I’m feeling fairly optimistic — 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 darned good reason: I’ve just gotten an agent-requested revision of my current novel out the door to, well, my agent.
Agented writers tend not to talk very much about just how much they are asked to change before a book is submitted to editors (and they say even less about the freelance editors like me whom they recruit to help them make these changes), but in the current ultra-tight fiction market, it’s quite normal. Although this particular novel has, admittedly, been through the wringer a bit more than most, because it has also been through a couple of rounds of editor-specific revisions at a publishing house.
Long-term readers, remember 6 – 9 months ago, when I was really cranky for, oh, a season? That’s what happens when an author is asked to move the metaphorical furniture around the novel cabin a bit too much. Among the minor points I was asked to change at various points: the title, the villain, how the last crisis was resolved, how the first crisis was formed, the ethnicity of five of my characters, and how the medical community thinks about eating disorders.
Oh, and the book category. Little things like that. Because all of this was geared to a specific editor’s tastes, as well as to those of the agent who was handling the book at the time, though, the end result of all that revision was that it took quite a bit of doing to get the book back to my taste, as well as to incorporate the input of the agent who is handling it now.
Had I mentioned that developing a Zen-like calm in the face of continual change is a really, really valuable skill in a professional writer?
Today, I want to speak about one of the few things in the writer’s toolkit that tends not change much throughout the agent-finding-through-publication process: the author bio.
Agents and editors used to ask for bios routinely when they requested pages, but such requests seem to be coming later in the process lately. However, as any novelist will need to have one to tuck at the bottom of her manuscript before her agent sends it to an editor, and every NF writer will need it to form the last page of a book proposal, it’s a good idea to have one handy.
Why? Well, often, the request comes 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 listened so attentively to your pitch at a conference. 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 the agent 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. In the extra minute and a half they have left between dashing off a 20-minute synopsis and when the post office door locks for the night.
Big, big mistake: if the bio sounds dull, disorganized, or unprofessional, agents and editors may leap to the unwarranted conclusion that the writer is also dull, disorganized, and/or unprofessional. 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 if you 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.
You know, the stuff we discussed in the selling points posts, earlier in the Book Marketing 101 series. 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.
Lest you fiction writers out there think that you are exempt from this daunting challenge, think again. “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. They might punch it up a little down the line, but in the early marketing stages for a book, you’re on your own.
And 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, over and above the time required to sell it? (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 without going too far out on a limb: none.
Yes, I know — all the agency 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.
I’ll bet you a nickel that 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 in many ways. Manuscripts that conform to standard format, for instance, or knowing not to call an agency unless there’s some question of requested materials actually having been lost. It is also, unfortunately for those new to the game, demonstrated through familiarity with the basic terms and expectations of the industry.
This is what is known colloquially as a Catch-22: you get into the biz by showing that you know how people in the biz act — which you learn by being in the biz.
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 one. 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 up front.)
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 on the isle of Manhattan 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 with the open-mindedness of Socrates conducting a symposium, or did he just shout over your shoulder, “Reuben with a dill 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 from lack of oxygen?
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-based agents and editors eat in those delis, my friends. They go there to RELAX.
This regional tendency to mistake thoughtful consideration or momentary hesitation, for malingering or even slow-wittedness often comes as an unpleasant shock to those of us who are West Coast bred and born, I must admit. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we like to encourage meditation in daily life; there are retail 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. There’s no rush.”
This is why, in case you are wondering, NYC-based agents and editors sometimes treat those of us out here like flakes. In certain minds, we’re all wandering around stoned in bellbottoms, offering flowers to strangers at airports, reusing and recycling paper, and spreading pinko propaganda like, “Have a nice day.”
That is, when we’re not writing our books in moss-covered lean-tos, surrounded by yeti in Birkenstocks.
Boy, I went a bit far afield there, didn’t I? My point is, it would behoove you to have an author bio already written by the time you are asked for it, so you will not hesitate for even one Buddha-like, yeti-consulting moment when the crucial request comes.
Take it from the writer who said last winter, “Write a different denouement? Two weeks? Sure — I’ll get right on that.” Make mine tempeh, avocado, and sprouts on sourdough, please, with a side of smoked salmon for my yeti friend here. We’ve got some revision to do.
Keep up the good work!