Today’s post originally ran on my website for self-publishers (check out the site for more helpful tips if you’re going the indie route!).
One of the important marketing tools a writer needs is an author bio. This descriptive bit of writing informs readers, in few words, who you are, what you write, and what makes you unique. It’s the marquee announcing your author presence in the world of publishing.
Think about your author bio as your “elevator pitch” that sells you rather than your book.
It may seem odd and uncomfortable penning your own biography, and writing about yourself in third person (which is what you need to do) can makes it feel even weirder.
To compound matters, most of us don’t like to toot our horn and share glowing praise about ourselves. We know how off-putting it is to hear someone brag about themselves and their accomplishments. Yet … we authors need to do just that—with at least modicum of modesty or humility, along with professionalism.
All of this in just a few lines.
However, the length of your bio will vary depending on where it will appear. On sales platforms it’s best to have at least a few paragraphs. Some places, such as in online book catalogs, social media sites, and guest blog posts, will limit word or character count. Hands down, your website is the place to shine on your About page.
Those first sentences are the most important—as with your book, if readers aren’t engaged right away, they’ll stop reading. Especially with nonfiction, people will quickly decide whether an author seems to have enough authority in a topic to be trusted.
In this age of speedy decisions, all it might take is a catchy, impressive author bio to get a potential reader checking out your books.
How do you find the right balance? And how do you keep from boring readers? You don’t want your bio to sound like a dry resume that features a laundry list of achievements. Yet you do need to tout the achievements or expertise that gives you credibility or clout.
How an Author Bio Can Help Your Career
Though you may not have considered this, your author bio can impact sales, draw in new readers, and affect the way potential readers formulate an opinion about you. Yes, even just from a few lines.
Take this bio, for example, from author Maira Kalman, an Israeli-born American illustrator, writer, artist, and designer. She is known for her playful and witty illustrations and has been featured in publications such as The New York Times and The New Yorker. What kind of immediate impression do you get of her from reading this?:
In her own words: “born. bucolic childhood. culture-stuffed adolescence. played piano. stopped. danced. stopped. wrote. discarded writing. drew. reinstated writing. married Tibor Kalman and collaborated at iconoclastic yet successful design studio. wrote and painted children’s books. worried. took up Ping-Pong. relaxed. wrote and painted for many magazines. cofounded the Rubber Band Society. amused. children: two. dog: one.”
Maira’s creativity bounces off the page with a unique voice and flair that presents her as both funny and approachable. What’s important to note is that her bio showcases her personality and implies the tone of her work.
Author Tanya Hall, in her book Ideas, Influence & Income, states that
book sales are predominately author driven. According to Verson Digital’s 2009 Survey of Book-Buying Behavior, author reputation is the most important factor in a book purchase decision, followed by personal recommendation and price. … It comes down to a fundamental truth in the media world: we have a huge supply of and a limited demand for content. … Reading time is limited. … Information clutter is rampant. Think about your own behavior when you’re taking in a website, a blog, or even search results. You’re in speed mode, as you need to be in order to slog through all of the noise. … You’ve got to get [people] to stop and take notice.
Grab attention and make an impression.
Elements in Your Author Bio
There are varying strategies on how to write a terrific bio. Some say you should start with biographical detail that supports your expertise, then add bits to help people connect with you personally.
Others suggest you start with a bang—mentioning the biggest achievements first: “#1 NYT’s best-selling author of …” followed by sales numbers and how many languages your books have been translated into.
However, Maggie Lynch, writing in the ALLi blog, shares her results from a survey she took of her list of romance readers on what influences them to buy a book (nearly 4,000 responses), and out of fifteen ranked data points, the top three were prior familiarity with the author (68%), the book cover (53%—does that surprise you?), and a friend’s recommendation (38%). Interestingly, bestseller status and literary prizes ranked last (2% and <1% respectively).
That might surprise you too, as it did me.
Certainly, if you’ve hit the tops of coveted best-seller lists or have won prestigious writing awards, you’ll want to note that somewhere in your bio.
Still others state you should start with your education: “Sally Smith is a professor of anthropology at Harvard …” followed by the title of the book or series and what it’s about.
