10/07/2010 09:09 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Born Again Biographer

I'm a born-again biographer.

Let me explain. I've been writing life-stories for forty years. But I became depressed this past spring when I flew to London to visit my mother, who is now 95, though still in her own apartment. Visiting with my British publisher, I learned the doleful news, however: serious print publishing in the U.K. is dead!

A literary agent -- also a biographer in his other life -- confirmed it. There is simply not enough of a print market in serious non-fiction books for publishers to spend time and money producing them, if they are likely to sell only a few hundred -- yes, hundred! -- copies. "Our largest outlet is now supermarkets," the Publisher confided. "And we're down to 700 copies even for famous non-fiction writers!"

Back in Boston I wrote an essay for the Internet Review of Books on the subject -- and received many emails from people in the publishing business, saying what was true in Britain, would be true here within a very short time. "The apocalypse is coming, Nigel!" one person wrote.

I've been in a funk ever since.

Until, that is, I had an epiphany.

I was going to get my car, from a garage that I rent across the road. The old electrically-controlled door began its usual creaking and groaning -- but then stopped, and wouldn't open. I tried all different ways to turn the key -- quick twists, pulls, etcetera. Nothing worked. Finally I stood back, and seeing a rusted metal handle in the middle of the door, I grabbed it and lifted. And lo, it opened: manually!

I'd been indulging, as I went to get the car, my pessimism about the future of reading -- at least the reading of serious, long books, which iPad owners will not do, I fear, since many hundreds of pages of screen text will surely prove too daunting for most. Who will then pay for serious biographers to spend the years of research and writing necessary to reconstruct an individual's life in prose? I was asking myself for the umpteenth time. But as the door rose, folded concertina-like, and rolled back along the suspended tracks across the ceiling, the light from the garage's four windows almost blinded me.

All my professional life I'd been trying to get into the Club: the New York Times Bestseller Club, where book sales are in the many tens of thousands, and margaritas at the bar are finally affordable. I'd been admitted as a temporary member in 1992, over a book about JFK; but then the club doors had been barred, and I'd not been re-admitted, however hard I strove. When my London editor wrote recently to say they were reprinting my latest book, American Caesars, in England, in a new printing of 1,000 copies, and how delighted they were, my heart sank. A thousand copies? A few hundred pounds (sterling) in author-royalties? How would that ever "earn out" my royalty-advance, let alone pay for the my garage rent here in Boston?

But now, as I looked at my admittedly unwashed and unvacuumed car, so sorely in need of gold-star valet treatment, I suddenly felt at peace!

It's a long story -- well, not long, but too long for this short column, in our iPad world. If you're interested, I'll tell you about it in another Blog. It certainly goes to the heart of non-fiction publishing in America -- and the looming apocalypse. But I'm OK now. I'm born-again. My faith is restored. I shan't be able to afford those margaritas -- but I've got something better: some good news that I want to share with those of you who love biography: the patient exhumation of a human life, that's become one of the great American contributions to modern literature.

I feel confident again.

It's a good feeling.

I got in my car, and away I drove.

Nigel Hamilton is author of Biography: A Brief History (Harvard UP). He is also president of Biographers International Organization (, which will be holding its second annual conference, The Compleat Biographer, in Washington DC on May 21 next year.