Behind the Scenes: “Best Practices for Reaching Out (or Not!) to Biography Subjects” by Emma Bland Smith

Inquiring minds want to know the answers to all these frequently asked questions! Thank you, Emma Bland Smith, for addressing these issues! Nonfiction writers, biography writers, parents, educators, librarians, and readers—dig in. I’ll bet you all find something of interest here. 

Emma is offering a GIVEAWAY, too! Just leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of THE PIG WAR. 

The winner of last week’s giveaway, COW SAYS MEOW by Kirsti Call is….Donna Rossman!! 

Emma current headshot

Behind the Scenes: Best Practices for Reaching Out (or Not!) to Biography Subjects

One of the trickiest things about writing biographies is approaching and dealing with your subjects. It can be a little intimidating and awkward, for sure.

But don’t let that scare you off! If I, a shy, insecure, sensitive-to-criticism writer, can navigate these situations successfully, anyone can! Here, I’ll answer some common questions and provide examples from my own experiences.

Do I have to get permission to write about someone? is one of the questions I hear the most often in nonfiction writing forums. The short answer is… NO! You do not need permission. Consider yourself a journalist who is allowed, by freedom of the press, to write about anyone you like.

However, in many cases there are reasons you might want to get the blessing of your subject (or their descendants, estate, or foundation, if they’re no longer living).

Odin coverIf your book is about a not-yet-famous person (or animal) who is still alive, you almost certainly want their approval. They’ll be able to provide interviews and other primary sources that might not be out in the world, as well as help promote the book. For Odin, Dog Hero of the Fires, I visited Odin and his owner twice and was in close contact during the whole process. (And Odin would have attended the book release party had Covid not reared its head!)

While researching my upcoming picture book biography of Robert McCloskey (Mr. McCloskey’s Marvelous Mallards: The Making of Make Way for Ducklings; Calkins Creek, fall 2022), I reached out to his daughter, Jane McCloskey—and to my delight, she wrote back! Jane was able to give me some wonderful family photos and also provide a note for the back matter. I could have written it without contacting her, but I feel her involvement is bringing something special to the book.

Another reason you might want to reach out is to ask if anyone else is currently writing about the person.

What if my person is very famous (and alive)?

You still don’t have to get official approval. Very famous still-living people (say, JK Rowling, President Obama, or Serena and Venus Williams) are written about frequently. There is a lot of information about them available, so you probably don’t need to contact them to get facts for your book. I have not reached out to family members for my upcoming books about Gustave Eiffel or Fannie Farmer, because information about them is readily available.

If you are the first person to write about someone, however, you might want to let them know. Famous as they are, they still might be enthusiastic and help you research and promote the book!

Pig War cover

How do I contact people? Start by checking their website for a contact form or email address. (Some even have a phone number on their website!) I have also contacted people by Facebook or Twitter direct message.

What if they ask me for money? It can be awkward if the person you’re writing about considers that they should be paid. I once wanted to write about a different amazing dog. His owner, however, expected me to buy the rights to the story. When I nervously explained that I wasn’t going to do that, he lost interest. It’s better to write about folks who are enthusiastic about the project, so I (not without regret) walked away from the story.

How much editorial involvement should they have? If the person is involved, you probably want to ask them if they would read the manuscript, and to let you know if something bothers them or is inaccurate. However, I recommend you make it clear (in your own nice, delicate way) that YOU are the author, that children’s book writing is a unique art form, and that certain facts might be left out in the interest of telling your story or creating a narrative arc. (Definitely suggest that you can add additional information to the back matter.)

Every single time I have asked someone to read a manuscript, I have been worried that they would come back with something like, “This isn’t at all the way I think the story should be told!” and every single time, that hasn’t happened; on the contrary, they have been delighted with the story. (Maybe I need to give people the benefit of the doubt more often!)

Claude coverWhat about institutions like museums or zoos? This is a grey area. Some zoos claim that their animals are their intellectual property and that you need permission to write about them. When I wrote Claude: The True Story of a White Alligator, about the albino alligator at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, I was required to sign an official agreement. It’s worth jumping through these hoops, because you want the institution to be on board: Your book will be sold in their gift shop, after all! I also had the manuscript and illustrations carefully vetted by the scientists at the museum.

One more note about this: I waited to approach the museum until I had a solid manuscript that had been worked on by my critique group and approved by my agent. I felt that gave me a better leg to stand on when approaching the museum. On the other hand, do consider getting the institution’s tentative support before sending the manuscript to editors, who will want to know the status.

I hope this has been helpful. Now, go forth and tell true stories!

