Choosing Your Subject: Balancing Viability with Passion

While TBC couldn’t attend every panel at the Compleat Biographer Conference, with assistance from New York correspondent Dona Munker, we offer capsule reviews of seven, including this one.

Technical issues kept TBC from attending this session in full, but what we heard convinced us this might have been the funniest panel in Compleat Biographer Conference history.

Jane Leavy, who made her reputation with biographies of Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax, recounted, sometimes profanely and always amusingly, her difficulties with her publisher as she pitched ideas for a new biography. The responses from the publisher included “too old,” “too depressing,” and “who?” Most of the attendees seemed stunned to here Leavy say she was told a biography of Billie Jean King (who has never been the subject of a serious study) was deemed of no interest—at least to the company’s marketing department.

Leavy ended up returning to baseball for her next book, a biography of Babe Ruth. In this case, since he is so well-studied, she’s decided to focus on Ruth’s early years, which have been a black hole to previous biographers. (Leavy noted that one of them would introduce the gaps in the Bambino’s early life with the phrase, “And then the fog rolled in.”) She also wants to treat the book as creative nonfiction, looking at Ruth as cultural hero and a person, not simply a baseball player.

Agent Janet Reid said that when weighing the commercial viability of a subject, biographers should consider some of the parameters publishers do: Is there new or underreported information about the person? Are there common misconceptions that can be corrected? Is there an unknown story behind a story that we think we know?

The moderator for this panel was Ted Geltner, and Justin Martin was the third panelist.