the writers are promised a significant cut of the action when—and if—the series breaks big.

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Frey’s business model is hardly new. Stratemeyer pioneered the juvenile-fiction, assembly-line production model with the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys franchises. Francine Pascal and Daniel Weiss Associates honed it with Sweet Valley High and its spinoffs. And more recently, Alloy Entertainment, the multimedia marketing and entertainment company responsible for Gossip Girl and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books, has expanded the model to include movies, TV and online iterations of ideas that might once have been considered solely within the literary realm. 

But Frey is seen as something of a “bad boy” in the book world. And now this so-called bad boy is creating books and films for young people. It’s no wonder adults are questioning the end product. “Do you know who wrote that?” my library-science students scornfully asked when I told them that I’d finished I Am Number Four.

What I find interesting is how the exposure of such machinations causes us to consider the importance of young adult authorship, pushing us to consider how commercial intent affects our own assessment of the content’s quality.

The Harry Potter and Twilight series—which Frey cites as inspirations—certainly have not suffered critically or in popularity for their respective Local Writer Plucked from Obscurity Now Enjoying Massive Success mythology. Neither have their commercial patterns—multimedia and other tie-ins to promote the series—which emerged after the initial success of the first books. This mega-successful book-to-film (to products and toys, etc.) pattern doesn’t appear to offend nearly as much as the production model Frey and his teen-book enterprise propose.

Perhaps this is because, in Full Fathom Five’s case, the artful nature of production is on full display. Here, and arguably with Alloy Entertainment (though this company plays it a bit closer to the vest), ideas are developed solely for commercial appeal and multimedia viability—a creation strategy adults don’t like to associate with young people’s literature. 

So, it begs the question: Why are adults so offended by the strategic development of media intended for a teen audience? Does this production model, like Frey’s I Am Number Four, make a book less readable or less “good?” And, if so, how? Admittedly, my academic Marxism is showing, but it’s a good topic to ponder, especially as adults remain in majority control of young adult material. 

 

Amy Pattee is an associate professor of library and information science at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College in Boston. She documents her reading on her blog, YA or STFU, at alanis.simmons.edu/blogs/yaorstfu/.