What you don’t want to include are things that are unrelated to what you write (unless you’re trying to be funny or show a quirky side of yourself, which I particularly like when reading about an author).
Let’s look at five key elements in an author bio. Yours might include some or all of them.
- Publishing credentials: books published with reputable publishers, notable awards, topping lists, high sales figures
- Top review blurbs by famous people/media. Great to get a best-selling author to endorse if possible
- Expertise and work experience—directly related to your book and info that shows diversity or depth/breadth of experience in life
- Humor, cleverness, and personality shining through (as appropriate for genre/topic)
- CTA (a call to action—usually getting people to join a mailing list) with a fun or special offer and ways to connect
Let’s take a look at some examples of bios that utilize the aforementioned elements.
Lisa Gardner is one of my favorite authors, and I love the way she spruces up the long list of her well-deserved achievements and published titles. Of course, she has a shorter version of this where needed. Notice her hilariously named CTA at the end of her bio.
Lisa Gardner, a #1 New York Times thriller novelist, began her career in food service, but after catching her hair on fire numerous times, she took the hint and focused on writing instead. A self-described research junkie, she parlayed her interest in police procedure and twisted plots into a streak of internationally bestselling suspense novels, including her most recent release, Look for Me. With over 22 million books in print, Lisa is published in 30 countries. Her success crosses into the small screen with four of her novels becoming movies (At the Midnight Hour; The Perfect Husband; The Survivors Club; Hide) and personal appearances on television shows (TruTV; CNN).
Lisa Gardner’s novels have also received awards from across the globe. Her novel The Neighbor won the Best Novel from the International Thriller Writers while also receiving the Grand Prix des Lectrices de Elle, in France. She was also recognized with the Daphne du Maurier Award for The Other Daughter in 2000.
Finally, Lisa received the Silver Bullet Award in 2017, in honor of her work on behalf of at-risk children and the Humane Society.
Readers are invited to get in on the fun by entering the annual “Kill a Friend, Maim a Buddy” Sweepstakes at LisaGardner.com, where they can nominate the person of their choice to die in Lisa’s latest novel. Every year, one Lucky Stiff is selected for Literary Immortality. It’s cheaper than therapy, and you get a great book besides. Lisa lives in New Hampshire with her family and an assortment of crazy canines.
Review blurbs by influential people
You can start your bio with an endorsement, or put it after your self-description, as Jake Needham does:
Jake Needham is an American screen and television writer who began writing crime novels when he realized he didn’t really like movies and television all that much. Since then, he has published eleven titles in The Mean Streets Crime Novels series.
“Jake Needham’s the real deal,” says Brendan DuBois, New York Times bestselling author with James Patterson of The First Lady. “His characters are moral men and women struggling in an increasingly immoral world, his suspense and plotting are top-notch, and his writing is exquisitely fine. Highly, highly recommended.”
For nearly thirty years, Jake lived and worked in Europe and Asia. Now he, his wife, and their two sons divide their time between their homes in Washington DC and on the Gulf of Thailand. You can learn more about Jake Needham at his official website: www.JakeNeedhamNovels.com.
To me, that last paragraph could be replaced by something more entertaining than the list of places he’s lived, which likely don’t influence his stories in any direct way—or, if they, do, it would help to know how and why.
Expertise and work experience:
It’s common to see bios begin with the author’s date of birth. Is that really something potential readers care about and will be impressed by? I think not.
Having decades of experience in life isn’t going to intrigue readers as much as decades specializing in a field that pertains to their book. Someone whose career as an astronaut launched her into space and who logged time on the International Space Station brings credibility to her thriller set on a space station.
Check out Sean Black’s bio:
Sean Black grew up in Scotland, studied film in New York, and written [sic] the screenplays for many of Britain’s best-known TV dramas. To research the first two Ryan Lock thrillers, he underwent weeks of intensive bodyguard training and spent time inside America’s most dangerous maximum security prison, Pelican Bay Supermax in California. In Gridlock, he takes his readers deep inside the murky world of America’s multi-billion-dollar adult entertainment industry.
