Skip

gimme authorised or gimme death.
August 24, 2008 4:14 PM   Subscribe

How does one become a biographer? What's the usual route in, and how do publishers approach it? How does one approach and involve people? Vague specifics inside.

Previously but it's extremely vague.

How do people become biographers, and how does one pitch it to a publisher without knowing if all the necessary information might be available, or if people will talk?

I realised a few days ago that one thing that brings together some of my scattered obsessions would be writing a biography. I like playing detective, gathering information and following trails down the rabbit hole to see where they emerge. I love to write, although I haven't got a proven/published record there. I am extremely interested in motivations and decisions people make, and in the critical points in their lives, and in what those decisions cost other areas. I also enjoy research, and am particularly interested in all of this in relation to design and architecture.

I have been working on a small research project (a lot smaller than a Masters or PhD program) and some of the things that have emerged are incredibly interesting to me, and I realise that they aren't general knowledge. If told right, it's a fantastic story, and it overlaps a really interesting period in Irish history.

(I'm being vague deliberately but can flesh it out by MeMail if anyone has close enough knowledge of all of this for it to be necessary.)

Almost all of the people involved are still alive and working, and are successful and in some cases would have no reason to be too easy to reach. It does strike me that any of them could write this, one person in particular, but I wonder if they have reasons for not doing so, and I'm not sure it would be diplomatic to ask if they had intentions.

So, I'd be really interested in any perspective on how/whether to approach this. Would it need to be through an academic project? Is it done to contact a publisher - I know which would be the most likely, for anyone doing this - and make inquiries, or is that totally not the done thing? Are biographers usually invited, or academics/journalists with the connections already in place? Is this kind of thing better left to later in life, when one has the experience and contacts?

Any input would be great. I'm obviously still at the pondering stage but my interest is serious, if it were viable.
posted by carbide to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'd advise you not to cast the work as a biography. The way academic biographies are researched and written puts a lot of pressure on the authors. Professional biographers obtain access to the subject's archives, which may be at many locations and contain hundreds of boxes and millions of pages. The result may be multi-volume biographies, or biographies that are 900 pages long, as the biographer strives to include every incident. Such research takes years.

Strange things happen to biographers who spend that much time with their subjects. They develop transference -- loving or hating their subjects, projecting their ideal selves onto them. The results can be hilarious, as in Edmund Morris' The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (the author of the infamous Dutch, a biography of Reagan). (The link takes you to Amazon, but you can search inside.) Basically, the biographer loses perspective.

The result is that editors probably *shudder* when they receive a biography, unless it's by an already well known biographer (which is how Morris's excesses got published).

Presenting the work as a thematic work (historical study, history of ideas, science, etc.) that takes the form of biographical essays would be a better idea. It is more marketable and it above all preserves your perspective.
posted by bad grammar at 4:42 PM on August 24, 2008


You don't specify your level of education or any special qualities which recommend you above anyone else with an interest in doing this, so for the sake of argument I'll assume there are none. (In other words, if you had a doctorate in Irish literature, that would be a plus.)

You already mention that you don't have a history of being published.

Based on that alone, I wouldn't bother contacting a publisher. There's little chance you'd be taken very seriously without something done in advance. And since you're sheepish about sharing your idea here, you probably already know that there's no copyright on a simple idea, so contacting a publisher could work against you.

More to the point, even in the miraculous situation wherein you capture a publisher's (or agent's) ear and receive unheralded enthusiasm for your idea, any "support" they would give you (and by this I mean, primarily, money) would be minimal.

So what's the point of going that route? None that I can think of.

I can't tell you how many non-fiction books I read which have their genesis in published articles. This is particularly true for first-timers. You insinuate that this is something more than a potential biography, but something which is really a compilation of events and people - something other than a linear description of a single individual's life.

So this is what I would do:

1) Research some small, but riveting facet of your bigger subject and write an article about this smaller "thing."

2) Get it published in a magazine or literary journal or respected online place.

3) Repeat a time or two, with other articles relating in some way to your main story. Don't be afraid to refer to your forthcoming book on "X." It may prevent competition or provide you with knowledge that someone else has just finished a manuscript. It may solicit publisher interest.

4) Then, find a literary agent who is willing to shop the project for you.

5) Hope for the best.

I'm working on a couple of projects myself. I've set my sights on just finishing them in a way that's satisfactory to me, though I do hope to have them published. Both have involved research and some expenses, which I handle myself. If I do get them published, I'll be delighted. But I'd hate to count on that, as there's potential for disappointment, and I'm writing what I'm writing out of interest and admiration for my subject matter. Keeping that pure keeps my interest true.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:43 PM on August 24, 2008


You should read "How to do Biography: A Primer" by Nigel Hamilton. Just came out a few weeks ago, and I read through it in one sitting (about 300 pages), and it answers your question from start to finish.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 5:36 PM on August 24, 2008


Most published biographies probably start with a proposal (i.e. a letter and synopsis), and especially for an untried writer, a first chapter. Your chances of beating the odds are slim, but if you really want to pursue this dream, start with buying this year's Writer's Market. There is plentiful information within on shopping your material to publishers (both books and periodicals).

You don't need to be a pure academic, although having a background in graduate studies would certainly help. Some of the most successful biographers/historians are considered academically rather sloppy. Biographies range from the rigorous to the popular, and of course, there are even "quickie" biographers who make a mint having timely potted bios out around the time a celebrity is hot.

Since you're talking about Irish history, and there are plenty of Irish-Americans as well as Irish and Britons who would be interested in the period, this is not an insurmountable situation. Think of how you could make your story punchier or emblematic. There's a pretty well-known history of Ireland titled How the Irish Saved Civilization, for example. It could be dull stuff but it links an overview of medieval Irish arts and sciences to a narrative of broader social necessity.
posted by dhartung at 5:45 PM on August 24, 2008


Much appreciated, everyone.

bad grammar:
Presenting the work as a thematic work (historical study, history of ideas, science, etc.) that takes the form of biographical essays would be a better idea. It is more marketable and it above all preserves your perspective.


I hadn't considered that angle. Given that this looks like it would be a long-term ambition, it's a great thing to know.

Dee Xtrovert: My education level is a BSc, with another Bachelor level degree to go in my program, and then other aspirations. So, yep, didn't mention it because there's nothing special, and my research is an undergraduate thing. I don't have a publishing history in the area, and am working already on a few small articles (related and unrelated), so I really appreciate that suggestion, as it sounds to be the most useful for now.

Based on that alone, I wouldn't bother contacting a publisher. There's little chance you'd be taken very seriously without something done in advance. And since you're sheepish about sharing your idea here, you probably already know that there's no copyright on a simple idea, so contacting a publisher could work against you.

The sheepishness is more that it's a small field in a small country and mentioning the keywords non-anonymously, but I also know someone who would be much more able to write on the topic (and I won't be stepping on toes if I find out they intend to do so), but, yeah.

NotMyselfRightNow: The book recommendation's perfect, cheers!

dhartung: Great stuff. The Irish history I have in mind is more contemporary, but that aspect is definitely worth considering, and there's broader social aspects tied up in the subject that make it particularly interesting to me, so I will definitely give that a think.
posted by carbide at 2:58 PM on August 28, 2008


« Older I need help understanding how ...   |  What do you say to someone who... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.


Post