The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
January 2010
  Vol. 3, No. 11
Registration Opens for Compleat Biographer Conference; Turnout Higher Than Expected

The registration website for the first-ever Compleat Biographer Conference opened for business on December 15, and biographers from the United States and other countries have been signing up in droves. The early registration discount is set to expire on January 20.
    UMB harbor The conference, which is sponsored by Biographers International Organization (BIO), will be held at the University of Massachusetts Boston. A stellar line up of biographers, editors, archivists, foundation officers, and literary agents will serve on panels and lead workshops.
     The fee to attend the daylong conference is $195 ($95 for students) and includes breakfast, lunch, and access to all the panels and workshops as well as the end-of-day reception, featuring book signings by many biographers.
     Additionally, the conference will include a speed-dating session with agents during which authors without representation will have a chance to meet one-on-one with an agent and pitch their projects.
     To learn more about the conference or to register, visit BIO's conference website.

Rampersad to Speak at Levy Center's Annual Conference
RampersadArnold Rampersad, author of biographies of Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Jackie Robinson, will be the keynote speaker at the Leon Levy Center for Biography's second annual conference. The gathering will be held on March 19 at Elebash Recital Hall in the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
     Rampersad is a professor emeritus of English at Stanford University. His most recent book, Ralph Ellison, was widely praised and is available in a Vintage paperback edition. The first volume of his two-volume biography of Langston Hughes was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
     For more information, contact the Levy Center.

With Potential Demise of Kirkus, TBC Makes Plans to Test Prepublication Review Website for Biographies
Beginning in May, TBC tentatively plans to launch a six-month experiment of publishing prepublication reviews of biographies to fill the hole left by the demise of Kirkus. The 76-year-old reviewing publication that cranked out 5,000 reviews a year announced last month that it will close its doors. There have been a few rumors that it may be bought. When TBC went to press, Kirkus announced it may have found a buyer.
     TBC's new website will feature reviews modeled on Kirkus and Publishers Weekly and will run between five and ten 300- to 400-word reviews a month of forthcoming biographies two months prior to publication. In addition to being posted on the website, the reviews will be syndicated to other publications.
     The reviewers would be paid and required to abide by strict conflict-of-interest standards similar to those in use by other review media. The reviews would be published without bylines.
     Publishers wishing to submit galleys and writers interested in reviewing books should write to us for guidelines.

Authors Guild and Association of Authors' Representatives Offer to Help Make Sense of E-Book Marketplace

The Authors Guild Foundation and the Association of Authors' Representatives are putting on a panel discussion about the confusing developing tale of rights in the e-book market.
     "Next year, publishers may find themselves having to choose between treating e-books as it [sic] would any other format, or as a separate entity," explained Sarah Weinman in a Daily Finance article that should be required reading for any author.
    caderThe panel will be moderated by Michael Cader of Publishers Marketplace and will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, January 19, at the Scandinavia House, 58 Park Avenue, New York City.

  • If you are a members of the Authors Guild and wish to attend, please notify the guild.
  • If you are not a member of the guild and wish to attend, email us your name by midnight (EST) Sunday, January 10, to reserve a place.

Cheever: A Life Is Best Biography of 2009, According to Critics

CheeverBlake Bailey's Cheever: A Life (Knopf) was the favorite biography of book critics in 2009, according to a TBC analysis that examined 18 of critics' year-end lists of best books. Cheever, which the New York Times called "a definitive, Dickensian rendering of a complete and complicated life, addictively readable and long overdue," was on half of the critics' lists, easily outdistancing rival books.
     Tied for second were T. J. Stiles's The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Knopf) and Brad Gooch's Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor (Little, Brown). Tied for third place were Terry Teachout's Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Houghton Mifflin) and Linda Gordon's Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (Norton).
     To learn more about these authors, consult these interviews or articles:
     The TBC compilation included lists from the New York Times, the Washington Post,the Los Angeles Times,the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today,the Christian Science Monitor,the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine,the New Yorker, Slate, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. In those few cases where the publication had both a top-10 list and a longer list, we used the shorter one.

