Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The business end of biography

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?


Kathy Joyce said...

Very helpful Janet, thank you. I know many Reiders write fiction; I'm curious if anyone is working on biography.

Sarah G said...

A friend is working on an authorized biography, and the publisher paid her an advance and paid the subject something as well. Is this not normal? I'm not sure if the subject will be getting any royalties.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

But but, your Majesty, your story must be shared. People should know their queen. We could do it collaboratively.

This is very sad for me. The only person I would write a biography for has refused. Well, all is not lost. I hear Colin has a trove of Carkoon maps and early sketches of the World Domination Cloak room. We could make do.

Craig F said...

Through the magic of contracts, if you can afford a good lawyer, the relationship between author and biography subject can be anything your heart desires. In reality many biographies are work for hire situations. The writer is paid a flat fee and turns the rest, and rights, over.

Julie Weathers said...


In a way.

RachelErin said...

I read a biography this summer where the subject began by fully cooperating, but as the writer dug deeper and deeper, pulled out and refused to have any more to do with the project.

The writer was a bit sad, but by that point he had a huge list of friends and business associates, so he was more than able to tell several sides of the story (the truth with a capital T is still obscure). The subject was unable to stop the project, although I'm sure he could have sued for libel - don't think he could have won in this case.

Sherry Howard said...

Yes, Kathy, at least one of us loves writing biography. I started one over a year ago, for a children's book, and found I LOVE doing the research, learning about interesting people, and filtering down to the most important information to share. At a kid's level so far. But, you can't trust me, I'd probably write ads for toilet paper on Carkoon, or write ON toilet paper if I had to.

True story. I was principal at a huge school, new to me. Got locked in a room in an otherwise empty building. My husband wasn't alarmed when I didn't go home because I often worked weird hours getting the neglected building ready for 1000 adolescents to descend. By the time they found me, I'd written a long story on brown paper towels, the only paper available.

Jill Warner said...

Sherry That's hilarious! I'm sorry that happened to you, but at the same time, I'm so glad because that is gold.

John Davis Frain said...

That scene just occurred in my Nano ms. Except my guy had a hose funneling in carbon monoxide. So, consider yourself lucky. You had it easy! No wonder your husband wasn't worried.

I can imagine the scene when you got home.

Sherry: Hello? I've been locked in a room at my new school long enough to write a complete short story. A LONG short story. Weren't you worried?

Husband: 5-letter word for 'wearied by tedium?' [Looking up} Was carbon monoxide leaking into the room?

Sherry: No, but I--wait, what?

Husband: Oh, BORED. I should have seen that. I had the OR.

Sherry: I'm going to edit.

Husband: No, thanks, I already ate since you were running late.

(Maybe it's just my house!)

Kate Larkindale said...

I have been ghostwriting an autobiography, but I guess that's a little different. I have to have the subject's okay because it's going to be her name on the cover.

Barbara Etlin said...

I was considering writing a biography of a deceased relative who had a slight amount of fame. But his daughter refused to cooperate with me, saying she wanted to write it herself. (Of course, she did no such thing. She was probably afraid that my research would uncover something unflattering.) I decided that it would be too difficult to write it without access to his papers and to his daughter's memories.

Steve Stubbs said...

In the case of Sullivan v. The New York Times the Supreme Court ruled a public figure can only sue for libel if the writer makes statements he knows are untrue or with reckless disregard for whether they are true or not. The dead cannopt sue so if you wrote a book called THAT OLD HORSE THIEf ABRAHAM LINCOLN you would probably be safe, but if you accused Donald Trump of being an honorable man and he took umbrage, your comments could be considered by any reasonable person as made with reckless disrefaed for the truth.

A private person can sue for invasion of privacy and in some jurisdictions there are laws protecting people from having facts from long ago disclosed. Roy Moore could sue his accuser for bringing up a matter from 38 years ago. Some countries have "droit moral." In Britain you can be sued for libel for publishing THE TRUTH.

When Philip Roth published PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT, somebody in France sued claiming he had the same name (Portnoy) as the character in the book. You can't come up with a name someone is not using. If you call your character John Smith, watch out.

Gwen Davis was successfully sued for a novel after the plaintiff gained weight, bleached his hair, changed clothes, and started wearing gaudy rings to make himself look like the character in the book.

Members of the press have protections ordinary citizens do not have, and they have staffs of fact checkers.

The author is responsible for ALL costs arising from any legal action provoked by his or her book, heh, heh. Lawyers charge $300/hour to brew coffee and use the restroom. Margaret Mitchell was sued eleven times in the first six months after GONE WITH THE WIND was published. She refused to write ever again. It's open season out there.

In Australia people can sue themselves. I heard of a doctor who sued himself for malpractice and became a millionaire.

I won't comment on some of these cases. Who knows whom they are going to sue next?

My opinion: write something else.

Theresa said...

I've published one biography (with an academic press)of an "ordinary" American woman. I had the family's cooperation but it wasn't "authorized." Not everything in the book was particularly flattering, but family members considered it accurate.

I've got a second biography drafted, this time of a much more famous person, now deceased. I've been in touch with some family members, but the question of getting the project "authorized" never came up and I wouldn't want it.

The BIO organization looks worthwhile. I wouldn't mind joining but I've got to figure out how to deal with the fact that it's an unsecured website. My browser keeps giving me warning messages.

Kathy Joyce said...

Oh Steve, so depressing, even though true! But, suing myself for millions sounds promising. I could make up stories for an autobiography....
When good sense disappears, where does it go?

Colin Smith said...

Hello, everyone. You'll be pleased to learn that while Janet's blog has not been blocked by my day job, they won't let me comment, so my commenting is restricted to when I am at home, or using my phone. So, yes, I'm commenting less. But that's okay. Looks like you've all got everything in hand. Nothing for me to add.

... Except, yes, I have a collection of Carkoon maps. But the legendary Kale fields is one location I was told is unmappable. Something about dimensional distortions due to the unusually large quantity of that magical green plant. Either that, or no-one can tolerate the kale long enough to map the fields. But Janet has a map, so she says. I'm not sure how. Mind you, she is QOTKU, so... :)

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Colin... Hello! And HA!

Steve Stubbs said...

Kathy Joyce said...
"suing myself for millions sounds promising."

You might find you have assets you did not know you had.

So far as I know, you can only sue yourself in Australia. The idea is so nutty I would think it would be possible only in California.

There was a story in the news about a police officer who delberately shot himself in the foot and sued himself for police brutality. He admitted it was deliberate, and did not try to weasel out of it in court, so he won. I don't know how much he was awarded, but he can have it. I like having two healthy feet.

Closer to home, I saw an interview on TV with a fat guy who got rich suing the grocery store. He is still fat and said he was thinking of suing them again.

There was a lady in Georgia who took a junk automobile to a body shop for repainting. She did not like the result, and sued for $4,500,000. That's a lot of paint jobs.

My favorite is a lady in Houston who saw a flying saucer and sued there government for $5,000,000 on the grounds that it is their responsibility to see to it she never sees flying saucers.

You have to sue someone who actually exists. My lawyer told me about some religious zealot who sued the devil and his fallem angels. The court dismissed the case because the process server could not locate a mythological being to serve papers.

I have never sued anybody. I feel left out.