Why Only Old Folks Should Publish Memoirs

That sounds like a trick title, right? You’re expecting me to follow it up with a punch line. But guess what: publishing your memoirs or autobiography is no joking matter. In many cases, it makes you vulnerable to libel lawsuits and financial devastation.

You think I’m overstating the risk? Think again. If you’re writing or planning to write a memoir, have you researched what the law calls defamation? Are you sure you’re on solid ground?

I’m not a lawyer and am not giving legal advice. I’m a book editor, who has seen one author get into trouble. I’m speaking from my experience as a lay person, and from the results of my private research. I’m going to tell you the warning I give to people who ask me to edit their memoir.

Dead Villains Don’t Sue

Traditionally, people published memoirs or autobiographies at the end of their life. Ever wonder why? Maybe because most of the people they wrote about were dead. Apparently it’s legal to write unflattering things about dead people and celebrities, but when you paint what can be construed as a negative picture of anyone living who is not in the public eye, you may open yourself to a defamation lawsuit.

publish memoirsEven if you write only one negative sentence about someone in a book that barely mentions that person. Even if you write the story as fiction and change some of the facts. Even if you change the person’s name. If that person or those who know him or her can identify the character you write about as a particular real individual, you can be in trouble.

You and the Bear

I’ve heard aspiring memoirists say: “It isn’t libel if it’s true.” What they generally don’t understand is that if there’s a lawsuit, the burden of proof for what is true rests on the author. That’s right, the burden of proof. So unless you can prove in court that someone you’re writing about did what you said in your book, you hold the short end of the stick.

Today it’s become common for people who’ve undergone trauma or abuse to decide to write a memoir. They know they have a riveting story, they rightly sense that writing it will be cathartic, and they think putting it all into a published book will alleviate their pain. It’s one thing to journal about the experience, another thing to destroy someone’s reputation—however well-deserved that destruction might be. Poke the bear enough, and the bear will usually wake up. And then it’s just you and the bear.

Look It Up

If you’re wanting to write that kind of a memoir, do the research. Look up “defamation” and “libel” and really understand what you’re getting into. Speak to a defamation attorney about it. If there’s even a minor character in your book who you paint in an unflattering light, it’s possible that person could sue. You want to tell your story, but how much money are you willing to lose to do it? Some defamation lawsuits have run into the millions. It isn’t always the good guy who wins.

publish memoirSo what if you’re dying to tell your tale of injustice? What if everything in you says you need to get it out there? Go ahead and write it. Get it out of your system. Get it down on paper and out of your heart. Write it, and put it in a drawer. Take it out when you’re eighty, and if you still want to publish, have at it. Provided that all the villains and fools you wrote about are dead. Provided that it is safe to publish your memoir.

 

Jessi Rita Hoffman … book editing by an industry professional

8 Comments on “Why Only Old Folks Should Publish Memoirs”

  1. Treebird

    Great advice! It is a shame that one has to be so vigilant about lawsuits, but denying their reality could be disastrous! I will keep this in mind while writing!

  2. carol schlanger

    Hello Jessi,

    I have been seriously writing my memoir for years. I am 70 and have been a professional writer. I have put tremendous work into this project and have hopes it will support me in my old age ( only hopes) The television rights, based on reading a few chapters have been optioned by a young producer. I have changed all the names, but the location, incidents and personalities as I perceive them are true. The characters could easily identify themselves. Some situations are fabricated but based on emotional truth. I cannot give up this project but was devastated when I read your advice on memoirs. Can you suggest any way I might legally protect myself before publication?

    Thanks

    Carol

    1. Jessi Rita Hoffman

      Hi Carol

      I know. It can be devastating news if you’ve already written your memoir. But it may be less devastating than facing an expensive lawsuit. I’m not a lawyer and am not in a position to give legal advice, but the information I’ve shared in the article is available online if you do the research. My advice is that you seek out a defamation attorney to see if there’s some way around this issue for your memoir. A thought perhaps to pursue … getting signed statements from the people portrayed in your story that they have read your book and give you their permission to say the things about them that you do. Just an idea. You’d have to ask a lawyer.

      If you decide not to go through with it and if it’s any consolation, a published book rarely “supports” the writer unless she’s an author who’s already an established household name. Royalties are small on traditionally published books, so unless you sell hundreds of thousands, you probably won’t be living off the profits. Even major-name authors generally have to write multiple books to establish a reputation. There are the happy exceptions, of course.

      In my experience, many people who write memoirs would do well to be writing novels instead. Novels are pure fiction (and therefore safe), but the storytelling skills involved in memoir writing are much like those involved in writing fiction. If you’re good at the one, chances are you’d be good at the other. But don’t write a book pinning your hopes for wealth (and for quitting your day job) on getting your book into print. Write for the joy of it, for the fun of it, for the truth of it. Remember that fiction can be as true as memoir, if you’re writing about the WISDOM you’ve learned, and not about the real-life people and real-life situations that taught you that wisdom.

      I wish you luck and all the best.

      Jessi

  3. Jessi Rita Hoffman

    I’d like to add a few postscript thoughts to my above article. There are a whole lot of people writing their memoirs these days. Many, like Carol who commented above, have hopes of their story making it to the big-time and of living off the royalties. Because of this, a lot of questionable editors have sprung up who feed off the dreams of these aspiring authors — “editors” who are all too happy to take the money and mark up the manuscript, no questions asked.

    This is fine if you’re writing only for yourself, or to produce a book of happy memories for family and friends. But if your goal is to publish a book for the general public, and if your writing contains what could be construed as libelous material by the parties concerned, I feel it is unethical for an editor to accept that project without explaining the hazards to the author. For whatever reason — ignorance? greed? — some editors do not talk about the libel risk with their prospective clients. As an editor myself, I feel it’s essential information that every would-be memoirist deserves to know.

    My article is about the legal ramifications surrounding memoirs, but there are other hurdles you need to also consider if you dream of writing your life’s story. You need to know what agents and publishers require in memoir manuscripts for them to be considered publishable. Agents say most memoirs sent to them do not meet these specifications. The following links are to articles that will inform you about these factors. Educate yourself before you invest years into writing something that, in the end, you may have to shelve. Know what’s required for a memoir to succeed in the market:

    http://behlerblog.com/2011/11/07/writing-memoirs-meeting-the-burden-of-marketability/

    http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/get-published-sell-my-work/the-market-for-memoirs

    Jessi

    1. Jessi Rita Hoffman

      Stacey, as long as the person you’re writing about is identifiable to himself and to people who know him, you’re asking for trouble. It doesn’t matter how you fictionalize it — what names, dates, or locations you change — if someone reading the book, who knows the person you’re writing about, can say, “Hey, that’s got to be Mr. So-and-So.” As far as writing anonymously goes, in a lawsuit a plaintiff could demand the real name of the author and obtain it through the court system. So no protection there. If you want to expose someone and the wrong they have done you, consider suing them rather than writing a book about what happened. It’s a lot safer, from my layman’s perspective. Again, I’m not an attorney and am not offering legal advice. Only speaking my opinion from my personal experience of what I observed happening to one unfortunate memoir author.

        1. Jessi Rita Hoffman

          If you read the article carefully, you will see that it says you cannot write libel about dead people. It can only be libel if the person is living. In other words, you can say what you like about the dead without getting sued, because the dead cannot sue. It’s the living you have to be concerned about.

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