Book marketing 101: an author bio that actually bears some resemblance to the author

Over the last few days, I have been 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 you feel that your employment is not, shall we say, reflective of who you are. Many good writers supporting their art by delivering pizzas or temping list themselves as freelance writers, which is perfectly legitimate: as long as you write and no one is employing you full-time to do it, you are indeed freelancing.

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 Swiss-Italian opera diva, for instance. Was the fact that a relative who died three decades before I was born could wow ’em with a spectacular rendition of Libiamo Ne’ Lieti Calici actually relevant to what I write? Seldom.

But incredibly memorable? Definitely. And have I been known to include it in a bio, along with the highly dubious but nevertheless true distinction that I made my television debut singing Adeste Fideles on a 1978 Christmas special? (Wearing a blaring yellow leotard and equally subtle peasant skirt, no less; hey, it was the ’70s.) You bet.

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 you must admit that it’s 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. It’s 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. Which made perfect sense: they are the clear beneficiaries.

Now, the author’s photo is often posted on their website as well, but chances are that that the publisher is 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.

Please do not take the fact that a nudge to the memory is sometimes necessary as a reflection upon either your book’s market chances, the quality of your writing, or your inherent memorability as a human being. As I mentioned earlier in this series, the average agent speaks to somewhere between 50 and 200 eager writers at a conference. The chances of his remembering your name in retrospect are rather low, even if you and your book are genuinely scintillating.

This can be true, perversely, 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.

But unless you are writing something pretty sizzling, you might not want to look as though you were voted Most Likely to Grace a Street Corner, either, if you catch my drift.

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, especially if you are marketing a memoir. You might want to surround yourself with objects associated with your book’s topic for the photo, but avoid making the picture too busy. You want the viewer to focus on your charming face.

One of the best author photos I ever saw was of an arson investigator. Far from being airbrushed and neat, his face was barely visible: 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 it make him look attractive? No, unless the observer happened to be turned on by smoke. Did I believe instantly and absolutely that he knew his subject upside-down and backwards? 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 250 words.

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

Leave a Reply

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