Biographer Finds Dividends in Writing a Newsletter

Biographers looking for ways to connect with readers, wanting to share research that might not make it into the eventual book, or searching for the much-prized "platform" that publishers endlessly talk about might take a lesson from Diane Diekman.
     Author of Live Fast, Love Hard: The Faron Young Story, published in 2007 by the University of Illinois Press, Diekman is hard at work on another biography, Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins, expected to be released in 2012 by the same press.
     In the fall of 2005, after finishing her work on the Young biography, Diekman launched a weekly publication, the Faron Young Biography Newsletter.
     "I had so much good information I wanted to share-most importantly, significant dates along the lines of, 'This is what Faron was doing 50 years ago this week,'" Diekman told TBC. She began each issue with an event in Faron's life and discussed interesting interviews she had completed or websites she had found.
     Initially, Diekman sent the newsletter to about 40 people; today her distribution list is more than four hundred, and the content is often picked up by other websites. By the end of 2007, Live Fast, Love Hard: The Faron Young Story had been published. "There wasn't much more to say about Faron. Also, I was writing Twentieth Century Drifter," Diekman said. So she altered her publication schedule to every two or three weeks and began to include material about her new subject.
     "It doesn't take much time to put together because I mostly cut and paste from things I've already written and from letters I receive," she said. "I also keep each issue short enough to hold a reader's attention."
     The newsletter has helped Diekman both in marketing and in research. "When I wrote the marketing plan for my publisher in early 2007, I included sources from several other countries-all of whom came through email correspondence. Whenever I have an upcoming appearance or radio interview, I post that information in advance. Recently, I posted a request for contact information for three members of the Marty Robbins band I hadn't been able to find. Within a week, I'd completed telephone interviews with two of them, plus a third I hadn't known about."
     "The best part of having this newsletter is the ability to 'meet' so many people." Diekman said. "I can't begin to calculate how many sources I've acquired and how much more detail I have in my books solely because my readers told me something. I also now have an archive I can check when searching for a tidbit of information. An extra special benefit is the thrill of reconnecting friends from years past who had lost touch-most particularly the musicians who worked for Faron and Marty."
     To learn more about Diekman's newsletter, visit her website.

Intelligence Archive Provides Rarely Seen Perspectives on International Politics and World History

Biographers working on contemporary subjects with an international political bent may want to make use of Readex products, including its newest one, a digital edition of FBIS Daily Report Annexes, 1974-1996 that will be out early this year. The edition, a complement to FBIS Daily Reports, 1974-1996, provides more than two decades of international, national, and local perspectives on such topics as Middle East crises and negotiations, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the secret acquisition of radar systems by the People's Republic of China.
     BondThe material was gathered by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) Daily Report, which was the United States' principal record of political and historical open-source intelligence for nearly seventy years. The original mission of the FBIS was to monitor, record, transcribe, and translate intercepted radio broadcasts from foreign governments, official news services, and clandestine broadcasts from enemy and occupied territories.
     Full-text searchable for the first time, FBIS Daily Report Annexes will feature individual citations for each article as well as highlighted events to assist student researchers. Like the related FBIS Daily Reports, FBIS Daily Report Annexes presents views and information from thousands of monitored broadcasts and publications.
     For more information, consult the Readex website.

Letter to the Editor

Dear Editor,
     My love of biographies started young: there was a wonderful series in the library at Washington Elementary, in Holland, Michigan, where I attended school, of small (maybe five- by seven-inch), blue, cloth-bound biographies that I would check out over and over, when I was around seven to ten years old. They were all illustrated with silhouettes, with approximately twenty illustrations per book. I read the one on Amelia Earhart at least a dozen times. There was also one on Clara Barton, and I believe one on Florence Nightingale, among several other notable women and men.
     I have scoured dusty children's sections of used bookstores from Seattle to New York, I have looked online, searching all kinds of terms, and I cannot seem to find any information on this biography series. I would love to reunite with them, as I have many fond memories of curling up in couch corners with them. I'm wondering if any biographers out there are familiar with these books and know the series name or publisher. I read them in the early '80s, but I believe they were published earlier.
     Many thanks. I am a reader (and former assistant editor in publishing in New York) who enjoys biographies and this newsletter very much. Thank you for all your work.
All best,
Miriam Beyer
Communications Manager
Columbia University School of the Arts
Readers, help Beyer out and send your replies to us.


Amanuensis: A person whose employment is to write what another dictates, or to copy what another has written. Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)

The distinction between biography and autobiography is really quite simple: the terms mark the difference between the effort of one person to get the details of another person's life straight and the effort of one person to have her say about the kind of life she has led. In the writing of biography objectivity is both the goal and the standard for the biographer who stands at a distance from his subject. Autobiographers by definition have no distance from their subjects; they are in the business of expressing and revealing themselves, and while objectivity is often something they claim, failing to make good on that claim will not be regarded as fatal as it would be for a biographer. Instead it will be regarded as another piece of information about the personality whose portrait is being painted in words. To put in the simplest terms, a biographer is saying, "This is the way it was"; an autobiographer is saying, "This is the way I saw it and remember it."
[Read more]

--Stanley Fish, New York Times blog
Tips Corner: A Helping Hand in Searching Federal Records
Searching the vast repository of federal records continues to get easier. One of the newer and better tools is Originally launched in 1999 as iArchives, a company that digitized historical newspapers, provides access more than 6 million documents in the government's hands and elsewhere. A quick review of its holdings shows that it includes such varied files as admiralty records from Key West, Apollo missions records, Brady Civil War photographs, census records, Eastern Cherokee applications, FBI cases, Japanese air-target analyses, photographs taken during the Coolidge administration, passport applications files, State Department records, and even handwritten records for the town of Hancock, New Hampshire, including church records.
     One can access much of the material with a free-of-charge account, but the enhanced paid account is a bargain. To learn more about it, visit's website.

