Using Book Disclaimers to Protect Your Work and Yourself
Real life inspires stories. It can't be helped. Writers observe, interpret, expound, and often twist based on what they see, hear, and how they feel about it.
When a story has intimacy with reality, readers will see themselves in it. Sometimes what they see is not pretty, or is even offensive.
Enter the book disclaimer.
Understanding the Purpose of Book Disclaimers
Disclaimers play an important role in fiction, non-fiction, and memoir including:
- differentiating fact from fiction
- reducing the risk of liability
- clarifying opinions and biases
- warning about explicit content
- establishing expertise (or lack thereof)
When drafting the disclaimer for your book, think about the role you want it to play. What do you want your readers to know before they begin the journey you've laid out for them?
Differentiating Fact from Fiction
When writing fiction, the author's goal is not always to depict reality, the goal is more likely depiction of a plausible resemblance to reality. In fiction, book disclaimers are used to clarify the interplay between the almost-real and the actually real. The intent is to ensure that readers understand that the story is not about them, even if the writer knows a particular reader and may know them well.
Disclaimers help readers understand that your work is a product of your imagination and not a factual account. This can be particularly important when dealing with sensitive subjects or when your work might be mistaken for a real-life event. Think of the disclaimer as a counternarrative to the story.
In memoir, disclaimers can explain that memory is subjective, that the truth being told is the author's truth and may not be what the other players in the memoir recall as the truth.
Book Disclaimers Can Reduce Risk and Limit Liability
When well-crafted, a book disclaimer can help shield authors and publishers from potential legal claims, such as defamation, invasion of privacy, and violations of the right of publicity.
The publisher of From Here to Eternity included "A Special Note" from the author:
"This book is a work of fiction. The characters are imaginary, and any resemblance to actual persons is accidental. However, certain of the stockade scenes did happen. They did not happen at the Schofield Barracks Post Stockade but at a post within the United States at which the author served, and they are true scenes of which the author had first-hand knowledge and personal experience."
The publisher was sued by an individual who served in the same company as the author in Hawaii just before Pearl Harbor and whose surname is the same as the character played by Frank Sinatra in the movie. The claim was for misuse of his name, essentially a claim for the violation of his right of publicity.
The Judge dismissed the case, summarizing a fiction author's relationship with reality, saying:
"It is generally understood that novels are written out of the background and experiences of the novelist. The characters portrayed are fictional, but very often they grow out of real persons the author has met or observed. This is so also with respect to the places which are the setting of the novel. The end result may be so fictional as to seem wholly imaginary, but the acorn of fact is usually the progenitor of the oak, which when full grown no longer has any resemblance to the acorn. In order to disguise the acorn and to preserve the fiction, the novelist disguises the names of the actual persons who inspired the characters in his book. Since a novel is not biography, the details of the character's life and deeds usually have, beyond possible faint outlines, no resemblance to the life and deeds of the actual person known to the author. Thus, the public has come to accept novels as pure fiction and does not attribute their characters to real life. So long as the author does not use the true name of the character he may have had in mind, there is no basis for complaint."
This is a great sentence -- "the acorn of fact is usually the progenitor of the oak, which when full grown no longer has any resemblance to the acorn." Bears repeating.
Minimizing Risk in Memoir
Disclaimers are also useful when the details of a memoir have been modified. Here are a few examples of disclaimers used in memoir in which the true identities of individuals depicted have been obscured:
This book is memoir [or based on true events]. It reflects the author’s present recollections of experiences over time. Some names and characteristics have been changed, some events have been compressed, and some dialogue has been recreated.
I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain their anonymity in some instances I have changed the names of individuals and places, I may have changed some identifying characteristics and details such as physical properties, occupations and places of residence.
This memoir is a truthful recollection of actual events in the author’s life. Some conversations have been recreated and/or supplemented. The names and details of some individuals have been changed to respect their privacy.
A disclaimer like one of these when combined with changing certain salient details of your memoir will provide you with a measure of protection from claims by the individuals depicted in your book whose identities you have camouflaged.
Clarifying Opinions and Biases
Fiction, non-fiction, and memoir alike typically tend to express an author's view on current events, political issues, or social trends. Consider George Orwell's 1984, or a work of science fiction where sentient AI robots take over civilization, or a book about the inequalities of divorce and child custody processes. Disclaimers can clarify that certain arguments made by a non-fiction author or storylines in a work of fiction are the author's personal opinions or interpretations and others may see things differently. This helps manage a reader's expectations and prevent potential misunderstandings.
"This book represents the personal views and opinions of the author and does not necessarily reflect the positions or opinions of any organization, institution, or individual with which the author is affiliated. The content presented herein is based on the author's perspective and interpretation of the subject matter. Neither the publisher nor any associated parties shall be held responsible for any consequences arising from the opinions or interpretations expressed within this book."
Such a disclaimer may prevent a misconception, but it may not prevent a bad review.
Using Book Disclaimers to Warn About Explicit Content
Book disclaimers can be used inform readers about the presence of explicit language, violence, or sexual content, giving them the opportunity to make an informed decision about whether they want to read your book.
Novels in erotic fiction genre often contain explicit sexual content and adult themes. A disclaimer might warn readers about the nature of the material and suggest that it is suitable only for mature audiences.
Some true crime books recount graphic and disturbing details about criminal activities or the investigation process. Disclaimers can be used to warn readers about violent, unsettling, or gruesome content.
Books in the dark fiction or horror genres often include graphic or violent scenes. A disclaimer might caution readers about the potentially distressing content.
When a memoirist shares personal experiences that involve abuse, trauma, or other sensitive subjects, a disclaimer may be included to warn readers about the explicit or potentially triggering content.
Books addressing controversial or sensitive social and political issues may contain explicit language or descriptions of violence. In such cases, a disclaimer might inform readers about the potentially challenging material and advise them to proceed with caution.
Establishing Expertise in a Disclaimer
In non-fiction, disclaimers are often used to establish an author's expertise or lack of it so a reader is not misled. They are particularly useful when an author is not professionally trained in the discipline about which they are giving advice.
Consider a book written by someone who has extensive personal experience with a medical condition but who is not a doctor. The disclaimer could look something like this:
"The author has made every attempt to provide information that is accurate and complete, but this book is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. This book is not meant to be used, nor should it be used, to diagnose or treat any medical or psychological condition. Readers are advised to consult their own medical advisors whose responsibility it is to determine the condition of, and best treatment for, the reader."
Disclaimers can acknowledge that the book may contain unintentional errors or omissions and encourage readers to verify any information independently. This helps maintain the author's credibility while also protecting the author and publisher from potential liability related to inaccuracies or incomplete information.
A Final Note
Writers look at the world and turn it into would could be, or what ought to be, or what might be if we aren't careful. All the bits and pieces of messy lives are collected by a writer and marinated until the work is fully flavored. Sometimes the flavor doesn't suit all readers. Book disclaimers help make that plain.
For further reading and more examples of creative disclaimers, check out Book Disclaimers: Everything You Need to Know by Helen Sedwick over at The Book Designer.
Disclaimer: Kathryn Goldman is an attorney admitted to practice law in the State of Maryland. This information is not specific legal advice for you, the reader of this post. The guidance here is informational and educational in nature and should not be used as a substitute for the advice of an attorney who has been fully informed about the facts of your individual situation. So don't sue me.