picture book biograpy

Must I Contact Descendants for Biography?


Dear Editor…

During the recent Picture Book Idea Month hosted by Tara Lazar, I had a question that popped up (and was referred your way). I have a nonfiction biography I’m working on (creative nonfiction). If the person still has possible living descendants, do you track them down for permission to write about the historical person (if they’re not someone famous)? What would a publisher’s or editor’s perspective be on a project like this? Any idea?


Dear Jena…

Though you don’t need descendants’ permission for biographies of private people, descendants can conceivably sue for an aspect of defamation/ invasion of privacy. They may not have standing or a strong case in this legal gray area, but you’d have to deal with it. Publishing contracts are usually worded to put that on you, although in-house attorneys weigh in. If your portrayal isn’t complimentary, smart money says have a publishing attorney assess your specifics to prevent greater future expense. I recently urged a client to do that because her subject is current generation, the circumstances emotional. The longer your subject has been deceased, the safer you likely are. Is there a moral imperative to seek permission? Get their blessing? I and experts I spoke with don’t think so. What if they decline? Will you trash your project? Do consider that descendants can be great resources, confirming/correcting info and providing insights, photos, documents. You could reach out for interviews or info without asking permission. Share your angle and aim to be thorough and fair.

Happy writing!
The Editor