Why Some Authors Need Lawyers

Why Some Authors Need Lawyers

In December, I wrote about an author who thought it was okay to use a deceased person’s work simply because that person had claimed to want to write a book with him someday. In that article, I explained why he could not do that.

This week, I wanted to share the rest of the story with you.

After reading my advice, the author went back to the drawing board, and removed all the work by the deceased person, which was a friend of his who had lived in another country. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the author also included controversial statements about other real, living people in his book. Needless say, this book was shaping up to be a legal nightmare.

On reviewing the revised manuscript, I noticed this in the author’s book:

“What you hold in your hands is a mostly true story. However, many of the people in it are still living, and all are friends. In an attempt to avoid causing unintentional grief to anyone involved, I have changed the names of everyone but myself.”

I sent the author a note, and referred him to my article, Don’t Invite a Lawsuit with Your Memoir. He read the article, and then said he would delete or change all the names and other identifying information of everyone in the book located within 150 miles of his (the author’s) current city.

I gently explained to the author that his location did not protect him and that he very clearly needed to hire an attorney well-versed in libel and defamation to review his manuscript for potential legal problems. The author agreed and, a week later, I received this:

“My attorney recommended lots of changes. I changed everything he recommended. He also told me to use a pen name. Now I have a pen name. I have 5 more books that I want to write. Three will use my pen name. You were correct. My attorney fully agreed with you. I will send the new Legal Edition of the book.”

It was becoming quite clear that this author had made numerous incorrect assumptions about the law, and was still doing so. There is no “legal” edition of a book. Just because an attorney has recommended changes does not make that book lawsuit-proof. He had also previously assumed that he could use a deceased person’s work and that nobody located 150 miles outside his city could sue him.

I responded:

An author we know once received a lawsuit threat from his own daughter. He’d not named her in the book but mentioned he had a daughter who got pregnant at age 16. His lawyer admitted that she may have had a valid claim because, since the author used his real name, and since he promoted his book to friends, relatives, and others using his real name, some people knew who his daughter was. This was invasion of privacy. That’s how careful you must be (which is anything private that the ordinary person may be embarrassed about). Including these types of things in books really doesn’t add to the book at all. It just embarrasses people and some authors, intentionally or unintentionally, write these things about people just to get a “jab” in a them.

Even if you are writing under a pen name, you can’t promote your book to people who might know the people in your book because any third-party recognition can get you sued.

You also must fictionalize people and events enough so they aren’t recognizable – change features, even the gender of people, change cities, states, and many other details. You should then state the book is fiction and that parts of it are based on actual experiences.

If you tell your best friend that you wrote this book and he tells another friend and then she tells another friend and it gets back to someone who you featured in the book in a negative light, you could have lawyers knocking on your door.

The author wrote back again, saying he had just asked his lawyer if anyone outside of Texas could sue him. Of course, the answer was yes. Anybody can sue outside of Texas, and even outside of the U.S. The author was still mistakenly assuming that he was protected by some sort of invisible, legal geographic boundary which, of course, does not exist.

Unfortunately, this is not a new scenario. We are frequently contacted by authors who somehow think they are immune to lawsuits because of where they live, their use of a pen name, or even under “freedom of speech.”

No, you can’t say or write anything at all just because it’s the truth. If your writing hurts someone, they may very well have a legitimate complaint and there’s no shortage of lawyers willing to file lawsuits, even frivolous ones, against authors…who everyone seems to mistakenly believe are wealthy (snicker).

Angela Hoy is the co-owner of WritersWeekly.com and BookLocker.com. WritersWeekly.com is the free marketing ezine for writers, which features new paying markets and freelance job listings every Wednesday. According to attorney Mark Levine, author of The Fine Print, BookLocker.com is: “As close to perfection as you’re going to find in the world of ebook and POD publishing. The ebook royalties are the highest I’ve ever seen, and the print royalties are better than average. BookLocker understands what new authors experience, and have put together a package that is the best in the business. You can’t go wrong here. Plus, they’re selective and won’t publish any manuscript just because it’s accompanied by a check. Also, the web site is well trafficked. If you can find a POD or epublisher with as much integrity and dedication to selling authors’ books, but with lower POD publishing fees, please let me know.”

Richard Hoy had been involved in Internet marketing since it became a profession back in 1995. Early in his career, he developed and executed online promotional strategies for a number of companies. He was moderator of the Online Advertising Discussion list, the first discussion community on the Internet dedicated to the subject of online advertising. Richard created and edited The ClickZ Guide to Email Marketing, one of the first compendiums on the subject of the then-emerging field of email marketing. He was a regular speaker at the popular Web Advertising and Web Marketing conference series back in the heyday of the dotcom boom; as well as a columnist on ClickZ, where he wrote a well-received column on small business use of the Internet. For the past 12 years he has focused his expertise on building the self-publishing services company BookLocker.com into a respected online brand.


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