If you’re trying to sell nonfiction, your author bio is one of the most important parts of your pitch. If you’re selling fiction, it’s less important, but a good one can still significantly boost your manuscript’s appeal.
This is a newsletter on how to write a good author bio (otherwise known as an “About the Author” section in a book proposal). False immodesty is a precise art—one with which I have been obsessed for about 20 years, ever since the college admissions process at my pressure-cooker high school broke my brain forever. HA ha ha ha ::curls up in fetal position:: Teacher teacher please just give me an A+ Mommy what—oh HELLO EVERYONE.
NB that what follows is about internal author bios—the kind you use to attract agents and editors and get book deals. It’s not about anything public-facing, like the kind of bio that should go on your website or book cover. You can be a little more chill there.
Your author bio is a marketing document
SPLATIMER TWIST: I almost never include a “Marketing” section in my clients’ proposals. Instead, I fold all of what would go in there into the About the Author section, calling it something like “The Author and the Market.” I do this because it’s irrelevant if there’s *a* market if the author can’t access it.
Let’s say your book is about fibromyalgia. An estimated 10 million Americans live with this condition, which is terrible, and they need more support. But if only a few of these 10 million people recognize you as an authority on fibromyalgia—or you don’t have the kind of institutional access that will grant you an introduction to large numbers of them—you’re likely not going to be able to land a commercial book deal.
“Ten million people live with fibromyalgia” means little in isolation. But if you hang it from the scaffolding of a super-compelling personal platform, THEN it means something enormous. Here’s what that looks like:
A leading authority on the relationship between rheumatics and fibromyalgia, Dr. Janie Fakename has delivered several keynotes to around 2000 doctors at the American College of Rheumatology’s annual conference. She also makes frequent guest contributions to the National Fibromyalgia Association’s e-newsletter. The country’s most popular fibromyalgia publication, “Fibro Today” goes out weekly to 500,000 of the estimated 10 million Americans who live with the condition.
This is a bullshit example I made up. I have no idea if these publications/conferences even exist, let alone how big their fandoms are. But you get the picture: “10 million people” is only interesting insofar as Dr. Fakename has access to a large, literature-lovin’ core group within the demo.
Prioritize authority and numbers over charm
The #1 point of an author bio is not to make agents and editors love you. It’s not zaniness or precocity. It’s attracting financial investment in your book and long-term career.
Charm has its place! Charm has its place like love has a place in the Machiavellian conception of leadership. Machiavelli teaches us that the greatest leaders are loved and feared, but if they need to choose one or the other, they should choose fear. Popularity alone is about as strong as Jell-O. SO MAKE EVERYONE FEAR YOU. Kidding—just be sure they see your strength first and sparkle second.
Put another way, think of your casually intimidating career brags as the meat of your bio, and then go back and season with charm like so:
In particular, the very first sentence of your bio should be something impressive and career-related. It should not be a yarn about your childhood or family. Those things can come in shortly thereafter, but at the VERY beginning, for God’s sake, toot an air horn about your career.
After that, if you do want to get into detail about your background and personal life, make sure you’re always complementing the warp of personal storytelling with the weft of hardcore career brags.
Called ‘the bard of cat fancy’ by the New York Times, Lola Von NotReal always knew she was going to do something pointless with her life and get famous doing it. She still has a copy of the kazoo opera she scored at age 12, and now, age 42, she is proud to run the world’s most popular Instagram account for cat-themed verse. Together, Lola and her community of some 800,000 followers have raised more than $1 million for cat shelters and humane pet care in America. Her parents are still hoping she will go to law school.
There are jokes in this opening paragraph! There is zazz! There is also an immediate reference to the fact that the New York Times 1. covered Lola and 2. kinda-sorta compared her to Shakespeare. Not to mention the mike drop of “world’s most popular” and the Instagram audience number and the awesome fact that she’s in fact not doing something “pointless”—she’s saving cats and raising money for charity.
