How To Avoid Legal Trouble With Your Self-Published Books

self-publishing Nov 11, 2020

Going into business, whether you’re self-publishing or otherwise, is a daunting task. There are many things to take into account, but one of the most important things to consider is whether you’re protected legally. 

When we’re writing fiction, it’s easy to get swept away in the creativity and just assume that your ideas and characters are all your own so you needn’t worry about any legal problems. And referencing real-life people and places shouldn’t be a problem – any book set in the real world does it. 

However, it’s important to note that there is a risk that your characters and their actions, even their names, might bear such a close similarity to a living individual that you can get into problems over defamation. 

This guide will make you aware of some of the potential pitfalls to watch out for so you can avoid getting sued for a book you’ve written.

What does Defamation mean?

Defamation is a term that covers Libel - the publication of a false statement that damages somebody’s reputation in a way to cause emotional trauma, damage to their reputation, and loss of revenue.

Also Slander - the same damage caused by a verbal statement made in public.

Who could sue you for defamation?

The law varies in detail from state to state but in most cases, any individual person, small group, business, or corporation can bring legal action against you if they feel you have committed libel against them. If they can prove you made an untrue statement in a publication read by other people that clearly relates to them, and that it has caused them some damage they could have a legal case against you.

How to Avoid Getting Sued for Defamation

  • In a work of fiction watch out that you don’t create a character who, unknown to you, closely resembles an actual person and their life. 
  • Check all the names you use to make sure they don’t belong to an actual person. Try and be creative and make up unusual names but still check that name isn’t a real person’s.
  • If you use ideas from people you know to make up characters make them a composite of several people.
  • If you use any straight facts from real-life check them carefully and don’t make claims based on your own opinion of something.
  • If your book is a parody or satire of a real-life situation you don’t have to be so careful about the truth but make sure no one could mistake something as a fact.
  • Always put a disclaimer at the beginning of your books, stating “ This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, events, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead or actual events is purely coincidental.” However, you still need to remember the disclaimer is not a complete solution and you have to bear in mind the other points made here.
  • If you do need to write anything that could be identified with an actual person make sure you get consent in writing before publication. 
  • If you make a claim about an actual event make sure you support it with evidence and give your sources. If it’s just speculation make sure that’s really clear.
  • When in doubt, about anything speak to a lawyer who specializes in publishing.

Libel and defamation can be tricky subjects, but if you’re thinking of putting something in your book that feels like you’re doing it for negative reasons, do a gut-check. Imagine if your book blew up and hit the best seller lists and this person read it. Do you think they could tell it was them? Have your beta readers asked if you are talking about so-and-so? If so, change some major details. 

There are a couple of books you can read for more information on this, and are great books to have to hand: Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook Second Ed. by Helen Sedwick, and Register Your Book: The Essential Guide to ISBNs, Barcodes, Copyright & LCCNs by David Wogahn. You can also find more advice and guidance, should you need it via the Alliance of Independent Authors. As long as you don’t go into self-publishing blindly and take into account the advice here, you can avoid being sued for a book you write.

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