By adding that bit about what he went through to do his research, he sparks interest and inspires respect for his diligence to get the facts straight before writing his novels.
Here’s another example of sharing expertise with a dash of humor to liven up what might be construed as a dry list of experiences:
Z. Kelly is the author of the Hollywood Alphabet Thriller Series. He spent over thirty years in the field of law enforcement. His experience includes dealing with felony offenders, making sentencing recommendations to the courts, running a jail, and developing innovative programs to keep our streets safe. His law enforcement experience was in Southern California, not too far from the famous Sunset Strip, and includes run-ins with some of America’s craziest criminals, not to mention a few wannabe actors, and even an Oscar-award winner!
Phillip Margolin’s bio succinctly ties in some of his best-selling titles with the trademark element of his series, with a nod to his expertise and background that gives him credibility:
Phillip Margolin has written nineteen novels, many of them New York Times bestsellers, including his latest novels Woman with a Gun, Worthy Brown’s Daughter, Sleight of Hand, and the Washington trilogy. Each displays a unique, compelling insider’s view of criminal behavior, which comes from his long background as a criminal defense attorney who has handled thirty murder cases. Winner of the Distinguished Northwest Writer Award, he lives in Portland, Oregon.
A section of Kathy Reichs’s very long bio (which contains an impressive list of publications), shares her extensive and fascinating work experience (and it continues on way beyond this excerpt):
Dr. Reichs is also a producer of the hit Fox TV series Bones, which is based on her work and her novels. From teaching FBI agents how to detect and recover human remains, to separating and identifying commingled body parts in her Montreal lab, as a forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs has brought her own dramatic work experience to her mesmerizing forensic thrillers. For years she consulted to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in North Carolina, and continues to do so for the Laboratoire de Sciences Judiciaires et de Médecine Légale for the province of Québec. Dr. Reichs has travelled to Rwanda to testify at the UN Tribunal on Genocide, and helped exhume a mass grave in Guatemala. As part of her work at JPAC (Formerly CILHI) she aided in the identification of war dead from World War II, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Dr. Reichs also assisted with identifying remains found at ground zero of the World Trade Center following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
An author with such intriguing and relevant work experience is smart to include it in her bio.
You may not think you have any expertise worth including, but, with some creative effort, you might find something in your past that influenced the writing of, say, your novel about alien invasions. Spending a good portion of your childhood on the roof with a cheap telescope looking for ET will at very least express your enthusiasm (or obsession) for the topic.
Humor and cleverness
Brian Rathbone keeps his bio short and eclectic:
#1 International bestselling fantasy author Brian Rathbone is a bit odd. After growing up training standardbred racehorses, he went to work at a nuclear plant before helping to build the Internet. When he isn’t writing, Brian tells a few too many bad dragon jokes on Twitter and spends a lot of time thinking about unicorns.
Granted, Brian’s bio could shed light on the types of stories he’s written (other than just stating they’re fantasy), but he’s opted with tickling readers’ fancies in the hopes that will be enough to check out his novels.
Here’s another short and fun bio that mixes expertise with humor and personal tastes:
Jerry Hatchett is a digital forensic expert who works cases across the country and around the world. A lifelong technogeek, he has also consulted for hit TV shows like The Blacklist, Blind Spot, and more. When not forensicating or writing, he loves reading other authors, watching great movies, and trying to survive his too-smart dog Data.
A famous author (whose real name is Daniel Handler) focuses solely on being clever, not needing (or wanting) to spend time listing all his many best-selling novels and the dozens of languages they’ve been translated into:
Lemony Snicket had an unusual education which may or may not explain his ability to evade capture. He is the author of the 13 volumes in A Series of Unfortunate Events, several picture books including The Dark, and the books collectively titled All The Wrong Questions.
