Do You Need Liability Insurance?

If we write a book and self-publish it on a not-for-profit basis, does this eliminate any liability we might incur for inadvertent plagiarism or failing to acquire permissions?

—J.B. Parrott

Unfortunately, no. Writers who self-publish, for profit or not, do not escape liability for libel or copyright infringement. In fact, because you will not be covered by a large company’s insurance policy, you need to be especially careful. If you are writing on a controversial topic, or are unsure about permissions, you should consider purchasing your own insurance. In the last five years, the awards for print media cases have grown. In 2000, the last year for which numbers were available, the average final award for libel was $155,000.

Even authors with publishing houses are being urged not to depend solely on their publishers for coverage. Insurance companies have substantially hiked premium and deductibles on libel and copyright infringement policies for publishers. Large houses are passing the rising costs on to their authors, and many smaller publishers can’t afford the insurance at all. Contracts differ: Some authors may have to kick in 10 to 20 percent of their advance in the event of a lawsuit to cover damage judgments, settlements and attorneys’ fees; others must split the deductible with the publisher. Authors should ask to be covered by their publishers’ insurance (and make sure it’s in the contract)—it is not automatic.

You can find more information about individual liability insurance from a variety of organizations. The Authors Guild ( supplies members with a list of recommended providers. The National Writers Union ( was forced to discontinue offering a libel insurance policy, but may still advise members. Other writer and publisher organizations do still offer liability insurance as a member benefit—look into joining the Small Publishers Association of North America ( or Publish-ers Marketing Association (

I’m taping interviews with war veterans for a book I’m writing. I obtained oral permissions from them at that time to use their stories. Will those permissions suffice?

—Ernest C. Frazier

I’m a big fan of getting everything in writing, but so long as the interviews are being tape recorded, you will have proof that they voluntarily participated in your project and a record of what was said. With the recorder running, begin each interview with a statement of the date, and that what they tell you is being recorded for use in a book.

To further protect yourself from libel or invasion of privacy claims when conducting interviews, here are additional considerations:

  • Check each declarative sentence or quotation for accuracy.
  • If you’re given information about a third party that seems libelous (ethics/honesty, sexuality, criminal history, drug/alcohol abuse and certain diseases/illnesses), insist on documentation. When possible, follow up with the individual to get his or her story.
  • Even if true, disclosing information that is private or embarrassing can lead to invasion of privacy claims. Ask yourself, is it essential to the article or book? Is it of current public concern? Is the person a public or private figure?
  • Retain your notes, tapes and transcriptions in case there is a dispute. By being careful with the way you gather information and the quotes that you use, you will lessen your chances of ending up in court.

    This article appears in the December 2002 issue of Writer’s Digest.

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