Book Disclaimers: Everything You Need to Know

by | Sep 2, 2021

Many authors assume that their book disclaimers are supposed to be boring. They presume some pricey lawyers devised standard legalese, and they dare not depart from the norm.

Not so. The law does not require a book disclaimer to be boring. In fact, just the opposite is true. The more interesting the disclaimer, the more likely it will be read. From a lawyer’s point of view, a well-written, well-read disclaimer is best of all.

Many writers have a lot of fun with their disclaimers, particularly for memoirs. Let’s look at a few.

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What Is the Disclaimer at the Beginning of Every Book?

A book disclaimer is a simple statement, 1-3 sentences at most, in which the author declares any name changes, timeline disparities, or, in the case of a novel, that any character’s resemblance to real, living persons is just a coincidence. (Even if it’s really not! Wink wink!) This absolves you, the author, from any legal challenges relating to the privacy or defamation of people you’re writing about.

Where Would a Disclaimer Go in a Book?

If you choose to include a disclaimer in your book, it will go on the copyright page. Generally, it will appear at the bottom of that page, after all the actual copyright and printing information. This is the best location for a disclaimer since it technically and legally alerts readers from the get-go, before they ever get to your book content, that you are legally absolved of slander and other misuses of language.

How to Write a Disclaimer: Examples for Fiction

Every reader is familiar with the typical fiction disclaimer.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, 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.

I find nothing wrong with this disclaimer, except that it won’t work in many instances. What if your novel includes real events, places, and historical figures? What if parts of your book are based on your own life?

Let’s take a look at how some authors have dealt with these issues. Tom Wolfe in A Man in Full, acknowledges that parts of his story are from real life:

This novel’s story and characters are fictitious. Certain long-standing institutions, agencies, and public offices are mentioned, but the characters involved are wholly imaginary.

Margaret Atwood in Cat’s Eye tries to dispel readers’ assumption that the book is the alter-ego of the writer:

This is a work of fiction. Although its form is that of an autobiography, it is not one. Space and time have been rearranged to suit the convenience of the book, and with the exception of public figures, any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental. The opinions expressed are those of the characters and should not be confused with the author’s.

A disclaimer can also set the historical context. In my novel Coyote Winds, I inserted:

Coyote Winds is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, however, were very real. For the purpose of the story, I condensed some of the historical events into two years, while in reality the dust storms, food riots, and other historical events played out over several years.

Suppose you’ve taken an historical figure and given him dialogue and personality. Here’s how D. M. Thomas dealt with using Freud as a character in The White Hotel:

The role played by Freud in this narrative is entirely fictional. My imagined Freud does, however, abide by the generally known facts of the real Freud’s life, and I have sometimes quoted from his works and letters, passim. The letters . . . and all the passages relating to psychoanalysis . . . have no factual basis.

The lesson here is – if you’ve taken liberties with historical facts and figures, be open about it. Make your disclaimer part of the experience of the book.

How to Write a Disclaimer: Examples for memoir

Many memoirists use plain vanilla disclaimers such as:

This book is memoir. 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.

That works fine, but some of the great memoirists use their literary voices to a much better effect.

Mary Karr, in her memoir The Liars’ Club, apologizes for nothing. She starts the book with her sister asking her mother whether a bullet hole in the kitchen wall happened when her mother shot at her father.

No, her mother explained. That’s where she shot at Larry. She points at another wall. “Over there’s where I shot at your daddy.”

As Karr explains, “when fortune hands you such characters, why bother to make stuff up?”

In This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, buries his disclaimer in his acknowledgments. As he thanks those who read drafts of the book, he says:

I have been corrected on some points, mostly of chronology. Also my mother claims that a dog I describe as ugly was actually quite handsome. I’ve allowed some of these points to stand, because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it tell a truthful story.

How to Write a Disclaimer: Examples for Nonfiction

Interesting, I thumbed through a lot of nonfiction books and found no disclaimers. I suspect the authors and publishers stand on their own research without hiding behind a disclaimer. But I found a great one in Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Her disclaimer turns the traditional fiction disclaimer on its head:

This is a work of nonfiction. No names have been changed, no characters invented, no events fabricated.

In contrast, any book giving professional advice, whether it’s business, legal, medical or tax advice, is full of disclaimers. For my book, Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook, I go on and on with disclaimers, including the following:

Although I am a lawyer, I am not your lawyer. Reading this book does not create an attorney-client relationship between us. . . . This Handbook should not be used as a substitute for the advice of a competent attorney admitted or authorized to practice in your jurisdiction.

