How are biography subjects handled contractually? For example, do they (or their estates) receive a cut of book proceeds? Is there contract language that makes a book an "authorized" biography? Does the author's agent handle the subject's contractual issues?I'm working on a proposal for a series of biographies for MG, and would like to include a list of possible subjects who have agreed to participate. Now that I'm ready to talk with them, I realize I'm clueless about the business end of what I'm asking.
Subjects of biographies are not parties to the publishing contract. The publishing contract is between the publisher and the writer. The terms of the contract require the writer to affirm that the book will be true to the best of their knowledge so writers can't just make up stuff willy-nilly, but the subjects of the biographies can't say "no you can't write this without my permission."
An "authorized" biography is one that that subject or the estate of the subject has agreed will be authorized. Generally it means the subject is fully cooperating with the project.. It also can mean the subject has some say in the final version, and that can be tricky if the biographer discovers some interesting and pertinent dirt.
Writing about public figures is protected speech. Hilary Clinton can't sue writers who say she's the anti-christ because that's the writer's opinion. Donald Trump would have a better case against someone who wrote he was a moron because Trump clearly has an IQ above 80 even if you don't like him. (IQ is a fact, anti-christ is an opinion)
For people doing important work but who are largely unknown, it will help to have secured their permission to be part of the project. They can't keep you from writing the book, but lacking celebrity, their UNsupport would be troublesome come publication.
As for payment, sometimes a portion of the author's proceeds is paid to a charity and that charity could be one the subject has chosen. If someone were to write about me (and don't even think about it you clever beasts) I would designate a charity to receive some of the proceeds before I would agreed to invest time in interviews and revealing my Evil Plan for World Domination, let alone the map of the Kale fields of Carkoon.
For those of you thinking of writing biographies, there's a wonderful organization that lets me be a member called BiographersInternational Organization (BIO, get it!) Members are both published and unpublished biographers, and their annual meeting is a huge resource for writers in the field. Membership is inexpensive and of great value.
Now, any questions?