22 tips for author bios from a Goodreads giveaway junkie
Posted on September 14th, 2017
Random trivia: I enter Goodreads giveaways every day after I finish with my German and Welsh in the morning. (It’s my reward–and I average a book or two a week in winnings.) While I’m in it for the free books (because money, library wait times on new releases, and getting books before release dates), it has been an amazingly educational experience…although probably not in the way the authors intended.
Because, shocker: author bios (almost) universally suck. A long time ago, it was my job to help people write these, and that was when I learned most authors would prefer to perform open heart surgery on themselves than put work into the bio and blurb. It’s become a kind of humble-brag thing, how awful you are at writing a bio and how terrible it is publishers aren’t more helpful. And it is hard…in the sense that we all have a bullshit detector that knows when someone’s upset the balance of info and ego–which happens in most bios. So write those bios like every word costs a hundred dollars, and the more you save the better. I’m sorry it’s hard, but you’re a writer. Learn to cope.
For what it’s worth, here’s my list of Dos and Don’ts. As a disclaimer, I’m a judgmental snob, so take what you want from this and blow off the rest.
- Appearances matter. If you look like an Old Order Mennonite in your picture, I have my doubts as to how well you can execute a modern romance novel. I know that seems petty, but seriously, don’t.
- Also: do not take your own picture. Do. not. (Related: do not use an Olan Mills picture or a glamour shot from the 90s, either.) I can tell if you took the picture in the mirror or at arm’s length, and it makes your butt look big, even if your butt isn’t showing. (Not really, but do you get my point? Seriously, don’t do this!) I would love to post examples, Cake Wrecks style, but I can’t. It’s just too cruel.
- Do not tell us when you learned to read. This is surprisingly common and I don’t know why. It’s usually “from an early age.” What does that even mean? I learned to read at three. Is that early? Are we using the same scale? Are you trying to show off or be funny? I can’t tell.
- Do not tell us when you became interested in writing. We don’t care. Why would anyone care? We only care if you do it well, so tell your kids, maybe. Examples: “He became interested in writing when his mother read books to him as a boy,” (when, you might have noticed, most parents do their reading to children) or “Her high school English teacher encouraged her to write but she took ages while she did [obligatory middle class gap year crap] before she could settle down.” It screams “I’m in my 20s.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
- Do not tell us which book made you want to start writing. And if you can’t help yourself, please don’t use something from the standard 10th grade English curriculum. Please. It screams “I’m not very well read.”
- Do not tell us what year you were born. I can’t even believe this is a thing. If you’re very young, I have doubts about your life experience. I don’t have any problems with being old, but I’m not sure why anyone would want to share that.
- Do not tell us about your undergraduate education. We really don’t need to know what you majored and minored in. The only time education is relevant is when you’re writing non-fiction and you need credentials…in which case your undergrad education would really not matter. It screams: “The best time of my life was at college/university.” Related: you are not a scholar if you studied something in undergrad. Sorry.
Example, with some identifying details omitted to shield the perpetrator:
“Jane Author, a native of [Western State], loves the research associated with writing. As a scholar of behavioral science and history, she earned her degree from [Random] University. As a result, one of her passions is figuring out why people do the things they do and how everyday events and relationships ultimately affect our lives.
I can’t even on this one. I’m sorry, Jane Author, but if I win your book I’ll probably tear it to pieces.
- Do not tell us about your graduate school education, either, unless it’s relevant to the book. A sci-fi book written by a PhD in astrophysics is extra neat. A sci-fi book written by a M.Div. isn’t.
- Do not tell us about your children. Not their hobbies, not their names, nothing. Dedicate the book to them and use their initials, because your kids have privacy rights that you should be respecting.
- Do not tell us about your spouse. As before, but also: seriously? Why? What does that have to do with anything? Tell us you’re married if you want (if that’s what you stake your identity on). If only I had a dime for every blurb with an author living with “the love of her life.” (Why would you marry anyone other than this?)
Example, with some identifying details omitted to shield the perpetrator:
Here’s some general information about me. I was born in [Western State] in 19 [something]. I was married to the love of my life in 19[something], and have two adult [children] who seem determined to keep me from having grandchildren. I am six foot two inches tall, and weigh one hundred ninety pounds in my boxer shorts. The once thick, black hair on my head is turning thin and gray. My eyes are brown and I’ve been told they twinkle. I’m now in my sixties, but I feel like I’m in my thirties. My wife says I often act like I’m twelve. I smoke often, but I plan to give up the habit before it gets the best of me, or at least this is what I’ve been telling myself for the past twenty years. Welcome to my world. I have been many things over my lifetime, but I am now attempting to be a writer. My stories aren’t for everyone, but if you like seeing the real world poked and prodded, twisted and squeezed, then I think my tales might be right for you. Won’t you join me? It would be nice to have some intelligent company other than my immediate family members and intimate circle of close friends.
Dear fucking God, definitely don’t evoke the image of boxer shorts.
- Do not tell us about your pets. If you have a million cats I will fear for your sanity (or suspect you might be my father’s wife). There’s nothing wrong with having a bunch of dogs IMHO, but it’s still random.
- Do not tell us about all your other pen names. What is the point of having a different pen name if you blab about it on the cover of your book?
- Do not tell us this is your pen name. We’re probably bright enough to figure it out if we look into it, but don’t flatter yourself that we’re interested.
- Do not tell us the competitions your book has won if they’re not the Man Booker, Pulitzer, or Nobel prizes. Please. (Especially if it’s long-listed. It doesn’t take much for a book to be long-listed.) Here’s a decent exception, though.
- Do not tell us this is your first novel. If it is, I don’t want to read it. Otherwise, it’s a lie. Almost every author’s first novel (and second and third) can be found wasting away in a DropBox folder, and most assuredly every first novel is a piece of shit.
- This is specific, but if you aren’t a lawyer, don’t tell us that if you’re writing a legal thriller. Better, don’t write one. If you are a lawyer, keep your mouth shut, because the last thing the world needs is another excuse for lawyer jokes.
- Humor is really subjective. If you can pull off humor in an author bio, great. You probably can’t and, unless you’re a comedian, shouldn’t try. Why risk putting someone off your book who might otherwise enjoy it?
- Please don’t tell us the marketing gnomes are making you write a bio. We know. STFU.
Some things I do like to see in bios:
- Where you live. That’s interesting and it’s not creepy. (Although I have Portland-author burnout.)
- Other books you’ve written.
- If you do something cool and kind of incongruous. Made up example: Jane Author is currently at work on the 10th novel in the Wonderful New Fantasy Series. In her free time, she test drives amphibious assault vehicles.
- If you do something interesting and congruous. Made up example: Jane Author is currently at work on the 10th novel in the Quirky IRS Mystery Series. She has been an IRS Special Agent for the past ten years.
Real example:David Ignatius, a prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post, has been covering the Middle East and the CIA for more than twenty-five years. His novels include Agents of Innocence, Body of Lies, and The Increment, now in development for a major motion picture by Jerry Bruckheimer. He lives in Washington, DC.
I don’t know the guy and I’ve never read his books, but he sounds like he’d be very interesting to hang out with–which is about what I’m looking for in a book bio.
If you’ve made it all the way to the end, please leave a comment and tell me what you like (or don’t) to see in author bios! Do you agree or disagree? (Bonus points for awful examples.)