Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A risk of writing about the living

I wrote a book called Vanished: True Stories of the Missing that is due out in January from Scholastic. It consists of seven (non-illustrated, 3,000-word) true stories about people who disappeared under a diverse range of circumstances.

Half (well, four) of them were never heard from again. The rest resurfaced between a day and more than 30 years after they went missing. Some were swallowed up by the wilderness, others dropped off the radar in urban environments. The youngest was five. The oldest was in his late fifties.

All the disappearances happened within the last 100 years
—the earliest in 1925, latest in 2007. Some of these people are still alive. Of those, I had several burning questions about one, so I tried to contact that person.

Let's call this person A. The person who responded on behalf of A (let's call that person B) was more than kind and helpful.

But B also had three requests:
  • to edit my piece about A before it was published
  • to receive six copies of the book
  • to be paid for inclusion in the book
Many writers would balk instantly at the first request. "No one edits me but my editor!" But I was happy to agree to that—as always, I wanted the piece to be as accurate as possible. Plus I would be under no obligation to accept every (or any) suggestion. The second request was fine by me if the publisher supported it. The third...

I've written professionally about real people since 2001 but had never encountered this issue before. By the time I wrote about them, most were no longer with us in body, with one exception: Rosa Parks. However, enough books have been written about her that she probably no longer paid attention to any new ones coming out (or at least mine!).

B said that if my book profiled four people (B knew that it was a collection but did not know how many stories exactly), then each of them could get 5% of the profits, leaving me 80%. B wanted A to also benefit if Hollywood came hollering. B did not want me to take advantage of A. I fully understand that. I have written a book about Bill Finger, for heaven's sake.

But with a word of support from my editor and agent, I wrote B to explain the following as delicately but clearly as possible:
  • writers need not pay public figures (as A is) to write about them, as per the First Amendment; if biographers and journalists had to pay the people they interview or profile, newspapers would be even slimmer than they already are and biography sections of bookstores would be practically nonexistent
  • writers do not get 80% of a book's profits—not by a long shot (publisher, agent, bookseller get some, too—if there is any profit)
  • I contacted A to be sure I was telling A's story accurately; I assumed a side effect of this would be that A would appreciate the open line of communication and would feel I wanted to do right by A
B then (politely) responded that their request for payment was non-negotiable and repeated her concerns about profit and Hollywood. I elaborated on the following:
  • how writers typically get paid (advance against royalty, with no guarantee that they will ever sell enough copies to earn a royalty)
  • how unlikely it is that Hollywood would look to a book like this (compilation nonfiction for a young audience) in search of material
  • that if a producer did approach me with interest in A's story, I would have to come to A before doing anything else—as I understand it, I would actually need to acquire A's life rights
I emphasized to B that A's inspirational story would have a powerful effect on young people, hoping that would discourage B from demanding (morally or legally) that I remove A's story from the book. I also told B that my book does not preclude anyone else from writing on A. In fact, I encouraged B to seek out an official biographer for A, if that was of interest. I think A's story could make a lovely picture book. I just don't feel I'm the guy for it.

When one does great things, as A has, others will naturally want to write about it. I'm grateful that we live in a society that allows this to happen without impediment.

My last response to B was more than two months ago and I haven't heard back. I think A and B now see.


Eisenblog said...

Good concise recap. I've run into a similar scenario twice. It's complicated, and unfortunate. Ideally, people worth celebrating would want to be celebrated, and would consider the expanded celebration a thing more gratifying/rewarding than monetary payment.

Meanwhile, I didn't know you had a blog! Now I don't have to wonder, "What will I do for the half-hour before sleep" for another few weeks.

I hope you are well, and that we actually have the opportunity to meet sometime. Let me know if you want to take your kids to Sesame Place this summer... we live 8 minutes away.


janee said...

It sounds like a frustrating exchange, but the book sounds fantastic! Can't wait.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Thanks, Matt and Janee. Matt, I understand why someone who doesn't know how publishing typically works would ask for payment. I understand how a public figure could feel that someone else should not make money from telling his (the public figure's) story while the public figure makes nothing. Yet that is freedom of the press. If money had to be exchanged for all of this kind of material, very little of it would ever be published.

Booksteve said...

Good that you reamined clear-headed as it seems an easy situation to have flown off the handle one way or another.
Good luck!