View Full Version : Criminal Memoir?

09-11-2006, 10:20 PM
Hello Absolute Writers! My first time post!

I have a question about writing a memoir about crime and the law and how publishers view it. Any advice would be most welcome.

I have been talking to a man with a fascinating life story about possibly co-writing his memoir. He has a big criminal past as a drug dealer, forger, and thief. He spent time in prison on several different occasions on felony convictions, and is now out on parole and has completely turned his life around.

BUT - there's a law nicknamed the "Son of Sam law" which prohibits criminals from profiting by their crimes, specifically through books and movies. All the states involved in his life story have versions of this law. My question is: do these laws pretty much squelch any possibility of co-writing a memoir with a criminal if the memoir deals with his criminal past? I notice that there are almost no memoirs of crime out there, and the Son of Sam law would explain that. Does anyone know about this first hand? Or do you have a suggestion of how I could find out? My co-writer is consulting an attorney, but I'm wondering more how publishers and book agents view this sort of memoir. Do these Son of Sam laws mean they won't touch memoirs of crime? My instincts tell me yes, but I'd like to get it from a real agent or publisher, just to be sure.

I don't want to put a lot of time and energy into a project that has no chance of getting published. But I also don't want to abandon an interesting project before getting all the facts. Any advice or thoughts?


Silver King
09-12-2006, 02:19 AM
You can skip the memoir and applicable laws and write the book as a biography of the criminal. This way you'd take full credit for the work. You could pay him on the side if you'd like, but you'd risk incarceration if these transactions were discovered. And keep in mind that if the subject doesn't like what you've written, he might beat your brains in and go right back to prison.

09-16-2006, 12:15 AM
Silverking - thought about writing a bio, but I don't think its as marketable as memoir, and oddly enough, just doesn't interest me as much. And yeah - he might not like it! Before our first real meeting, alone, I did think to myself, "Hmm - so now I'm gonna go meet the felon in his hotel room..." But it was fine. He's a gentleman these days.

I've heard elsewhere that if he was willing to siphon all his profits into a fund for victims, it might be feasible. But do I get to keep my half? And he might not like that either -- he wants any profit (on his side) to go to the nonprofit he's founded.

His attorney will answer these questions, I guess. I'm just worried that book agents and publishers will automatically turn it down given the legal complexities.

09-16-2006, 01:28 AM
You need to talk to your own lawyer. His lawyer can't give you any advice, ethically, and even if he does, you'd be foolish to accept it, since he's got an obvious bias toward his own client.

It's not a field of law I know anything about, beyond what a layperson knows or thinks she knows from the news and entertainment, so I can't even give you an overview of the law. I do believe there are serious potential consequences or at least risks, so I think it's worth talking to a criminal lawyer (who, I'm guessing, would have the expertise to answer the question, since it's one they're probably asked by their own clients), and not rely on anything you might get from a public board where you have no idea of the poster's qualifications. (Even mine!)

If the project's worth doing, it's worth investing a hundred bucks in half an hour of a lawyer's time; and if it turns out the project would subject you to huge risks, the hundred bucks is STILL well spent in saving you time, energy and the risk of future litigation.

JD, not giving legal advice, just general information, and not even much of that, beyond advising you to get your own advice.

Silver King
09-16-2006, 04:46 AM
As Jan said, Nahotep, speaking to a lawyer should definitely be on your agenda. And it wouldn't hurt to familiarize yourself with the laws governing your undertaking beforehand so you have a better idea of the type of legal counsel you'll be seeking.

Jan also makes a great point to remind you that most responses you'll receive here will be from laypersons' perspectives. I'm fairly certain where I live, there are strict laws governing criminals from profiting from their crimes by way of selling their life stories. Whether this applies to funds diverted to nonprofits is an area of law you'll need to uncover.

In addition to seeking legal advice, you may want to hire an investigating firm to do a full background check on this individual. What they uncover may sway your decision whether to move forward with your project.

Also, keep in mind that plenty of nonprofits are set up to enrich the principles of the organization while doing little for their "cause." I'm not saying this is what your subject is doing; but it strikes me as interesting that it's a "nonprofit he's founded."

As you say, he may be a gentleman; but try not to forget where he's been; and never let your guard down in relation to where he's coming from.

09-16-2006, 10:56 PM
Don't worry in the least. None of the laws stop a criminal from writing a book, or stop a publisher from buying it. Even when the law is used against the writer, it means only that the profits will be taken away from the writer and given to the victims.

The publisher loses nothing, and if it's a good book, they'll grab it.

These laws have been challenged twice in courts by publishers, and both times the writer won, with the law being ruled unConstitutional.

09-18-2006, 09:54 PM
Thanks, everyone, for all the advice! You're right - an attorney would be helpful. Wish I wasn't so dang poor. I heard from a friend who works with a published memoirist who wrote about his time in jail for counterfeiting -- and he's made profits from his book and the subsequent movie deal. Apparently the New York version of the law allows non-violent criminals to profit from writing about their crimes. Violent ones - no dice. My co-author has no violent convictions, so that may work in his favor. But the published memoirist advised having a great attorney on your side too. So there you go!

The laws have been overthrown in the past. Then the states went back and rewrote the laws to try and make them more acceptable to the Supreme Court. Those new versions haven't been challenged yet, though they may be. It certainly does step on people's first amendment rights. But the Supreme Cout did indicate that the states do have an interest in compensating victims of crimes and keeping criminals from profiting from their crimes. It's an interesting issue. I guess I just don't want to be the one to take the case to the Supreme Court again. I'd rather be writing.

I have done a lot of background on this guy. I'm being extra careful not only for my own safety but because of James Frey's fabrications in his memoir. Don't want to fabricate any major facts the way he did! I have a lot of testimonials from the folks my co-author currently works with, clients of his non-profit, educators, doctors, people I know personally to be reliable, etc., saying how great it is to work with him now. But I'm also always wary when dealing with him, because of his past. He's really trying to make it now in the straight-arrow world, but I believe he'll always think like a criminal. It's fascinating and should make for a great memoir. But it keeps me cautious. Big time.

Thanks again!

Mac H.
09-19-2006, 03:57 AM
Deals have been done here in Australia to bypass similar laws.

The laws don't stop the criminal from making exclusive deals to sell their stories - it generally stops them from getting money for it.

One of the ones in these parts had the author (well, film maker in this case) simply make a large donation to the criminal's pet charity as payment.
(It was a charity that organised 'don't take drugs' talks to school children)

It was a great arrangement.

The charity could then give the original criminal a large cash payment in return for one of those talks !

So the film-maker didn't break any laws (he paid money to charity instead) and the charity didn't technically break any laws by paying the criminal for his work.

Clearly it was a very dodgy (and unethical) arrangement - but it kept the letter of the law ...


09-21-2006, 10:46 PM
Just wanted to wrap up and share info in case anyone else comes up against this Son of Sam law issue. Turns out that the relevent state laws to my case list very specifically which crimes a convicted felon cannot profit from. These are all violent crimes - murder, manslaughter, assault, kidnapping, sexual assault, and terrorism. So Charles Manson can't write a memoir and make bank on it. But my co-author, who was convicted of drug dealing and admits to all sorts of other non-violent crimes, should be exempt from the law. The New York law is the same, and I suspect many other state laws are as well.

Of course, we are still consulting an attorney. Better safe than sorry! But the tentative feeling now is that at least I can go ahead and continue writing the book proposal and begin writing the book without worrying too much that it'll all be moot.

Thanks to everyone who read and replied! Wish me luck.