Yes, You CAN Be Sued for Libel, Even If What You Wrote “Is 100% True”

Yes, You CAN Be Sued for Libel, Even If What You Wrote “Is 100% True”

I am not an attorney and this is not legal advice. Contact an attorney for your specific situation and needs.

An author recently submitted a manuscript for consideration for publishing. We noticed a paragraph that named people who were in a fight. Those people were the author’s neighbors. The author was writing under her own name, and she named everyone who was involved in the fight, and gave graphic details.

I sent her the same message I send to all authors who are (likely unknowingly) putting themselves in legal crosshairs.

“Many people assume that authors and publishers are wealthy. When they find out you included them in your book, they might contact an attorney.”

She wrote back, “They can’t sue me because it’s 100% true.”

And, that’s when my lips pursed, as they do each time an author says that because I hear those same words ALL the time…

That is a very common misconception among authors and the general public. Assuming somebody can’t file a lawsuit at all just because what you wrote (or said) is true is, if you think about it, pretty ridiculous.

In the United States, anybody can sue anybody else for anything. People who don’t want to pay for a lawyer can represent themselves. People who do that, who know they have filed a frivolous lawsuit, often don’t care about the consequences. They just have to file paperwork, and show up in court. And, often, those people are doing it to punish the defendant.

Now, let’s talk about that “punish” part. If you are writing under your real name (and marketing your book under your real name), and if you include real names and incidents that might portray those people in a bad light, what’s YOUR reason for naming them? What’s YOUR reason for refusing to anonymize the details in order to protect those people? Often, it’s because the author wants to punish or embarrass those people.

Is settling a score with someone really worth going bankrupt from legal fees?

If a lawsuit isn’t dismissed as frivolous, it can proceed all the way to court. And, Heaven help you if you don’t have a lawyer helping with your defense. Even if you win, the legal fees alone could bankrupt you. Many people assume, if you win a civil case in the U.S., that the other side will have to pay your legal fees. That is NOT TRUE.

“Generally, a party who files a civil lawsuit will not be able to recover their legal fees including attorney fees unless a statute or contractual provision permits such fees to be rewarded.”

spesia-taylor.com

And, you may very well lose if you can’t prove that everything you wrote is 100% true. Many of the personal conflicts that create good (juicy!) reading in a non-fiction book are what sell those books. However, changing the names, locations, and certain details doesn’t usually detract from those juicy parts.

If you intend to include these types of details in your book, I recommend writing under a pseudonym (even if you have changed the details), and marketing the book under a pseudonym as well. If it would work for your book, I also recommend stating on the copyright page that the book is “fiction, loosely based on actual events.”

Whatever you do, don’t use your real name if you have written about family and friends, and intend to brag about your newly published book to them. Published books with juicy gossip have led to fractured families, broken friendships and, of course, many lawsuits.

Knowing all of this, is it REALLY worth it to put the reputations of others at risk? Harming the reputations of others can lead to great harm to your bank account.

Yes, you CAN get sued even if you’ve told the truth. You can even get sued if what you write is clearly an opinion. And, you can get sued for copyright infringement when you didn’t copy anyone. Will you win that lawsuit? Who knows? Some authors who are sued get so far into the red that they are forced to settle.

And, don’t think you can just get sued for what’s in your book. If you are making online videos and social media posts, being interviewed, participating in podcasts, and doing public presentations, anything you say can result in lawsuits as well.

Don’t believe me? Check these stories out, and think about how much in legal fees these authors and others had to pay to defend themselves…to say nothing of the months or years of stress that these lawsuits caused.

Some of these cases are still pending. In others, the plaintiffs may have won, or the defendants. In all of them, the money spent on lawyers was likely astronomical.

‘Running with Scissors’ Author Settles Suit with Therapist’s Family
“Burroughs and his publisher, St. Martin’s Press, have agreed to call the work a ‘book’ instead of ‘memoirs’ in the author’s note and to change the acknowledgments page in future editions to say that the Turcotte family’s memories of events he describes ‘are different than my own,’ and expressing regret for ‘any unintentional harm’ to them, according to Howard Cooper, an attorney for the family.” NOTE: The author did not name the family in his book. 

Journalist wins ‘kleptocrat’ book High Court libel case
“Mr. Burgis’ publisher said the case had been an attempt to use legal and financial firepower to silence public interest journalism.”

‘Wagatha Christie’ trial: Soccer WAG Coleen Rooney wins libel case
“After three years of expensive legal back-and-forth, Judge Justice Karen Steyn handed down her ruling Friday morning.”

Famed Seinfeld Name Helps Win Copycat Cookbook Claim
“Affirming a trial court decision dismissing the copyright and trademark claims Lapine brought in a plagiarism suit against Jessica Seinfeld and her publisher…”

Jerry Seinfeld Wins Libel Suit Brought by Cookbook Author: Calling Her a ‘Wacko’ Wasn’t Defamatory
“Seinfeld statements that she was a ‘wacko’ and…”

Writer named in controversial ‘media men’ list wins round in court
“A libel lawsuit over a widely circulated Google spreadsheet listing men in the news media who had allegedly committed sexual assault, abuse or similar improprieties moved closer to trial Thursday after a judge rejected a bid by the document’s creator to resolve the case in her favor.”

Appeal of Steven Galloway lawsuit pits author’s fight for reputation against accuser’s right to speak out
“But Galloway, the best-selling author of novels like The Cellist of Sarajevo, says he can no longer put pen to paper, ‘crippled by the fear of how a reading audience is likely to react.’

“A.B. says she can’t make art without ‘running it by legal counsel for fear of being sued.'”

Mystery Writer Revealed in Lawsuit Brought by Manchester Diocese Judicial Vicar
“Voris tried to keep secret the fact that this mystery writer authored the controversial articles on the Church Militant website, according to recent filings in the federal defamation case. Now, de Laire wants to add the writer to the lawsuit as a new defendant.”

Judge Tosses Drug Company’s Libel Lawsuit Against Medical Society
“A federal court in New Jersey has dismissed a pharmaceutical company’s lawsuit against a medical society, its flagship journal editor, and contributing authors that claimed articles it published were libelous and damaging to the reputation of the company’s pain drug.”

Alamo experts sue authors of a book suggesting they sold phoney artefacts from the battle to British pop star Phil Collins
“A defamation lawsuit brought by two experts in the history of the Battle of the Alamo claims that the authors of the book Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth dragged their names through the mud by implying fraudulent authentications, phony inscriptions and bloated prices.”

AND, FINALLY, if someone is threatening to sue you over the content in your book, you might want to send them this excellent article:

Why Can’t I Find a Lawyer to Take My Defamation Case? (Blame Barbra Streisand!)
“…does anyone come out of a salacious six-week trial ‘a winner’? Or could the airing of dirty laundry lead in a court case lead to the opposite effect? And that’s the problem with a shoot-from-the-hip attitude about being too quick to file a defamation lawsuit,” Powell underscores. “You need to ask yourself if it is better to say nothing in a public setting than to expose these embarrassing issues to people who might never have heard a thing about them.”

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Angela Hoy is the publisher of WritersWeekly.com, the author of 19 books, and the co-owner of BookLocker.com (one of the original POD publishers that still gets books to market in less than a month), PubPreppers.com (print and ebook design for authors who truly want to self-publish), and Abuzz Press (the publishing co-op that charges no setup fees).

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6 Responses to "Yes, You CAN Be Sued for Libel, Even If What You Wrote “Is 100% True”"

  1. Gloria Troyer  August 30, 2022 at 11:02 am

    Hi Angela
    I am writing a piece re summer jobs. I referred to ‘my sister’ as that since we took out a contract together to grow a specific vegetable. The publisher said ‘my sister’s’ name must appear as such. She has not spoken or seen me for 15 years, I don’t even know where she lives. she also got married and I don’t know his last name. she is integral to the story. What to do?.
    Thanks
    Gloria Troyer

    • By Angela Hoy - Publisher of WritersWeekly.com  August 30, 2022 at 11:17 am

      I’m not an attorney and this is not legal advice. Please consult with an attorney. That said, I can’t believe your publisher is trying to force you to name her in the book when there is no way to get permission from her. I think your publisher needs to consult with her/her own legal counsel.

      Angela

  2. Barry Knister  August 27, 2022 at 10:53 am

    Question: If I write a mystery novel, publish it under my own name, and use fictionalized names and details, but set the story on a college campus much like a real one, am I in any legal jeopardy?

    • By Angela Hoy - Publisher of WritersWeekly.com  August 30, 2022 at 11:18 am

      I am not an attorney and this is not legal advice. Please consult with an attorney. That said…if you are using a real college campus as the setting, you should ask them for permission.

      Angela

  3. Alicia  August 25, 2022 at 8:25 pm

    Hi, Angela,
    Should I give credit to the authors of recipes I’ve changed rather drastically (like 3 or more ingredients are omitted or added and cooking/baking method is different)?
    Should I just avoid the potential for a lawsuit by not mentioning them?
    Does my cookbook have to have only my original recipes, when some are ancient?
    Thank you for your input.