While giving a lengthy personal history of your life might be wholly unrelated to your books, it can amuse readers who find the author’s voice engaging into wanting to know more. Take for example:
Raised in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, William Kent Krueger briefly attended Stanford University—before being kicked out for radical activities. After that, he logged timber, worked construction, tried his hand at free-lance journalism, and eventually ended up researching child development at the University of Minnesota. He currently makes his living as a full-time author. He’s been married for over 40 years to a marvelous woman who is a retired attorney. He makes his home in St. Paul, a city he dearly loves. Krueger writes a mystery series set in the north woods of Minnesota. His protagonist is Cork O’Connor, the former sheriff of Tamarack County and a man of mixed heritage—part Irish and part Ojibwe. His work has received a number of awards, including the Minnesota Book Award, the Loft-McKnight Fiction Award, the Anthony Award, the Barry Award, the Dilys Award, and the Friends of American Writers Prize. His last eight novels were all New York Times bestsellers.
Interesting that, instead of starting with his acclaim, he launches into some of his unrelated work experience in an effort to be personable and come across as an eclectic guy.
Calls to Action (CTA)
Here’s Kelly Collins’s author bio, which bolts out the gate with a CTA:
Like FREEBIES? Join the VIP readers at bit.ly/KellyCollinsVIP for members-only exclusives!
~ Tip: Just hit “FOLLOW” for notifications about deals and new releases! ~
Kelly Collins is an international bestselling author of over two dozen novels. Her two most popular series, The Aspen Cove Romance Series and The Second Chance Series feature irresistibly hot small-town heroes and sassy quick-witted heroines who find love in unlikely places.
When not reading or writing romances, Kelly can be found walking the Colorado trails with her friends, sitting in front of her favorite slot machine in Cripple Creek, or sneaking into her favorite donut shop.
She can also be found on:
FACEBOOK – http://facebook.com/AuthorKelleyCollins
TWITTER – http://twitter.com/kcollinsauthor
INSTAGRAM – http://instagram.com/authorkellycollins
You can learn more about Kelly at www.authorkellycollins.com
Notice how she starts off with an offer, then shares her success (international bestselling author), followed by the names of her series, and a fun, sassy description of the kind of stories she writes. Adding that personal section humanizes her so her bio isn’t just a list of her products. She wraps up by making it easy for readers to find and follow her.
Final Thoughts on Your Author Bio
It’s easy to impress readers with a long list of awards and successes. But what if you aren’t there yet? What you’ve only just published your first book? What if you’re not an expert in anything? How can you make your author bio impressive and engaging?
Focus on the elements of humor, creativity, and cleverness that helps showcase your author voice. And share something intriguing about your book that might make it stand out.
Author John Gwynne has published two novels, and while he doesn’t have a long list of awards, he’s created a nice blend of background, personal information, and modest acclaim for his first book:
John Gwynne studied and lectured at Brighton University. He’s been in a rock ’n roll band, playing the double bass, travelled the USA and lived in Canada for a time. He is married with four children and lives in Eastbourne, running a small family business rejuvenating vintage furniture. His first novel, Malice, won the David Gemmell Morningstar award for best debut fantasy. Valour is his second novel.
Joel Pitney, marketer, writes: “Some authors don’t feel like they have enough to say about themselves; but just the fact that you’ve written a book makes you important enough to have at least a 3-4 line bio! Think creatively about what elements of who you are might be of interest to readers; don’t be shy!”
Don’t forget to regularly update your bio. When you have new releases come out, a great new review blurb, or win an award or hit the top of a best-seller list, go find all the places your bio is posted and update it.
How to find all those places? The easiest way is to keep a spreadsheet listing them and their links. These include social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, your website, all sales platforms (Amazon, Apple iBooks, Kobo, etc.), and anywhere else your books are promoted or mentioned (that you have control over).
Try running your bio by some friends and see what they like or don’t like about it. If you really feel stuck, consider hiring an editor or a marketing-savvy copywriter.
If you write in multiple genres, you may want to tweak the content and tone of each to be best suited for that genre. For my fantasy novels, I mention that I write in other genres but don’t list those titles. For my nonfiction, my bio is all about my teaching expertise, type of books (writing craft), and my related work as a writing coach and instructor.
While your bio may be one of the shortest pieces of writing you ever do, don’t discount its importance. A weak or boring bio might be off-putting to potential readers, but a glowing, creative bio could result in countless new fans of your books. Put the time in and do it right!