The Business of Writing a Biography
Our lovely Ann Dvorak writing away while honeymooning in Europe in 1932
Those of you Dvorak devotees who still check in here have probably noticed that the posts have slowed down to a trickle. It’s not that my love of Ann has waned, far from it, though now that we’re two years removed from the release of Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel, she’s not quite as much of a focus. Plus, I have taken on weird responsibilities in my life like Girl Scout Troop Co-Leader, so my time is getting spread increasingly thinner.
Also, I have decided to undertake a new biography project. I am not quite ready to announce anything yet, but I am getting into the thick of it enough that it is certainly cutting into my time to post here. Before I drop completely off the face of this website (well, not completely – I’ll be sure to post any major Ann news), I thought I would write a post I have been meaning to do for awhile.
Now that I have gone through the process of writing and publishing a Hollywood biography, I’ll occasionally be contacted by people who are thinking of doing the same and want to know what may be in store for them. Since I work at a research institution and oversee a photo archive, I have gained some additional perspective into the process. I am sure every writer’s experience is unique, so this is just some insight into my personal experience that hopefully can be some useful food for thought for anyone considering undertaking a similar project.
As noble and important as film scholarship is, a major thing to be aware of is that writing a full-length biography is going to cost money. Most likely it will be the author who shoulders this cost, unless you’re one of those lucky souls who can land a publisher who still pays advances (I was not one of those lucky souls). This business of writing a biography is what I wanted to focus on with this post.
Research Costs Money
We are currently living in a golden age for researchers, which becomes bigger and better everyday. Institutions, corporations, government entities, and individuals are digitizing materials at an astounding rate and access to content from around the world is at our fingertips. I started researching Ann Dvorak right on the cusp of the digital revolution, so much of the material I had to access through “traditional” time consuming methods is now available in mere minutes. However, despite the leaps and strides that the online realm makes on a regular basis, not everything is available online, far from it. More than likely, trips to libraries, archives, and government agencies are going to be necessary to create a complete picture of a person’s life.
For Ann Dvorak, my chapters about her time at MGM and Warner Bros. would be anemic had I not spent an extensive amount of time utilizing their primary source archives at USC. It’s been fifteen years since my first visit to USC, and these materials are still not available online. Court documents provided valuable insight into Ann’s legal case against Warner Bros, as well as her very troubled marriage to Nick Wade. Real estate records also revealed a great deal about Ann’s time in Los Angeles and Hawaiian probate records helped flesh out Ann’s final years. The New York Public Library had clippings and photos relating to Ann’s parents that were vital to telling their story. I could go on and on, but you probably get the point.
This vital research costs money in the form of time off of work, photocopying expenses, travel expenses, and probably a few other areas. Sometimes, things that have been digitized still cost money to access. I am fortunate that the library I work at subscribes to some historic newspapers databases, but there are many we don’t have. I have certainly paid money to access digitized materials over the years. For Ann Dvorak, I made multiple trips to Hawaii and New York and one visit to London for my research, so yes, it was an expensive endeavor. For those of you that are not able to travel, libraries maintain lists of researchers for hire. Utilizing their services may be cheaper than traveling somewhere, but be prepared to pay them a fair rate which they certainly deserve.
What you should not expect from librarians is that they do the research for you. Some institutions, like the New York Public Library offer fee-based research services, but generally libraries are understaffed and are not able to undertake massive research projects for out-of-town authors. For the library I work at, we can handle basic reference questions and our job is to be able to help you locate the materials you are looking for. We cannot compile all that research for you which is very, very time consuming. Not that this stops people from begging or yelling at us, but please realize that if you are not prepared to travel in the name of research, then be prepared to hire a researcher.
Photographs Cost Money
If you’re like me, the first thing you do when cracking open a new biography is thumb through and look at the photos. People love photos, and why shouldn’t they? Images truly help tell a full story and every biography should have a great selection of photos. However, photos can end up being a HUGE expense. Not only do institutions and commercial enterprises charge reproduction fees, but they will also charge additional fees based on how the image is being used and this can add up fast.
Fortunately, images of film stars are plentiful and depending on the time period, probably out of copyright (University Press of Kentucky has a great guide to this on page 11). This makes buying original photos on eBay an option that may be cheaper than going through a photo archive. This does not mean the photos won’t end up costing a lot. I only acquired a handful of images of Ann Dvorak from institutions, so most of the photos in the book are from my personal collection. Even so, I probably spent between $2,600 – $3,000 for the images used, not including travel expenses as some of the photos were purchased on trips to New York and Hawaii. That cost was less painful for me, since it was spread out over 15 years, but it’s still a chunk of change.
If you are starting research for a biography, and money is a big issue, I strongly recommend setting aside a few bucks a week into a photo fund. Researching someone’s life doesn’t need to take 15 years, but it should take a least a year or two. Setting aside a bit here and there will result in some sort of photo budget when the time comes. As a photo archivist, I strongly suggest your photo plan NOT be to yell at and browbeat the employee at the photo archive. My assistant and I have been subjected to so much abuse from people not wanting to pay fees, that we’re both hollow and desensitized to any amount of begging or yelling. I can’t speak for other institutions, but the fees we collect directly support our ability to preserve and digitize the photos in the collection, which is something I take seriously. I would not waive these fees for my own my mother (not that she would even ask, because she knows better).
Another option is to seek out other collectors who have photos in their personal collections. Over the years, I have been contacted by biographers writing about Ann’s co-stars and am more than happy to provide publishable scans in exchange for credit in the book.
While the cost of photos is a harsh reality, it’s really necessary. There was a biography that came out on a couple of years back on a Los Angeles figure. The author regarded it as his life’s work, but didn’t want to pay money for images. The book came to be known as “that one without any photos,” and discussions about it never made it past a conversation about the importance of photos.
Pony up, it’s worth it.
Indexes Cost Money
I did a whole post on indexes a while back which you can read here. I am a strong advocate of a strong index and was actually surprised that this was not a service provided by my publisher. Yes, I was lucky that a close friend of mine has a background in cataloging, which made indexing easy for her. Plus, she indexed my book at no charge. Had she not been available, I would have probably paid someone, which can run in the $2,000 rage. I do not recommend using an indexing software which produces a final product that is superficial and unhelpful. If you’re going through the time an expense to research and write a book, you want it so be useful for years to come and a well crafted index is key to that.
While the publisher did not provide me with an index, they did give me a copy editor, layout designer, and graphic designer to work with. The Ann Dvorak book looks fantastic because of them. If you’re going the self-publishing route, you are going to need to pay someone for these services. Even if you think you can do this on your own, if you don’t have a background in one of these areas, forget it. These people are paid professionals for a reason. They trained to do these jobs, and will do them infinitely better than you and I ever could. Here at the library, we frequently have authors wanting to get their self-published books into the collection. While some are certainly worthwhile additions, more often then not these books have huge quality control issues which will eliminate them from consideration. I sometimes get asked if would self-publish and the answer is an emphatic no. The editorial and production services my publisher provided far outweighed any benefits from self-publishing, though again, that’s just my personal experience.
Well that’s all the wisdom I have to offer at this point, which I hope is helpful. If you’re thinking of writing a biography of a film personality, I fully encourage it, but just be aware that there may be a bit more to it that you think.