The Business of Biography


Carl Rollyson

One morning last week I received two e-mails that became an eruption in my writing day. The first e-mailer asked me how to become a biographer, and the second wanted to know if I wanted to do a book signing at the Tattered Cover (a well-known independent bookstore) for my forthcoming American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath. I sighed. Where to begin? I have written in earlier columns about how I became a biographer, and I won’t repeat myself here. I have to say, though, the first thought that came to me was not about writing biography per se, but rather about biography and the marketplace, a subject I wrote about at some length in Essays in Biography. Below you will find edited versions of my e-mail responses. If my first reply depresses your day, hang on for the second answer, since it includes a happy ending (sort of).

I assumed my first e-mailer was not independently wealthy, as she mentioned having just quit the job in banking she had held for two decades and was thinking of perhaps writing for the Hollywood Legends series of biographies I edit for University Press of Mississippi. So I began. The main problem is making any sort of living at writing. Advances for biographies are modest, and they are getting lower, as a recent article in The Biographer’s Craft points out. To give you an idea: The advance for a biography in the Hollywood Legends series would probably be around a thousand dollars. People working for minimum wage do better. Even for a big trade house the advance would not be the equivalent of, say, a year’s salary. I’m talking about less than $20,000. And out of that amount you are expected to pay for travel, photographs, permissions, and so on. I can only afford to be a writer because I teach and usually can get some travel support and even a research assistant through my university.

Of course, some biographers are very successful—but they only constitute a handful, believe me. You will need to learn about writing book proposals that include knowledge of the marketplace. In short, publishers expect you to do everything. There would be no budget to promote your book. Also, do you have an agent? If not, then virtually no publisher will pay attention to you. It doesn't matter if you have a college degree (my e-mailer was considering going back to school). All that matters, really, is that you have an agent who believes in you and your talent. That, in a way, is the encouraging part. You live and die by the strength of your writing. But how to get an agent? That is also a difficult task, even for successful authors after they leave an agent or the agent retires or dies.

What you need to do if you are determined to become a biographer is to join BIO, the Biographers International Organization, and attend its annual meeting (in June). There you can meet agents, pitch them your ideas, and speak with biographers to begin to see what is involved. BIO is a warm and welcoming organization.

For Hollywood Legends you need a subject you feel passionate about and who for some reason has not been done before—or has not been done well, or about whom you think you have some kind of special understanding. You need to read the blogs about Hollywood figures (I list some of those blogs on the Dana Andrews page of my website.) But you can also Google these blogs. Just type in “Hollywood Legends” and see what you find. Read the Hollywood Legends blog on my website. See who is getting discussed. I can think of two subjects, Dick Powell and Lizabeth Scott, who probably deserve new biographies, but there are many others.

All this may sound daunting, but it is exactly what a writer confronts—and has in fact always confronted, even though writers today may say the situation is worse now.

There is an entirely different avenue to success, though: self-publishing. An earlier column on BiblioBuffet was concerned with that subject, and a shorter version of the article also appears in The Biographer’s Craft newsletter (a must read for all biographers). As a self-published biographer, you can be in charge of your own destiny. But this will be an all consuming enterprise, since you will be writing and promoting your book without any advance. The good news is that you will keep far more of the profits from your book than you would with a traditional publisher. But do you have the means to pay for a self-published book and the know-how to market it? This can be done. I’ve done it. For example, I marketed my children’s biography, Marie Curie: Honesty in Science, to homeschooling organizations. I contacted them through Yahoo groups. The book was a modest success. I was thrilled, though, when a bookstore ordered two hundred copies, obviously because a homeschooling group was taking an interest in my work. No one else has ever ordered two hundred copies of one of my books. And I really did this all on my own.

So you have to ask yourself some hard questions. How badly do you want to write? Why do you want to write biography? Who is your subject, and what audience do you want to reach? And how do you plan to do it? To put it another way, writing is a business.

The second email came from Judy Denison. I name her here with her permission. She was a student at Smith College, and she knew Sylvia Plath. I interviewed Judy for my biography of Plath, and in the course of our talk, she mentioned she had a photograph she had taken of Sylvia at Smith. Well, that was a gift. Even better, the photograph was so good it became the cover for my biography, with Judy donating the fee St. Martin’s Press gave her to Smith College. So it was Judy who wrote to ask if I was doing book signings. I wrote her as follows:

The problem is that the publisher pays for nothing, which means zero dollars for airfare, accommodations, and so on. I’ll do some events in New York because they are close by, and I can stay with friends and work events into my teaching schedule. I’m going to St. Louis in late January because a bookstore there is arranging media events and will be promoting both my Plath and Dana Andrews biographies, as well as an earlier one of Martha Gellhorn, a St. Louis native.

