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If I wrote a book about a convicted felon, do I need his permission, if he has been convicted of violent crimes? My interest is in the Sicilian Mafia if that gives you any idea of where I am heading. I had heard there are laws to keep felons from profiting from their crimes. Would it be smarter to change all the names and distort some of the facts or keep it all true?

Dear Jeff,

In my opinion, though I am no authority on this particular subject matter, it would be best if you either wrote this as a true-crime novel (requiring permission from the felon and all other living persons affiliated with the case or the person in question, just to "cover" yourself).

Several people may ask you to change their names and even physical descriptions, owing to privacy needs, etc., and it would be copyrighted, if published, under your name only, meaning the felon would never receive any remuneration or other profit from the manuscript.

Some people choose to write this kind of book in the form of a "novel, loosely based on a true story," but this kind of tactic doesn't have as much marketability because readers will know from the outset that they will not be getting the "true story," which is often more fascinating than fiction, as they say -- and which is true!

The other problem with "fictionalizing" this is that if you don't dot all your i's and cross all your t's, so to speak, you open yourself open to potential litigation on parties who may believe they "recognize themselves" in the book and will thus attempt to sue you for slander or libel, etc.

So, overall, from what I understand about true-crime writing, it's best if you keep it as factual as possible, but hire an intellectual property lawyer ahead of time to ensure you are "in the clear" insofar as who holds the rights to the book, what is held confidential and what is not, due to the specifics of the case, etc. This will also make your book much more attractive to agents and/or publishers -- they naturally don't want to take on something that may backfire on them from a legal standpoint, particularly in true crime.

I hope this helps, and I wish you all the best of luck with this book! I really enjoy reading those books, myself.

All Best,
Catherine Van Herrin

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Catherine Van Herrin


I am an American-born, native English speaker with a BA in English and more than 26 years of professional editing, writing, and proofreading experience. I have edited several books and book-length manuscripts. References and titles available upon request.

For further work or assistance with larger projects, see my profile here, with 190 excellent reviews: WordChannel Professional Reviews, Ratings

I can use British-English or American-English, and I am very familiar with Chicago and AP style.


More than 26 years' U.S. publishing industry experience, editorial (print). I provide crystal-clear, clean grammar; strict attention to style, consistency, flow, logic, accuracy, and spelling, and I work quickly and efficiently.

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