A financial advice disclaimer could say:

“It is not intended to be a source of financial or legal advice. Making adjustments to a financial strategy or plan should only be undertaken after consulting with a professional. The publisher and the author make no guarantee of financial results obtained by using this book”

Along with that, you might want to include a disclaimer for any coaching program results:

Please note that I don’t make any guarantees about the results of the information applied [on this website/material]. I share educational and informational resources that are intended to help you succeed in [coaching area]. You nevertheless need to know that your ultimate success or failure will be the result of your own efforts, your particular situation, and innumerable other circumstances beyond my knowledge and control.

The Legal Effect of Disclaimers

Legal disclaimers are like chicken soup when you have a cold. They can’t hurt and might help. While they are unlikely to stop a lawsuit, they may put an obstacle in the way. In at least one lawsuit, disclaimers became part of the solution.

Augusten Burroughs’ originally released Running with Scissors as a memoir. Then both Burroughs and his publisher were sued for liable by a family who claimed they were portrayed negatively in the work. As part of settling the case, the book was relabeled as a novel and disclaimers were added, including:

I would like to thank the real-life members of the family portrayed in this book for taking me into their home and accepting me as one of their own. I recognize that their memories of the events described in this book are different than my own. They are each fine, decent, and hard-working people. The book was not intended to hurt the family. Both my publisher and I regret any unintentional harm resulting from the publishing and marketing of Running with Scissors.

Bottom line – spend a little time on your disclaimer. Use it as an opportunity to explain your purpose and point of view, and most of all, to highlight your literary voice.

Attorney and author Helen Sedwick uses thirty years of experience to show writers how to stay out of court and at their desks. ForeWord Review gave her Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook five stars, calling it “one of the most valuable resources a self-publisher can own . . . well-written and authoritative yet unhampered by legalese.” For more information about Helen and her work, go to https://helensedwick.com.

Disclaimer: Helen Sedwick is licensed to practice in California only. This information is general in nature and should not be used as a substitute for the advice of an attorney authorized to practice in your jurisdiction.

 Photo: pixabay.com

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22 Comments

  1. millicent hughes

    Finished Revolutionary War historical novel that might leave folks wondering about the motives inserted into the minds of my own family. Several imaginary characters weave the mostly true incidents around the real-life characters. Thinking some unknown family member might be offended, I wrote a full-page disclaimer.
    In this world it’s possible to be sued for anything, even a fire set in 1777!

    Reply
  2. Helen Sedwick

    Love it! With this disclaimer, readers will already be drawn into the scrapbook.

    Reply
  3. Karen

    I am making scrapbooks for my brother and my sisters for Christmas and am trying to write a humorous disclaimer for their story. My father was an officer and pilot in the Air Force for 24 years (he’s 88), so we moved a lot and have a lot of pictures. I already made one for my dad.

    This is my draft disclaimer so far (not a legal one, just for fun):

    “My intent for this book (besides a Christmas present) was to try and document details and pictures for future generations.

    Since this book is documented by me, the sister, it reflects my recollection and views, but I was obviously not always present or I admit not always paying attention.

    Details were drawn from a variety of sources such as legal documents, comments on the back of pictures, memory, etc., so if the views of the person depicted are different then they are probably right.

    I would like to mention that no names were intentionally changed, no typos made on purpose, and the hairdos, styles and facial expressions were beyond my control. Of course, they are just perks for the reader, and let’s face it, the few people who will actually sit down and read this already love you anyway. I am just hopeful that no one sues me or beats me up. Lol”

    It is longer than I thought, but I don’t want to miss something. I am obviously not a writer, but I love to scrap book!

    Reply
  4. Helen Sedwick

    I wanted to share another excellent disclaimer. I found this one in the program notes for Roe, a play by Lisa Loomer that explores the people and the passions surrounding the Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision. The play uses the names and biographical information of real people in dramatized and fictionalized scenes. Here’s the disclaimer:

    This play is a fictional dramatization based on a true story and real events and was drawn from a variety of sources, including published materials and interviews. For dramatic and narrative purposes, the play contains fictionalized scenes, composite and representative characters and dialogue, and time compression. The views and opinions expressed in the play are those of the characters only and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions held by individuals on which those characters are based.

    Reply
  5. Adesanya Yewande Islamiyat

    True, I find it difficult to write a Disclaimer because I haven’t written any in my books. Thanks for the advice, due to this I will try writing my first Disclaimer.

    Reply
  6. Emilly Willard

    Hi Helen! I keep thinking that the writing of a disclaimer seems to be difficult for someone who has never written one before! So thank you so much for sharing such an interesting information here! I enjoyed reading all the examples of disclaimers you shared though this article and I am sure they will help me for writing my own disclaimers!
    Best wishes!

    Reply
  7. Suzanne Newnham

    I enjoyed reading the creativeness of the disclaimers in your blog.
    In a draft biography for a competition I wrote about terraced houses around a commons in 1935 Sydney which was redeveloped 25 years later and named Chifley Square. I mentioned the name Chifley Square (phrasing in the context of the story) and was howled down in a critique. He highlighted the anomaly rather than the context. Thinking that the chronological jump might distract I changed and submitted the story without the Chifley reference – didn’t make a difference to the reader but it did to the person I was writing about.