In This Issue
Conference Registration Open
Rampersad to Speak at Levy Conference
TBC Makes Plans for Book Reviews
E-Book Panel Discusson
Best Biography of 2009?
Newsletter Brings Dividends
Intelligence Archives
Letter to the Editor
Tips Corner
the Editor's Desk
I'm calling it the "no reply reply." It's the new, cyberspace equivalent of the old "don't call us, we'll call you," apparently derived from the brush-off line given to folks who showed up for casting calls.
    Six years ago, when I set off to promote my previous book, I wrote letters to historical societies, museums, universities, libraries, and other venues asking if they might be interested in having me stop by and give a talk. In most cases I would receive a reply, even if only to decline the offer.
    Now I'm heading out on the road with my current book, this time a biography of a more recognizable figure. Fascinatingly, the most common response to my letters this time is silence. I don't want to embarrass any particular institution or overworked events coordinator, but some of the venues are a natural for this particular book. It isn't as if I am suggesting a talk about the newest pulled-pork barbecue recipes to the national vegan convention.
    So this is not a complaint about my particular situation. I write about it because I think it may be part of a growing trend. I shared my experience with a friend, a noted New York magazine editor, and she said she hears about this phenomenon all the time now. The "no reply reply" has become a standard in email correspondence. We mused that it could be the result of the overwhelming amount of mail in our in-boxes and the increasing workload in a recession.
    Nonetheless, the fact that people don't necessarily reach for that reply button is a sign of diminishing civility in our new world of electronic correspondence.
    If you want to write to me about it, I will hit reply. I promise.
This may offend a few readers, but how can I let the January issue of TBC go to press (or to cyberspace) without mention of the new biography of Warren Beatty, by Peter Biskind. The author, a longtime Hollywood writer with impressive credentials, has decided to share with readers his estimate of how many women his subject has slept with. He used math to make the calculation, based on information provided in the course of researching this authorized biography. Biskind's conclusion was that Beatty has had sex with 12,775 women. If the number seems staggering, consider that the author told the paragon of fact-checking New York Post, "[that] figure does not include daytime quickies, drive-bys, casual gropings, stolen kisses, and so on."

Happy reading,

James McGrath Morris 

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Sold to Publishers

The following are among the biographies recently sold to publishers, as reported by Publishers Marketplace and other sources.

Debra Ann Pawlak, Bringing Up Oscar: The Men and Women Who Conceived Hollywood's Most Wanted Man, to Pegasus

John Abbott and Bob Blumenthal, Saxophone Colossus: A Portrait of Sonny Rollins, to Abrams

Richard Siklos, untitled account of Michael Jackson's career, to Broadway

Antonia Grunenberg, Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, to Indiana University Press

Paul David Pope, The Deeds of My Fathers: Generoso Pope, Sr., Power Broker of New York & Gene Pope, Jr., to Philip Turner Books

Mark Mordue, Tender Prey: The Life and Work of Nick Cave, to Simon & Schuster

Frank Brady, Endgame: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Bobby Fischer, to Crown

In Stores

The following are biographies in stores this month. In cooperation with Publishers Weekly, many titles are accompanied by a link to the PW review. 


Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America
by Peter Biskind
(Simon & Schuster)
PW Review
The Churchills: A Family Portrait
by Celia Lee and John Lee
(Palgrave Macmillan)
PW Review
Lenin's Brother: The Origins of the October Revolution
by Philip Pomper
PW Review
King of the Lobby: The Life and Times of Sam Ward, Man-About-Washington in the Gilded Age
by Kathryn Allamong Jacob
(Johns Hopkins)
PW Review



Mrs Lincoln

Mrs. Lincoln: A Life
by Catherine Clinton
Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California
by Frances Dinkelspiel
(St. Martin's)
Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster
by Alison Weir

 Hunter S. Thompson: An Insider's View of Deranged, Depraved, Drugged Out Brilliance
by Jay Cowan
(Lyons Press)
Hitler: A Biography
by Ian Kershaw



James McGrath Morris,

Sarah Baldwin,
copy editor
Mailing address:
P.O. Box 864
Tesuque, NM  87574

Photo of
 James McGrath Morris
by Michael Mudd