Want to write a biography
September 4, 2009 7:41 AM   Subscribe

I've fallen in love with a certain older British character actor and want to write his biography...where do I begin?

The thing is, I'm not a published author. I'm finishing a novel, but don't have a deal or an agent or ANYTHING lined up yet.

I think the field is pretty wide open for me. I've scoured the Internets and haven't found any evidence that this guy has either written an autobiography himself, or had anything written about his life so far. I don't know if he's a nice guy and approachable, or impossible to get in touch with. I haven't tried. I'm terrified.

My question: How do I approach him? Should I wait until I've published my own book, so I don't look like a complete crackpot and phony and have some minimal publishing credentials (although in another category)?

This is a minor actor, a name most people wouldn't recognize -- but fans of certain of his movies and television dramas might know him. He's more familiar to English audiences. If it makes any difference, I'm American.

Any thoughts appreciated, especially from any writers/biographers out there.
posted by frosty_hut to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If he's a minor actor whose name most people wouldn't recognize, is there really a market for this book? Does he have a compelling life story that would trump his lack of notoriety.

Just keep in mind that a lot of book companies are cutting back on acquisitions, so unless your book proposal is super-compelling, you might find yourself sinking a lot of time and effort on something that won't make it to market.
posted by inturnaround at 7:53 AM on September 4, 2009

This thread may be of interest to you. It seems like one of those things you wouldn’t want to get too involved with until you know it will be supported.

However, you could just try to make friends with the guy. Or stalk him. That’s what most people do with celebrities.
posted by Think_Long at 8:03 AM on September 4, 2009

Maybe you could contact his agent first.
posted by iviken at 8:21 AM on September 4, 2009

Speaking as a book editor, if you intend to get this commercially published in the United States, I think you're going to be disappointed. (Your chances in Britain are only very slightly better.) That said, if it's a passion project, by all means pursue it: just be aware that the likelihood of such a book being acquired by a publisher are very slim.

You don't need anyone's permission to write their biography; what you do need, however, are access to the relevant materials (papers, if there are any, films, plays, etc. and their reviews in this case), and you need to interview LOTS of people (hopefully the subject himself, as well as family, friends, colleagues, etc.). It's a lot of work; this is why most biographers ensure they have funding secured before they begin, either through an academic institution, or as an advance from a publisher, offered based on a proposal for the project (for this, you'll need an agent). Given that you aren't an academic, route one is probably out, and, unless you can come up with a truly unusual and compelling framework, route two is going to be difficult, given the nature of your subject.

If, indeed, you'd like this to be a commercial project, my suggestion would be not to write straight biography (which generally sells rather poorly, and so is usually only published for figures for whom there is a demonstrably large interest), but a work of narrative nonfiction which incorporates the life of this actor into a larger story (something along the lines of My Judy Garland Life by Susie Boyt).

Finally, a word about guarding your subject: from the way you've written this post, it seems you've omitted his name because you're worried that someone is going to steal your subject away from you. Many authors, when starting out, have this kind of worry. However, it's something of a distraction; this is not the way that books work, generally. Good writing is not a race: being first does not guarantee success. You needn't worry about someone stealing your idea—if the idea is any good, it will be taken and repurposed by others (see, for example, the many imitators of the Harry Potter series, of Eat, Pray, Love, of The Dangerous Book for Boys, and the multitude of books on Bernie Madoff or the financial crisis). Duplication of ideas is nothing to worry about: it is inherent in the marketplace. What you should worry about is the quality of your work. If your book is the best book on, say, Peter Woodthorpe, you needn't worry about the ten other books about the man, because, in the end, your book will likely do better.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:01 AM on September 4, 2009 [5 favorites]

If he, or his most famous work, has some kind of anniversary approaching you could try pitching an article to newspapers as a way of dipping your toe in the water.
posted by malevolent at 9:46 AM on September 4, 2009

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