The author bio: who needs it, anyway?

Hello, readers —

I’m feeling fairly optimistic today — and, as we all know, a tendency toward cockeyed optimism is an invaluable trait in a writer in the biz for the long haul. Today, though, I am optimistic for a reason — but because things are going better, I can’t tell you about them. Ironic, no? Once again, my memoir’s doings are shrouded in legally-induced secrecy (hypothetically, of course): shadowy behind-the-scenes negotiations are taking place in far-away rooms. Options are being discussed, you will be pleased to hear.

And all the while, yours truly, bedraggled champion of what I honestly do believe is a hell of a good story, keeps pushing for the right to have that story heard. The memoir’s saga is beginning to feel to me like a surrealistic update of one of those chivalric romances — you know, the ones where Sir Gawain or Lancelot have to undergo a seemingly endless series of tests before falling exhausted into the arms of their respective ladyloves and being offered a goblet of mead. Medieval ladyloves, like NYC-based publishers, are a testy lot: they liked to have their champions prove their devotion over and over and over again.

Yes, a writer’s life is indeed a romantic one. Just not the kind of romance most of us envision.

A few weeks ago, I had promised to talk about how to write an author bio, so you could have one all ready when an agent or editor asks to see it — at, say, a major conference taking place near SeaTac in a few months’ time. Or as a supplement to the rest of your novel, after someone at an agency has already fallen in love with the first 50 pages and asked to see the rest.

They will ask, in short, when your mind is on other things, like doing a lightning-fast revision on your book proposal so you can send it to that nice editor who listed to your pitch.

The request for a bio often catches writers by surprise. Agents and editors tend to toss it out casually, as if it’s an afterthought: “Oh, and send me a bio.” The informality of the request can be a bit misleading: your one-page author bio is actually a very important tool in your marketing kit.

How important, I hear you ask? Well, it’s not unheard-of for editors, in particular, to decide to pass on the book they’re being offered, but ask to see other work by the author, if the bio is intriguing enough. So actually, it is not a tremendously good idea just to throw a few autobiographical paragraphs together in the last few minutes before a requested manuscript, proposal, or synopsis heads out the door.

Which is, I am sorry to report, precisely what most aspiring writers do.

Big, big mistake: if the bio sounds dull, disorganized, or unprofessional, agents and editors tend to assume that the writer is also dull, disorganized, or unprofessional. Publishing types tend not to be the most imaginative of people. After all, they reason (or so they tell me), the author’s life is the material that he should know best; if he can’t write about that well, how can he write well about anything else?

A good bio is especially important for those who write any flavor of nonfiction, because the bio is where you establish your platform in its most tightly-summarized form. All of you nonfiction writers out there know what a platform is, don’t you? You should: it is practically the first thing any agent or editor will ask you when you pitch a NF book. Your platform is the background that renders you — yes, YOU — the best person on earth to write the book you are pitching. This background can include, but is not limited to, educational credentials, relevant work experience, awards, and significant research time.

For a NF writer, the author bio is a compressed résumé, with a twist: unlike the cold, linear presentation of the résumé format, the author bio must also demonstrate that the author can put together an array of facts in a readable, compelling fashion.

Tall order, no?

Lest you fiction writers out there think that you are exempt from this daunting challenge, think again. At least NF writers know in advance when they will be expected to produce an author bio: it’s typically the last piece of the NF book proposal. (For an overview on the basics of writing a book proposal, please see my blogs from August 23rd -29th, stored in the handy archives displayed on the right-hand side of this page.)

Fiction writers, on the other hand, are seldom warned in advance that they will have to write an author bio at all, much less that they will probably need it before anyone in the industry actually reads their work in its entirety. “A bio?” novelists say nervously when agents and editors toss out the seemingly casual request. “You mean that thing on the back cover? Won’t the marketing department write that for me?”

In a word, no. And readers, if you take nothing else from today’s blog, take this enduring truth and clutch it to your respective bosoms forevermore: whenever you are asked to provide extra material whilst marketing your work, train yourself not to equivocate. Instead, learn to chirp happily, like the can-do sort of person you are, “A bio? You bet!” Even if the agent or editor in question has just asked you to produce some marketing data that strikes you as irrelevant or downright stupid. Even if what you’re being asked for will require you to take a week off work to deliver. Even in you have to dash to the nearest dictionary the second your meeting with an agent or editor is over to find out what you’ve just promised to send within a week IS.