    I am writing her full biography. This time I will look at how to weave the time transition – and be creative in my disclaimer!
    Thanks Helen for opening my eyes to a new possibility.

    Reply
  8. Debby Carroll

    Love this post. I wrote a memoir about extremely dysfunctional family members, some of whom are still very much alive. (Maybe not so much well, however.) In the prologue I indicated I had changed all the names to protect the guilty and further that the stories are mine and therefore subject to the vagaries of time and memory. I also added that if anyone were to ask the “guilty” about the events, they probably remembered them differently. (They’re wrong of course.) But I wish I had written what write Anne LaMott wrote, which was, basically, if they didn’t want me to write about them, they should have behaved better!

    Reply
  9. John Maberry

    I love it! As a fellow lawyer, I know the perils of writing in legalese. It took some time to be able to write readable prose after getting a JD. Here’s the disclaimer I included for a memoir:

    “Note to the reader: This work depicts actual events in the life of the author as truthfully as recollection permits and/or can be verified by research. Occasionally, dialogue consistent with the character or nature of the person speaking has been supplemented. All persons within are actual individuals; there are no composite characters. The names of some individuals have been changed to respect their privacy.”

    I might have mentioned more specifically that there were public figures named, my opinions about them or their behavior but it seems that the disclaimer covered that well enough. Perhaps I could have added some humor. Next time for that.

    Reply
    • Suzanne Newnham

      John I like your sentence ” Occasionally, dialogue consistent with the character or nature of the person speaking has been supplemented.”
      I’m writing a biography but in the style of a novel. The Lady remembers some dialogue as though she is in that exact moment, but on the whole the dialogue resembles the style of the day.
      I was wondering how to phrase that aspect in a disclaimer. Your approach has given me ‘food for thought’. Thank you.

      Reply
  10. Michael N. Marcus

    from my memoir, Stories I’d Tell My Children (But Maybe Not Until They’re Adults):

    I changed the names of some nice people to maintain their privacy. I changed names of some bad people if I’m no longer as pissed off as I used to be and I don’t want to embarrass them or their descendants. Or if I think someone might sue me or beat me up.

    I’m a writer, not a fighter.

    The names of some very bad people have not been changed, and I’m not afraid to “say ill about the dead,” especially if they pissed me off. Dead people can’t sue me.

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Michael, That’s saying it like it is. And a great example of using the author’s voice as part of the disclaimer.

      Reply
  11. Jean Gill

    Really useful – thank you!

    Reply
  12. Daniel

    My favorite disclaimer is Douglas Wilson’s in Evangellyfish:

    “This is as good a place as any to insist that all the characters
    in Evangellyfish are fictional, and I made them all up out of
    my own head. Any resemblance to any real people, living or
    dead, is their own darn fault. If they quit acting like that, the
    resemblance would cease immediately and we wouldn’t have
    to worry about it.”

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Daniel, LOVE IT! Thanks for sharing.
      Helen

      Reply
    • Suzanne Newnham

      Daniel, great response in the disclaimer example! My favourite too now. Thanks for sharing.

      Reply
  13. Michael N. Marcus

    Here’s my typical disclaimer for how-to books:

    This book’s purpose is to educate, inform, instruct and entertain. While it should be helpful, no book can tell you everything that you want to know or need to know about the topics it tries to cover.

    Companies, products and techniques mentioned are not necessarily recommended—but many are.

    Conditions, particularly prices and website addresses, may have changed since the book was written.

    Some errors may not have been detected and corrected.

    Neither the author nor the publisher will be held liable or responsible for any actual or perceived loss or damage to any person or entity, caused or alleged to have been caused, directly or indirectly, by anything in this book. If you won’t accept this, please stop reading.

    Reply
  14. Diane Tibert

    Great advice. I’ve always gone with the bland disclaimer, but I think I’ll change that now. This is the wonderful thing about self-publishing; you can do things differently.

    Thanks.

    Reply
  15. JJ Toner

    Hi Helen. I’m writing a spy story based on the activities of a group of resistors living in Berlin before and during WW2. My main characters are fictional, but the resistance group figures are not. Other writers have advised me to change all the names, but I feel that would be disrespectful to those people – every one a hero – most of whom were executed by the Nazis for what they did. What would you advise?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      JJ, You may use the real names of historical figures, even the unknown ones. I agree with you that they deserve to be honored and recognized. Write your disclaimer to explain that you used real names but created the scenes and dialogue.

      Reply
      • JJ Toner

        Many many thanks for your reply. That is exactly what I wanted to do, but all my writer friends were advising against it. They warned me that descendants of these people might take exception to my depictions of their antecedents. Many thanks. Onward and upward!

        Reply

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