The Short-Form Biography

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.

Writing biographies for the web or magazines is one option today for biographers, and the panelists and moderator Greg Daugherty offered some specific media outlets writers can propose their work to.

James Atlas said that the golden age of long-form biography is past, due to rising costs, and that was the genesis for the series of short-form biographical books he created, Penguin Lives. He is now coordinating a similar series for Amazon’s publishing arm. In both cases, though, known writers were picked to write the books; it’s not a market for an unknown seeking to pitch an idea.

Amy Aronson suggested that when pitching to a periodical, having a catchy hook or presenting the subject as an intriguing personality or the symbol of something bigger in our culture are more important than merely presenting the importance of the person’s life.

Kate Kelly wrote or co-wrote many books before turning to the Web as an outlet for her historical writings, which include profiles of Americans, famous and not. She created America Comes Alive, and through constant marketing she boosted readership, and now makes money off the site. Kindle Singles, she suggests, is another online option, but requires a huge amount of marketing to get readers, and may not lead to actually making much money.

During the Q&A, Daugherty suggested that The Smithsonian magazine is one good source to pitch short biographical pieces to, and a having a good news peg helps.