Why we all need English Pen

I have just signed a contract with Unbound. This contract should actually have been signed months ago but there have been delays. Most of these have been due to a general failure on all parts to deal with boring admin. But there have been some more substantial discussions as to the terms of the contract as well. Unbound and the whole crowd funding approach is so new that there is no standard contract which anyone can lift off the shelf. I'm very glad that I have had the support of my agent and my husband who happens to be a lawyer.

One of the issues we have had to discuss is the question of libel. On this matter, the debate has not been specific to crowd funding and Unbound. All that Unbound have done is put in the contract what ever publisher puts in the contract. But the problem is that, as many authors have discovered, these standard terms relating to libel mean that the writer really takes all responsibility (and bears all the costs) if anyone decides to sue. My husband was certainly worried about me signing up to this. I don't expect trouble but there are plenty of nut cases out there.

Both my agent and Unbound suggested that I contacted the Society of Authors and I did that. They have a deal with an insurance company who are able to offer cover to writers worried about libel. But when I enquired I discovered that the premiums are around £700 a year. I'm not suggesting that this is not in line with the market rate. I'm sure that it is. But the reality is that most writers simply can't spend that kind of money.

So really you just have to hope that you don't get sued. And give thanks to the Powers That Be for English Pen. They campaign tireless on issues relating to libel and have recently managed to get the law changed slightly. In the past complainants were winning libel cases just because they didn't really like the things that had been written about them. Thanks to changes in the law anyone taking a libel case now has to demonstrate that some real damage has been done to them. This is an important change. It supports writers who want to say things which, although true, are unpopular.

But for English Pen the battle always continues. A recent case has caused particular concern. The publication of a book has been halted to protect the rights of a child. The book was written by the child's father and contains information which his ex wife deems to be too upsetting for the child to know. It's an interesting,complex and worrying case. It shows that we definitely need English Pen to keep on fighting for us.

(This photo has nothing to do with English Pen but it is the last photograph in my memoir Dead Babies and Seaside towns which will be published on 2 July. It shows my TWO children heading off the school together, not something I ever expected to see).


Wendy H. Jones said…
Very interesting. This is not something I ever thought of. I write fiction so I would hope no one would think of suing me.
JO said…
As a writer of travel, I always have the libel situation in mind. But - I don't make anything up (so no one can accuse me of fibbing), I always try to balance anything that looks like criticism with an acknowledgement that I can never tell the whole story. And I always change names.

Although sometimes I wish the racist, patronising woman I met in Laos could recognise herself and be ashamed!
Lydia Bennet said…
I have thought of this, but lots of books are based on real people. Libel involves defamation and even before the change you describe, as far as I know, truth has always been a full defence against libel charges. I can see why publishers put the onus on the author and I don't blame them - they have no way of knowing whether an author has a personal exe to grind and has had a go at someone to a libellous level and it would be impossible to check. Changing names isn't enough if you make the person very recognisable to anyone who knows them, but there are other ways of changing them. If you tell the truth you should be ok!
The vast majority of what I write is fiction - and historical fiction at that - so it isn't something that keeps me awake at night - although I can well understand that it's a worry. I am aware that people can even become very defensive of their antecedents. I've had one angry email from a grand-daughter of a former landowner - I'd labelled him 'absentee' in a non fiction book (he was!) and she didn't like it. I don't suppose I'd have liked it if he was my grandfather either but fortunately there was no question of defamation since he was long dead. I must say, whenever I have occasion to mention any real product in a novel I'm only ever nice about it. If I wanted to slate something, I would definitely make a name up.

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