One of Bob Marley’s sons, successful musician Ky-Mani Marley, is embroiled in a battle with his newbie publisher over editorial changes he’s unhappy with, including what I think may be the worst subtitle I’ve ever seen: “The Story the Marley Family Apparently Doesn’t Want You To Know.” Can you smell the lawsuits with that one? Ouch! Story here
A “frantic call” from an author wanting to make changes before a book goes to press is not the fault of a first-time author. It’s the fault of a green publisher who hasn’t had the book vetted by a lawyer to ascertain whether there are any liability issues. Did the publisher bother to ask the author who, if any, of the family members had read the edited manuscript before it was copyedited (copyeditors fact check–at least, professional ones do) and then set into galleys (the typeset form, where pages now look like book pages; this is the stage at which the book is first sent to potential reviewers)?
As an author, you need to be aware that any anecdotes you use that might embarrass or cast a negative light on living people need to be looked at very carefully. You may decide to:
1) eliminate them
2) heavily disguise them by changing so many details that the person wouldn’t recognize the anecdote as being about him, or
3) do research that shows that these details have been revealed before in the media with no protest from the person who might have felt offended.
As you can see, in the latter case, you are unlikely to find anything on nonfamous people whereas you can easily establish that certain well-known figures have been publicly inebriated, entered rehab, been charged with a misdemeanor, and so on.
If you have any concerns whatsoever that someone might be offended by how you’ve portrayed them in your book, make sure that a qualified lawyer literary lawyer vets the manuscript or sections of it. Major book publishers have lawyers on staff who do this work regularly. There are also independent literary lawyers who can vet material for you.
And read your book contract carefully. Push not just for “mutual agreement” on a title or subtitle, but for “approval.” You may not get this concession but it’s worth asking for. In the end, this is your book and you want to feel proud of it. Don’t get pushed into a wretched, potentially libelous title or subtitle!