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Asking permission to write an authorized biography

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Has anyone here asked permission to write an authorized biography, and would be willing to share their experience? I am interested in writing about a pubic figure who died in the 1940s. No biographies currently exist, although her granddaughter keeps a website of old newspaper articles about her. I know it's possible to write a biography of a deceased public figure without the family's approval. But of course I'd love to have their authorization and perhaps access to interviews, photos, etc.

I have an email and mailing address for the granddaughter. I'm brainstorming what I need to address. I'm including a letter, my bio, outline of the book, sources. Is it too premature to mention things like (a) I intend to query traditional publishers; this is not envision as a self-publication, and (b) I cannot commit to compensating anyone. And on that subject, do most people expect compensation for something like this? Would you wait for agent or publisher interest before even contacting the family?

Anyway...I'm excited about this project but feel like I've only got one shot at getting the family's blessing so I want to do it right. So grateful for your insights and links!
#1 - August 30, 2014, 01:04 PM

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I've done it several times successfully, and once or twice unsuccessfully. Based on what you said, I'd suggest you not overwhelm her with too much information. I presume you admire this woman? I would convey that admiration in a sentence or two. Include any professional credentials (if you have them). If not, don't worry about it.

Tell her specifically what you intend to do, what you would like from her (how many interviews), how much of her time it will take. Don't forget to tell her what's in it for her. If she's putting photos up on a website, then she'd like her grandmother to be remembered. Mention that your book will probably be in libraries (if it will) and that her story will reach many, many people.

I'd leave out any mention of compensation unless she brings it up--then just tell her that that's not how it's usually done. I also wouldn't send an outline of the book. You might want to add something later and then you'll be stuck if you committed yourself to specific content. I'd also leave out the bio unless you have something in your background that would make you the perfect person to write this.

One page is probably enough. Tell her that you'd be happy to answer any questions--and just see what she wants to know. (I can tell you from my own experience, it's never what you think it's going to be.)

One thing to look out for--she may think she has the option of telling you how to write the story. If you sense this might be a problem, best to let her know ASAP that YOU are the writer, although of course you want to know her interpretation of events. You don't have to do that now. First, get her agreement, but many people get a little confused about what the role of a writer is. Just something to watch out for.

Anyway, good luck!
#2 - August 30, 2014, 04:24 PM

Thank you so much! That sounds like great advice.

As far as the bio, that makes sense not to include too much. I do think I'm probably a uniquely fitting person to write this because the person paved the way for women to be professional theater producers and administrators, and I am a female theater producer and administrator. But I can probably sum that up in a couple sentences.

Great advice on keeping it short and not giving her the idea that she is the writer. I guess what I'm really looking for is her "blessing." And photographs, etc. This woman either never met her grandmother, or was a small baby when she died, so I know I'll get limited information but hopefully she will be enthusiastic about someone wanting to take on this project. I worry a little that since she keeps the website, she'll feel a sense of ownership and not want someone else to write what she considers "her" story.
Thank you for responding! Very helpful!
#3 - August 30, 2014, 04:57 PM
« Last Edit: August 30, 2014, 05:14 PM by Christine B. »


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