Or, perhaps more sensibly, drop me an e-mail and inquire. That’s what my blog is here for, you know: to help writers get their work successfully out the door.

Why is appearing eager to comply and competent so important, I hear you ask? Because professionalism is one of the few selling points a writer CAN’T list in an author bio — and to most people in positions to bring your work to publication, it’s regarded as a sure indicator of how much extra time they will have to spend holding a new author’s hand on the way to publication, explaining how the industry works.

How much extra time will they want to spend on you and your book, I hear you ask? (My readers are so smart; I can always rely on them to ask the perfect questions at the perfect times.) It varies from agent to agent, of course, but I believe I can give you a general ballpark estimate: none.

Yes, I know — all the agent guides will tell the previously unpublished writer to seek out agencies with track records of taking on inexperienced writers. It’s good advice, but not because such agencies are habitually eager to expend their resources teaching newbies the ropes. It’s good advice because such agencies have demonstrated that they are braver than many others: they are willing to take a chance on a new writer from time to time. Provided that writer’s professionalism positively oozes off the page and from her manner.

Trust me, the writers these agencies have signed did not respond evasively when asked for their bios.

Professionalism, as I believe I have pointed out several hundred times before, is demonstrated by manuscripts that conform to standard format. (And if you’re new to this blog and don’t know what standard format for manuscripts is, get thee hence without delay to my blog of February 19th. Submissions that are not in standard format tend to be rejected out of hand, without the courtesy of a full reading.) It is also, unfortunately for those new to the game, demonstrated through familiarity with the basic terms and expectations of the industry. Which most people only learn from experience.

So, as you have probably already figured out, “Bio? What’s that?” is not the most advisable response to an agent or editor’s request for same. Nor is hesitating, or saying that you’ll need some time to write one. (You’re perfectly free to take time to write one, of course; just don’t say so.)

Why is even hesitation problematic, I hear you ask? (Another terrific question; you really are on the ball today.) Well, let me put it this way: have you ever walked into a deli in New York unsure of what kind of sandwich you want to get? When you took the requisite few seconds to collect your thoughts on the crucial subjects of onions and mayo, did the guy behind the counter wait politely for you to state your well-considered preferences, or did he roll his eyes and move on to the next customer? And did that next customer ruminate at length on the competing joys of ham on rye and pastrami on pumpernickel, soliciting the opinions of other customers, or did he just shout over your shoulder, “Reuben with a pickle!” with the ultra-imperative diction of an emergency room surgeon calling for a scalpel to perform a tracheotomy with seconds to spare before the patient sustains permanent brain damage?

If you frequent the same delis I do, the answers in both cases are emphatically the latter. Perhaps with some profanity thrown in for local color.

NYC agents and editors eat in these delis, my friends. They go there to RELAX.

This regional tendency to mistake thoughtful consideration, or even momentary hesitation, for malingering or even idiocy often comes as an unpleasant shock to those of us who are West Coast bred and born. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we like to encourage meditation in daily life; there are emporia in the greater Seattle metropolitan area where the Buddha himself could happily hold a full-time job with no significant loss of contemplative time. “I’m here if you need anything,” the Buddha would say, melting into the background to think. “Just let me know if you have questions about those socks. Take your time.”

This is why, in case you are wondering, NYC-based agents and editors tend to treat all of us out here like flakes. In their minds, we’re all wandering around stoned in bellbottoms, offering flowers to strangers at airports and spreading pinko propaganda like, “Have a nice day.” I’ve met agents who are astonished that any of us out here have the mental capacity to type at all, much less write an entire book. I think my agent thinks I live in a yurt.

What does all of this mean, in practical terms, I hear you ask? That you should have an author bio already written by the time you are asked for it, that’s what, so you will not hesitate for even one Buddha-like moment when the crucial request comes. And that is my long-winded explanation of why I am going to spend the next few days teaching you how to write one. Write one now.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *