No One Cares About Your Life Story: 9 Tips for a Better Author Bio
“Please provide a bio of 150 words or less.” How many times have you been asked to sum yourself up in the number of words TV Guide allots for the description of the SyFy Channel movie of the week?
Whether Random House just published your seventh novel or your first short story was accepted last Tuesday, if you’re a writer, you’ve inevitably been asked for an author bio. Maybe it made you cringe. Maybe the opportunity to talk about yourself excited you. No matter how you feel about it, unless you’ve got someone to write your bio for you, it’s something you'll have to deal with. Author bios might seem like the least important part of a book, but in a crowded anthology packed full of great stories, a good author bio is an effective tool to ensure that readers pick up more of your work. Here are nine tips to help your author bio stand out among the hordes.
1. Mythologize yourself.
When I discovered the books of Carlton Mellick III as a teenager living in Bakersfield (the armpit of California), I was enthralled not only with his work, but the image he conveyed through his introductions and author bios. Not only was he this badass writer with mutton chops, his books were shunned by most bookstores and libraries and he lived in the coolest city in the country – and that city was Mecca for contemporary underground fiction. He made Portland out to be a place that rained tattoos, where Pabst Blue Ribbon served as currency, and weirdness was a way of life. It sounded like a dream—my dream.
A few other Portland writers who I read around this time also built up Portland (including but not limited to Kristopher Young, Jeremy Robert Johnson, and pretty much anyone who had ever uttered “Powell’s” in a sentence). This was more about authors mythologizing a place rather than themselves, but I guess that’s kinda my point here: no matter how great you are, what makes you great and interesting extends far beyond yourself. Eventually, I moved to Portland, and that decision was influenced by author bios. It seems crazy, but it’s true. That’s the power bios can have on impressionable teenaged readers. Henry Miller sold himself as an interesting human in part by selling Big Sur as an interesting place. I bet a lot of confused young people made the trip there because of him. In fact, they still do. When you identify with the place that you’re from, your own identity assumes a greater richness, not because you are that city (no, you’re nothing, remember it), but because you’re a tiny human doing great things in that incredible space that’s bigger than you.
2. Be relevant.
I’ve edited a pair of themed anthologies, and two bios turned in by authors for the most recent anthology – a David Lynch tribute – were actually the inspiration for this article. I received no bad author bios, not at all, but two contributors in particular impressed me. Kevin Sampsell did so by mentioning his favorite Lynch film and his favorite Lynch actress. It was a cool, interesting touch, and because it related directly to the anthology, Kevin’s bio stands out among all the rest. Kris Saknussemm’s also stood out, but he was relevant in a different way. “The Garage Door,” his story in the anthology, was originally accepted by Raymond Carver for a leading literary journal. That’s a killer fact-bomb to drop, but Kris displayed no pompousness about it. It’s simply the history of the story found in the anthology. For efficiency’s sake, it’s good to have a standard bio that you can send out to publications whenever needed, but if you can take the time to personalize each one just a little bit, you’ll show a small amount of human care that can go a long way. After all, how many readers are actually interested in reading a mile-long list of midlist short story credits? Which brings me to Number 3…
3. Sell yourself, but don’t be a used car salesman.
I’m actually interested in knowing where other authors are getting published. Bios and publication acknowledgment pages in story collections are two places where you can quickly acquire cross-section knowledge of which publications take an interest in a particular genre or style. But if you rattle off a dozen or two publications you’ve appeared in, I know what you’re doing. You’re viewing those publications as ‘credits,’ and somewhere in the back of your brain, there’s a slimy, reptilian thought whispering to you, “Credits, precious credits.” And you are suddenly a less interesting writer to me. Because you are a reptile, not a human.
4. The “I’m so humble/cool/don’t-give-a-shit that my author bio is a single, nondescript sentence” bio.
There’s someone worse than the reptile, and that’s the person who feels little need to say anything about themselves or their work. Their work is so great, and they are so simply, so purely human, they would never stoop to something so belittling, so hackneyed and cheesy, as an author bio.
I recently ordered a book from a respectable independent publisher. When it arrived in the mail, my wife flipped through it, gauging the typeset and paper quality like she always does, and then paused on the author bio. She laughed and said, “That’s bullshit.” It was one of those one-liners that says nothing about the person who wrote the book. Keep in mind, just because a bio is brief doesn’t mean it’s bad. Some one-line bios are perfect, almost always because they adhere in some way to Nos. 1-3 or the sections below. So, if you absolutely loathe long author bios, just remember to pack into your single sentence all the relevant, myth-building, non-used car salesman information that you can.
5. You have a cat? Really?
If you write an entire novel named after your cat, then sweet, go ahead and tell me about your cat. Hell, if the cat is a character in the book, go ahead and include a bio for your cat at the end of your book, like Sam Pink did with his short novel Rontel. And it’s fine to dedicate your book to your cat, or to thank your cat in the acknowledgments, or feature your cat sitting on your lap in your author photo, but if a core part of your author persona is you as ‘crazy cat person,’ then you’d damn well better have been published in Cat Fancy (and mention that in your bio too, because that’s awesome!).
6. Author Photos: To be or not to be?
You know who looks like a dumbass in the author photo of their first book? This guy. I’m really not sure what I was thinking when I took that selfie in my deceased great-grandfather’s hat in the laundry room of the Olympia, WA farmhouse I was living in at the time. And that’s the thing. I wasn’t thinking at all. But I didn’t learn my lesson there. No. The questionability of my author photos ceased only when I no longer gave my publisher author photos when they asked for them. Some authors are brilliant with author photos. I am not one of them, nor will I ever be, judging by my poor track record. Some people say I bear a resemblance to author Patrick Wensink, but the reason Wensink’s author photos works so well is because they’re well thought out. They convey his personality and even a little something about his writing. If you want your photo appearing at the end of your book (or on the back cover), I recommend sitting down for a couple hours and making a plan. Figure out how you can boil your aesthetic down to a few key photos that will expand the reader’s mental image of you. Then find a good, reliable photographer.
7. Make a list of the ten most interesting things about yourself unrelated to writing.
Were you once an amateur boxer? Are you passionate about off-Broadway musicals? A bicycling maven? Lover of vintage toys? Whatever you love beyond writing, your passion for it can be infectious. People like listening to other people who are passionate, regardless of where their passion is directed. I don’t drive and I know jack-all about cars, but I would rather spend the day talking with someone who knows and loves cars deeply than I would a person who’s only tentatively enthusiastic about something I actually like. If you’re a collector of old stamps, please, don’t be afraid to tell the world. Because the world needs you. The world needs all passionate people.
8. TMI, or Consider what you’re disclosing (DFW and that sweating disorder).
So you want to be personal (and personable), but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Where you draw that line is entirely up to you. It’s a well-known fact that David Foster Wallace frequently sported a bandana to soak up some of the profuse quantity of sweat he exuded, that in general he sweated so much it caused great embarrassment and other problems for him, and that he used chewing tobacco because he found himself unable to write for months on end after quitting smoking, but no one ever learned these things from his author bios. These facts surfaced through his work and in interviews. Whatever you choose to share about yourself, know that people will ask questions about it, and if you’re especially candid, they may eventually come to expect that from you all the time. So decide what’s right for you not only for now, but for the long term as well.
9. Read other author bios and decide for yourself.
This point matters more than any of the others because ultimately, it’s up to you. Pay attention to author bios and consider what resonates with you. More than likely, if you borrow elements from those author bios for you own, then you’ll be solid. There’s no right or wrong to this very minor element of the publishing game. Like everything else, crafting an author bio that doesn’t make you sound like a douchebag is a learning process. Above all else ask yourself, what impression are you trying to make?
I’ve written some of the dumbest bios for myself, violating just about every piece of advice above, but through trial and error, I’ve learned that if you follow most of them, a better author bio will result. Like all advice, that’s all it is. I’m sure you could violate all nine tips and come out with a great author bio. In fact, I know I broke at least one of them in my bio here. That's because my cat is awesome.
Why not share some of your horrible attempts in the comments?
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