How To Pay For It, or Funding Your Biography

Moderator Heath Lee started the session by noting that advances, even from major publishers, have been declining in recent years, and she hoped the panel would help biographers find other ways to finance their work.

Carla Kaplan then related some of her experience researching the life of Jessica Mitford, the subject of her forthcoming biography, who left behind “hundreds and hundreds of boxes of material” in a number of places for a biographer to explore. The only practical way to proceed, Kaplan said, was to digitize the material to work with later, which turned out to be a costly and time-consuming undertaking. Thankfully, she had received support from the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) Public Scholars Program.

Kaplan has been a recipient of many fellowships and grants and has also read the applications submitted for many of those programs. She focused on the audience for grant applications, readers like her, and how to craft an application with them in mind. “Who is reading it, that is the thing you should be thinking about constantly,” she said. The reader most likely is not familiar with the subject and is part of an interdisciplinary panel of academics and non-academics. And, most likely, the reader is reviewing the application at the last minute, “in kind of a panic.” Given all that, Kaplan said applicants should focus on the “why” of the project: “What matters . . . is making clear to that audience why your book matters” and why the applicant is the right person to write the book now. What doesn’t matter is the details of the argument the book will make. She also stressed the need to be interesting, not academic, in the writing style.

Following Kaplan was Mark Silver, team leader for the Public Scholars Program at the NEH. The program supports authors writing well-researched, nonfiction books in the humanities written to appeal to a broad audience—of which Kaplan’s Mitford book is a good example (as is biography as a genre).

Silver said the Public Scholars Program’s grants range from $30,000 to $60,000, and typically 300 applicants vie for 25 to 30 awards. In listing his top tips for applying, he echoed Kaplan’s main point: “Think hard about why your biography matters.” Does the subject’s life illustrate a larger theme or issue? If so, that “something else” should be a key selling point and something applicants should articulate carefully. Applicants also need to consider the program’s focus on intellectual significance and audience appeal and think about their own strengths and weaknesses in these areas. For example, a person with a background in journalism might want to get tips from an academic and vice versa. In answering a question, Silver suggested having other people read and provide feedback on the proposal before submitting it. He also noted that biographers should not present any kind of fictionalized details or descriptions in their applications. Finally, he directed potential applicants to the NEH website for more information, including samples of successful applications.

The last panelist to speak was Steve Hindle from the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where he oversees the conference, public lecture, and research fellowship programs. Hindle completed the trifecta in stressing the importance of making clear why a project matters. “You need to spell it out,” he said. Among his other tips was the need to do “due diligence” about the fellowship/grant program you are applying to and the institution offering it. Rules and requirements vary, even within different grant or fellowship opportunities at a single institution. The Huntington, he said, is residential and collection-based, so applicants should make clear the relevance of their project to its holdings. He noted that the Huntington’s collection is extensive in its specialties and has supported projects on subjects as diverse as Abraham Lincoln and the novelist Hilary Mantel.

Both Hindle and Silver talked about some of the criteria fellowship-application readers like to see. At the NEH, successful applications tend to have a chapter outline and a sample chapter. Silver added that applicants are on “strong footing” if they have already talked to a publisher or have a contract. Hindle said the review committee at the Huntington also likes to see a contract in hand. He also noted that since the 2020 murder of George Floyd, questions of diversity, equity, and inclusivity, for both authors and their subjects, are given added weight. Silver said the NEH program does not identify applicants by ethnicity or race, but a project giving voice to underrepresented communities can be a boost.

As Kaplan noted in answering a question, “biographies are expensive . . . most of us spend more money than we make.” That reality shows the importance of exploring the funding opportunities provided by organizations such as the NEH and the Huntington.