Don’t forget to leave a comment below to be entered in the GIVEAWAY for a copy of THE PIG WAR! (US addresses only, please)

BIO

Emma Bland Smith is the award-winning author of thirteen books for children. Her first book, Journey: Based on the True Story of OR7, the Most Famous Wolf in the West, won Bank Street College’s Cook Prize and Northland College’s SONWA award. Her latest book, The Pig War: How a Porcine Tragedy Taught England and America to Share, relates events that took place on a small island in Washington State and were almost too ridiculous to be true. Emma is a librarian and lives in San Francisco with her husband, two kids, dog, and cat. Visit her online at emmabsmith.com and on Twitter at @emmablandsmith.


51 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: “Best Practices for Reaching Out (or Not!) to Biography Subjects” by Emma Bland Smith

  1. This was very helpful. Thank you! I’m not sure I would have realized the need to reach out to others/ask permission for the animal stories.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a fascinating read. I have never given it much thought about what authors must consider when writing a biography. I am SO excited knowing that Emma has books coming out about Gustave Eiffel, Fannie Farmer, and Robert McCloskey.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As a shy person myself, I’ve always wanted to know the answers to these questions. Thank you for a very informative post with excellent ideas for approaching subjects.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a fascinating and informative interview. Always wondered if permission was required. Gorgeous covers for Odin, Claude and The Pig War. I did had no idea about the pig war between England and America — so I particularly love the illustrations of the pig caught in the middle. Look forward to reading your books. Have great grandchildren that would adore your books. Just checked them all out on Amazon. Look forward to your upcoming books, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m getting ready to send an email to a family member of the person I’m writing about and was wondering if there’s a good email template that might be helpful in crafting a successful inquiry.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Linda – Gosh, I don’t know of a template, but that’s a good idea. I would just write honestly and straightforwardly. I would quickly introduce yourself, say that you admire this person, that you’re a children’s book author and are interested in writing a book about this person, and wanted to reach out and connect with the family. Maybe wait till they reply to gauge their feelings about it, then bring up the idea of having them read the manuscript when it’s ready.

      Good luck!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Emma, fascinating information! Your title, The Pig War, sounds so intriguing. Can’t wait to read it & the cover illustration is so much fun!

    One more thing, in CA, there are special laws protecting celebrities. I wrote a bio about a young girl during WWII. Her mother owns the right to her story and is rather famous. Years ago she said I could write about her mother. When I informed her about my story and that a publishing house was interested & wanted her blessing, I got a email from her attorney telling me I would be sued if it was published.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for the wonderful tips. I made the mistake of contacting the person I wanted to write about and I think the gatekeepers didn’t even let the request get to him. Or so I think. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This was so timely! I have in progress a nonfiction ms about a living person and was wondering if I should contact him. I will contact him but wait as you suggested until the ms is submission ready. Thank you! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Donna – Good luck on your manuscript! Definitely follow your instinct–maybe reaching out beforehand can be a good idea? Every situation is different, I guess. For me it seemed to work better that way. Best of luck!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you for this wonderful post! I am working on two pb bios. Both parties are still alive and well. But a pb bio recently came on the market for one of them and I now have to change the focus of my book. This was very insightful, especially on the museum and zoo fronts. Who would have thunk about zoo animals being intellectual property?? But I guess it makes sense…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Nadia – Ooh, that’s always an unpleasant surprise, to see a book on your same subject come out. It’s happened to me! But yes, there’s always room for more, if you just change the focus. There’s actually another book about Robert McCloskey coming out soon after mine. I reached out to the author and we’ve been emailing a bit, which is nice!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Such a great post! Thank you! Going to rustle up contact info for a family member of our MC in our current WIP. I am a co-writer with my daughter. We so enjoy connecting with someone in the MC’s orbit in some way.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thanks so much for this Beth and Emma. It isn’t easy reaching out to the subject or family members, but I can’t imagine writing about someone without the support and incredible primary material they can provide. My greatest leap of faith so far was to reach out to Arnold Adoff, Virginia Hamilton’s husband for my MG biography of this amazing writer. We became friends through the process and he was incredibly supportive,even vetting the ms. His praise of my prose was extremely validating!
    Looking forward to reading more of both of your works!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Totally agree on all these points. I’ve reached out to scientists, living subjects, and institutions. All have been cooperative. It’s also thrilling when they respond and fill in the blanks with information that is difficult to find elsewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Thank you! This information is so helpful. I’ve been mulling over a story I’d like to write about someone else, but just wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. Now I have a path to follow.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Wow, I’ve never been asked to pay for the rights to an animal story…now I’m curious which famous dog’s story you were contemplating. I did reach out to Irving Berlin’s eldest daughter when I wrote his MG bio and she was so helpful reading the ms and correcting one small error (she told me that the adult bio of her father was riddled with errors, even though it was considered the “bible”). Looking forward to your upcoming books, Emma!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Nancy – Oh, interesting about the Irving Berlin bio and all the errors! Yikes! The dog was not famous, but a stray dog I had read about online who had joined a climbing team in Nepal and climbed a mountain. It was heartwarming and I think would have made a great picture book! But I think the owner is holding out for Hollywood to come calling (which it may, who knows?).

      Liked by 1 person

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