The Difference Between Authorized and Unauthorized Biographies

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Q: I'm considering writing a biography about someone relatively famous in my hometown. I've noticed that biographies fall into one of two categories: authorized and unauthorized. What's the difference?

A: The difference between an authorized biography and an unauthorized biography is this: An authorized biography is written with the help/cooperation of the person whom the book is about and an unauthorized biography is not.

In an authorized biography, the author typically holds interviews with the subject of the book, the subject's family members and friends, co-workers, etc. The author is privy to information only attainable from the subject of the book. So, let's say you wanted to write Brian A. Klems: Man, Writer, Softball Champion and wanted it to be an authorized biography. You'd contact me and ask for my blessing and cooperation, getting as much information as you can directly from me (and those around me). If I were deceased (yikes!), you'd need the blessing of my estate. Also, depending on level of involvement, sometimes the subject will get a shared byline and possibly a share of the book's revenue. Issues like that can—and should—be addressed before the book is started.

On the flip side, if you call for my help and I tell you to buzz off, you have two options: 1) to actually buzz off or 2) to go ahead and write the biography anyway without my help. Here you'll have to gather info on your own from public records and other resources, but you won't have to make any professional compromises or financial concessions.

Before you write any biography, authorized or not, I recommend reading the article "Publication Of An Unauthorized Biography" by Lloyd L. Rich. He offers up an excellent breakdown of the potential legal ramifications, what they mean and how to avoid them.

Brian A. Klems is the online community editor of Writer’s Digest magazine.

Have a question for me? Feel free to post it in the comments section below or e-mail me at with “Q&Q” in the subject line. Come back each Tuesday as I try to give you more insight into the writing life.