Author bio, Part III: Say cheese!

Hello, readers —


Yesterday, I was discussing the importance of making your author bio as entertaining as possible. Have it reflect your personality, and the book’s personality as well. It needs to show two things: that you are an authority with a background that makes you the perfect person to write this book, and that you are an interesting, engaging person with whom publishers might like to work — and whom readers would like to know.

Piece o’ proverbial cake, right?

Well, no, but certainly doable. You should mention what you are doing now for a living — unless it is temp work or secretarial, in which case you should say you are a freelance writer (which, as long as you write and no one is employing you full-time to do it, you are!)

This is a good place, too, to showcase any background you have that makes you an expert in the area of your book. You need not have been paid for the relevant experience in order to include here. Definitely mention any long-term interests connected to your book, even if they are merely hobbies (as in, for a book about symphonies, “George Clooney has been an avid student of the oboe since the age of three.”)

List any contests you have won or placed in. If you like, you may also include any venues where you have published, paid or not. Even unpaid book reviews in your company’s newsletter are legitimate credentials, if you wrote them.

You need not limit yourself to your professional achievements, either, in your quest to sound interesting. Adding a quirky hobby often works well, as long as it is true; actually, it’s a good idea to include one, because it tells agents and editors that you have broad enough interests to be a good interview subject down the line. Ditto with wacky family background: my great-grandmother was an infamous Italian opera diva, for instance. Relevant to what I write? Seldom. But incredibly memorable? Definitely.

If you are in doubt about whether a certain tidbit is appropriate to include, use this test: would you be comfortable having that fact displayed on the dust jacket of this particular book? Even if your mother were to pick up a copy? More importantly, is it a detail that would help build the reader’s confidence that the author of this book is has credibly mastered its subject matter?

Note that I specified THIS book. It is perfectly legitimate to have different bios for different projects; in fact, it’s sometimes advisable, if your different projects have very different emphases or target markets, to highlight the relevant parts of your character in each.

I used to do quite a bit of food writing (under an alter ego). That bio emphasized the fact that I grew up on the second floor of a winery in the Napa Valley. For my memoir, though, the winery connection is less relevant, and my credibility more, so that bio gives greater prominence to the fact that I hold degrees from some pretty prominent and snotty schools.

Get it? Remember, this is the document your agent will be using in order to describe you to editors, and editors to other editors at editorial meetings while arguing in favor of buying your book. It is perfectly acceptable to make it funny, especially if your book is funny.

My comic novel, currently cooling its heels in my agent’s office, relies heavily on my quirky sense of humor, so I was able to pull out all the stops and gear the accompanying author bio for maximum comic value. It mentions, among other things, that I learned to run a still when I was in elementary school and that when I was a delegate to a national political convention which shall remain nameless, an over-eager cameraman chasing a minor candidate knocked me over, spraining both my ankles. The next day of the convention, I covered my bandaged limbs with political stickers and propped them up on a rail; the AP spread photographs of this, billed as evidence of the dangers of political activism, all over the globe.

Think editors who read my bio are going to remember me?

As you may see, I think it is of paramount importance for an author’s bio not to be boring, as long as everything said there is true. (Yes, my father really did teach me to make brandy.) If you honestly can’t think of a thing to put, try asking a couple of friends to describe you. Chances are, they will mention the top few things that should be in your bio.

There are two standard formats for an author bio. The first is very straightforward: a single page, double-spaced, with the author’s name centered on the top of the page. The next line should read: “Author bio.” Not a startlingly original title, it’s true, but certainly descriptive.

Personally, I use the other type of bio format: half a page, single-spaced, with a 4×6 black-and-white photograph of me centered 1 inch from the top of the page, above the text. In between the photo and the text, my name appears, centered.

The easiest way to do accomplish this is to get a friend with a digital camera take a picture that you like, then use the image as clip art to be inserted on your author bio page. Otherwise, take the photo to a copy center and ask them to arrange a color copy so that the picture and the text are on the same page.

I can tell you from experience, though: it will take many tries to obtain a photograph that you like enough to want to see mass-produced. This is one reason that you don’t always recognize your favorite authors at book signings, incidentally; established authors’ photos are often a decade or more out of date. Not merely out of vanity, in order to appear more youthful to their readers (although I could name some names here), but because the photo-selecting process can be tedious and expensive.

Another excellent reason not to leave the construction of your author bio to the last minute, eh?

I speak with aspiring writers all the time who are shocked — shocked! — to learn that the author is responsible for obtaining the photograph that graces the dust jacket. In the bad old days, publishers would often pay for the photo session, since this photo is usually also reproduced in the publisher’s catalogue, too. They are the clear beneficiaries. Now, it is often posted on their website as well, but chances are that they’re still not going to pay anyone to take a picture of you until you are very well established indeed.

Yes, you’re right: this is yet another expense that the publishing world has shifted onto writers. Sorry.

If you tend to find potential agents and editors by accosting them at conferences and/or classes, it is worth your while to shell out for the small additional expense of producing an author bio with a photo of you on it. The reason for this is simple: it makes it easier for agents and editors to remember having spoken to you. Not in a “my, but that’s an attractive writer!” sort of way, but in a “hey, I have a distinct recollection of having had a rather pleasant conversation a month ago with that person” manner.

(I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the average agent at the PNWA conference speaks to somewhere between 50 and 200 eager writers. The chances of his remembering your name in retrospect are rather low. This is true, even if the agent in question appeared to be foaming at the mouth with greed when you pitched your project. Again, sorry.)

It is less important to look pretty in your author photo than to look interesting, generally speaking. Unless your book’s subject matter is very serious, try not to make your bio picture look like a standard, posed publicity shot. It is amazing how many author photos look like senior class pictures, devoid of personality. Try to not to look as though you were voted Most Likely to Write a Book.

Bear in mind that the photo is another opportunity to express your personality — which, lest we forget, is part of what you are selling when you pitch a book, like it or not. You might want to surround yourself with objects associated with your topic for the photo, but avoid making the picture too busy. You want the viewer to focus on your face.

One of the best author photos I ever saw was of an arson investigator; far from being airbrushed and neat, he was covered in soot, crouched in front of the ashes of a burned-down building out of which he had apparently recently crawled. Did I believe instantly that he knew his subject? You bet.

I know that pulling this all together seems daunting, but trust me, the more successful you become, the more you will bless my name for urging you to put together a killer bio, with or without photo, in advance. Once you start getting published, even articles in relatively small venues or on websites, people in the industry will start asking for your author bio and photo. At that point, when editors are clamoring to hear your — yes, YOUR — magical words, I can absolutely guarantee that the last thing you will want to be doing is sitting hunched over your keyboard, trying to summarize your entire life in 200 words.

I look forward to that day, and so should you. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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