The Self-Published Biography


Carl Rollyson

I’m writing this aboard a plane on my return from the third annual BIO (Biographers  International Organization) conference. This year we met in Los Angeles on the campus of the University of Southern California. As usual, we covered a range of topics in panel presentations, which included screenwriters discussing their work on biopics (of special interest to me since I'm attempting to convert my Dana Andrews biography into a film), a discussion of the role of blogging, book trailers (), and an exploration of the uses of social media in promoting books, and considerations of the craft of writing a beautiful biography, the perils and the promise of unauthorized biography, dealing with the families of our subjects, and much, much more. Part of the much more was a workshop I conducted on alternatives to traditional publication—in other words, the self-published biography.

With the diminution of book advances, many trade book authors have turned, as I have, to self-publication. I began several years ago by acquiring the rights to my out-of-print biographies: my works on Lillian Hellman, Martha Gelllhorn, Norman Mailer, Rebecca West, and Jill Craigie. All of these books are now back in print through, which is just one of many companies that have formed alliances with writers organizations like the Authors Guild and the American Association of Journalists and Authors in order to provide members with new editions at low cost—and, in some cases, with no charge to the writer.

But what is a biographer to do, when he or she has been unable to attract a publisher, large or small, for a new biography? Most professional biographers are all too familiar with the publishers' plaintive cry: “That subject has been done too often.” Or “that subject has been forgotten.” Or “no one has heard of your subject.” Publishers are almost always wrong. Too often they choose to publish the wrong book. It is a wonder most of them are still in business. Give them a few more years and many of them—especially the behemoths of the trade—will probably be either gone or unrecognizable.

The question publishers ought to ask is whether the biographer has done a good job of research and told a good story. Period. And yet writers and reviewers, no less than publishers, saddle biography with ridiculous prejudices. As an example: One of my colleagues in the New York University Biography Seminar said to me, “Isn't Dana Andrews a small subject?” I didn't have the wit to reply, “There are no small subjects, only small biographers.” Imagine telling James Joyce that his choice of subject, Leopold Bloom, was too small. Imagine relegating novels to telling only the lives of important characters. Farewell Emma Bovary.

What matters, of course, is the biographer's talent and passion for the subject. Many years ago, when I was living in Detroit in the Alden Park Manor along the Detroit River, I befriended a fellow tenant named Cyril Forbes. He was a retired city employee and had lived in Alden Park Manor since the 1940s, when Detroit was booming and was one of the best and most livable cities in the country. Not only could Cyril reminisce powerfully about those days, he could share with me memories of his wife, the beloved Edna, who remained the center of his life—not in a morbid way, but precisely in the way a biographer commemorates a person deserving of his devotion. There was nothing sentimental or cloying about Cyril’s passion, and as I listened to him, Edna became my subject—even though prior to this column I have never written about Edna or Cyril. Cyril cast a spell on me and on my wife, Lisa. We shall never forget him.

I thought of Cyril during my BIO workshop, as I listened to the dozen writers who were considering self-publishing because their subjects had been deemed small. And it suddenly occurred to me what self-publishing could mean for biography. As I told the group, they are contributing to an on-going revolution in publishing—and also, I think, to a transformation of the nature of biography. The self-published biographer accomplishes what no other kind of publisher dares to do by insisting on the vital necessity of the biographical subject—any biographical subject. The self-published biographer brings to the genre an awesome commitment unfettered by the preconceptions about the marketplace that bedevil benighted publishers. The self-published biographer creates a market. The self-published biographer restores a human life. For too long publishers have acted as though it is their imprimatur that makes a biography worthwhile when, in fact, it is the imprimatur of biography that honors the publisher.


Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals. Carl is the author of a dozen biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. His studies of biography include: A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography and Biography: A User's Guide. More about Carl and his work can be found at his website. His Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews will appear this fall and American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath in the spring of 2013. He is currently writing a biography of Amy Lowell. When not writing, he is playing with his two Scotties. Contact Carl.



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