Compare this to the much weaker case Lola would make for her book if she opened with something chronological and worked up to the brags:
Lola Von NotReal always knew she was going to do something pointless with her life and get famous doing it. She still has a copy of the kazoo opera she scored at age 12, much to her parents’ chagrin. The opera was about her angry Scottish Fold cat, FitzHerbert, who reacted with Wagnerian sturm and drang every time he didn’t get to eat the same dinner as the human beings in the family. (“Can’t you write an opera about applying to law school?” said her mother.)
At Brown University, Lola studied English literature. But her obsession with cats remained.
And so on.
In the latter, Lola comes off as kinda unbearable. There’s also zilch about her market, and the self-deprecatory humor hurts rather than helps her case.
Paired with the platform statistics, Lola’s “my work is pointless” joke is sweet: it reminds us that performers who rally audiences in a spirit of play and camp can harness that creative joy for profound and meaningful ends. There is dignity (and as a matter of fact a really big point) in pointlessness. Without the numbers, however, Lola looks like the 2020 cat-lady version of Marie Antoinette.
Your connections are important
Your author bio is a great place to mention not just your relevant institutional connections—universities, professional associations, mailing lists—but your personal ones. No Sproul-Latimer client bio is complete without a bulleted list of prominent people who are supporters of the author and might be approached to offer promotional support, be they colleagues, ex-colleagues, family friends, Twitter friends, teachers, or just other clients of the same literary agency.
I like to tell authors something I’m pretty sure I read on Jane Friedman’s blog years ago: your platform is an organic years-long thing built of everyone you have ever known—and everything you have ever done or experienced—insofar as it opens up some access to your target audience. As such, platform is almost impossible to create on a dime—but it’s also probably larger than you think. It is the work of a lifetime; it is your lifetime.
Yes! Your sister’s high school BFF who went on to become an executive at a major celebrity book club is part of your platform (IF you are writing the kind of book that book club reads). Yes! The now-famous novelist you once taught high school English with is part of your platform too, provided that you are writing a book her fans and followers would like (fiction OR non). Both of these people’s names should go in your author bio.
No! You do not have to get these people’s ironclad commitment to put their names in your proposal, nor do you even have to ask (unless you have reason to believe they might be uncomfortable, such as, e.g., they hate you).
Just don’t misrepresent the nature of the relationship or commitment. It’s okay to say, e.g., “NAME, executive vice president of CELEBRITY BOOK CLUB, is a good family friend of many years” and leave it at that.
To photo or not to photo?
I like to begin most of my clients’ author bios with a photo. While not necessary, photos can be a useful way to build that personal connection with editors. They also offer an opportunity to convey that the author knows how to self-present in media.
What you never want to do is include a photo just because it makes you look hot. No judgment: I too waffle and often fail the thirst v. professionalism test in the face of a flattering photo, especially if I have just one glorious, well-defined chin in it. Looking hot is fine if it is incidental, but what is really important is what the photo conveys: authority plus warmth minus any hints of a personality disorder.
If you have a photo that does this and makes you look hot, NEVER LET IT GO.
Do not get Annie Liebowitz to stage an Alice in Wonderland-themed editorial shoot for your author photo. Do not, as one submitter did to me years ago, send your memoir accompanied by shots of your comprehensive, Speedo-clad, fulsomely greased body— shots in which you are sitting on a stool and clutching a water bottle in a suggestive manner.
Most of us in publishing are alert on some level to red flags that an author might present with untreated cluster-B problems in a working relationship, and we try to avoid those relationships where possible. Such red flags include but are not limited to photos that look grandiose or inappropriate. Or just unconcerned with the context of the document.
Which brings me to my conclusion, the most important thing to remember about your author photo and bio:
The point is not looking good—it’s professional connection. It’s about demonstrating how well you connect with other people.
That is what is going to get you the kind of deal you’re after: authority and empathy. Not superficial charm. And not a greased lens.