Marilyn wants me to come to Wisconsin and is working on an event with a bookstore she is associated with. [I had interviewed Marilyn Martin—who also knew Plath—and Judy at the same time.] After all that I will have exhausted my frequent flyer miles and Marriott hotel points. Signings usually don’t even make up for the time and expense of travel.

I’m sorry to sound so grim, but the market is really bleak and discouraging for an author like me. The only joy is in the writing itself and the satisfaction of having produced a book. The Tattered Cover would, of course, be a wonderful place to do a signing. But my experience is that unless there are people I know in a location, and unless they can call on the interest of their friends, the signings are dismal events. I have had as few as five people show up (my friends!).

Most of the promotion these days is on social media since you can do it from home, it costs nothing, you can reach thousands, and it’s more targeted than ads. I enjoy talking to people, and I think I’m good at it, but it doesn’t sell many books, I’m afraid.

I'd like to come to Denver, but I’ve never been there and don’t have the contacts that would ensure a successful event. Do you?

When I wrote that last question, I thought it would probably end the matter. But it was also a dare—to see if, in fact, Judy understood what it would take to overcome my reluctance, and why I seemed so discouraging. Here is her reply:

No surprise, that the publisher pays nothing. Books are struggling these days.

I do have contacts, plenty of them.

  • I have an author friend who is doing a signing at the Tattered Cover in Denver Sep 12, which I am going to. He can tell me how to connect with Tattered Cover. 30 minutes from Golden where I live.
  • I know our local Barnes & Noble in Golden (pop 18,000), I can set up a book signing there.
  • My daughter knows the bookstore in Parker (45 min from Golden), she could set up something there.
  • We have a well-known author in Golden, Joanne Greenberg (I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, teaches at Colorado School of Mines), I know her and could get suggestions from her, maybe set up a meeting, or a little party?
  • My son-in-law in Parker has a PR business, and although it’s medical, he can tell me whom to contact.
  • I send out the Golden Newsletter by email every Sunday to over 1000 recipients, can list there.
  • Could get you coverage in local Golden paper, based on the photo on cover.
  • I don’t have contacts at University of Colorado Boulder but I could create some. Visit a writing class? Book signing? a half hour from Golden.
  • Local Smith club
  • As far as accommodations: You (and your wife?) are welcome to stay with me—very modest house. I have a guest room, and the bathroom is shared; four blocks from downtown Golden.

Well, how could I refuse? Of course, I’ll do what I can to assist Judy, but really she will be the one on the ground doing the work.

In effect, Judy is building infrastructure and creating synergy (this was the word conglomerates used in the nineties when they were buying up publishing houses, foolishly thinking publishing would make huge profits tied to the motion picture business and other media). I think, on the local level, this kind of synergy may work. Much of the rest of what authors are offered makes no sense. I get mailings all the time from iUniverse suggesting I buy one of their promotional packages for my self-published books. But doing so is throwing money away in most cases. Ads don’t work, by and large, except maybe for mega-selling authors. Twenty years ago, my publisher Paragon House actually did pay for radio interviews featuring my biography of Norman Mailer. I don’t believe those interviews sold many books. Certainly that biography performed no better than and not as well as some of my other books. In retrospect, I’m not surprised. Except for NPR programs, most listeners to daytime radio are not big book buyers. I’m sure most of them have never even heard of Norman Mailer. Just recently, a company emailed me promising ten radio interviews. The cost: $1500. I’d have to generate sales of several hundred copies to make back that amount. No thank you; I’ll pass on that one.

What Judy was offering me was sweat equity. That’s what most biographers, most writers, have to rely on these days.

Books mentioned in this column:
American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath by Carl Rollyson (St. Martin’s Press, 2013)
Essays in Biography by Carl Rollyson (iUniverse, 2005)
Hollywood Legends series (University Press of Mississippi, 2008-Present)
Marie Curie: Honesty in Science by Carl Rollyson (iUniverse, 2004)


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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