19 Sep

Write the Perfect Author’s Bio

Writing the Perfect Author's Bio

Writing the Perfect Author's BioIt sits there, right at the end of your book. Your author biography[note]Author biography, author bio, and author’s bio all seem to be legitimate spellings. So I’ll mix and the search engines will love me.[/note]. That little blurb where you’re supposed to put interesting facts about yourself. But what do you put in it? And, more importantly, why?

Because an author bio has but one function – and it’s got nothing to do with introducing yourself.

Here’s why.

The Function of an Author’s Bio

I’ve been a marketing copywriter for over ten years, and from a career standpoint[note]That’s your career as a writer.[/note], an author bio has but one function: to persuade the reader to buy your books.

[bctt tweet=”An author bio has one one main function: to persuade the reader to buy your writing.” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

Usually this is by buying the story it’s attached to, or your other writing, but occasionally it by visiting your web site, connecting on social media or similar, and perhaps buying your books at a later time. Take a look at Brandon Sanderson’s Author Bio, from his novel Mistborn: The Final Empire:

Brandon Sanderson was born in Nebraska in 1975. Since then he has written the Mistborn series, amongst others, become a New York Times bestselling author and been hailed as the natural successor to Robert Jordan. He lives in Utah.

www.brandonsanderson.com[note]Yeah, there’s a http and stuff before this in the book, but WordPress won’t let me insert a link as text. Go figure.[/note]

Mistborn is the first novel of the series. Brandon’s author biography stresses this point by mentioning the series. It also mentions that Brandon’s written other works, works that are highly acclaimed (“New York Times bestselling author”), and that Brandon himself is highly acclaimed (the comparison to Robert Jordan[note]Who, BTW, was a fan of Brandon Sanderson and Brandon was the writer picked to finish Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.[/note]). It also gives Brandon’s webpage address.

Why? Because this author biography has one, very clear, purpose: to sell other works by Brandon Sanderson. It’s marketing copy.

Author Bio as Sales Copy

Professional authors are salesmen. Or, if they aren’t, they’ve got agents and marketeers who are. That’s because a working author needs an income in order to remain an author[note]Duh![/note].

You can write a great novel, one that will make readers go all googly-eyed[note]Totally correct spelling. Google says so.[/note], but if you don’t provide them with a way to engage with your other writing, you, the writer, won’t be able to build a career – each of your works will be your “debut novel”. That’s why you want to engage readers with your new writing, and the best moment to do that is right at the end of your current writing. It’s the point at which your readers are the most likely to be enthusiastic about your writing, and most likely to purchase your next story.

That’s why so many novels contain an excerpt of the next novel in the series, or another novel the author’s written – to hook the reader into buying/reading more.

And that’s why an author bio mentions other works. If you’ve got them – mention them. In fact, some writers are so famous that they don’t even need a bio, only a way to order other works. Here’s Robert Heinlein’s “biography” from the 1987 mass market paperback of Stranger in a Strange Land:

Heinlein Order Form

This is not author bio. It’s not even a sell sheet – it’s an order form. This assumes that the reader knows who Heinlein is, or is so taken in with Stranger in a Strange Land that he’s going to buy everything Heinlein. In fact, Penguin assumes that readers are so familiar with Heinlein that the back cover blurb simply states:

Here is Heinlein’s masterpiece – the brilliant spectacular and incredibly popular novel that grew from a cult favorite to a bestseller to a classic in a few short years. It is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, the man from Mars who taught humankind grokking and watersharing. And love.

If you’ve got that kind of pull, you may ignore an author’s bio altogether. But before you do, you need to build it.

Author Bio as Engagement

That’s the second function of an author’s bio: to give readers a way to engage with the author. In other word: to join their fan-base.

You’ve got a reader who’s just finished your book, who’s enjoyed it, and is curious about your other work. You give them a way to connect with you online (www.YourAuthorWebsite.com). They look at your biography, your bibliography. Maybe they check out another of your books. Maybe they read one of your freebie stories. Maybe they subscribe to your email newsletter. Either way, you’ve put yourself out there for them. You’ve allowed them to connect with you, in their own way.

[bctt tweet=”The moment a reader finishes your book is when she’s most likely to become a fan.” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

Now imagine that you’ve read a great novel. You really want to know more about the author. No author bio in the book. So you google them. No hits (or too many hits). So you try to narrow your search. No luck. So you search for them on Goodreads or Amazon. Maybe you find something – but for every time you’ve hit a “no” you’ve had to surmount a mental barrier in order to keep working on the problem. And a lot of other people have simply given up. They’ve stopped trying to engage with the author or their writing.

And that directly translates into lost sales.

Author Bio as a Credibility Builder

Take a look at Brandon Sanderson’s bio again. It has no less than eight credibility building points:

Brandon Sanderson was born in Nebraska in 1975. Since then he has written the Mistborn series, amongst others, become a New York Times bestsellling author and been hailed as the natural successor to Robert Jordan. He lives in Utah.

www.brandonsanderson.com

  1. “the Mistborn series” – the word series implies that this is no spring chicken. This guy has written more, he’s accomplished. Also, you’ve just read a Mistborn novel – there’s more where that came from, oh, walking wallet!
  2. “amongst others” – reinforces that he’s accomplished, he’s got a body of work. This is also a selling point: Hey, reader, there’s more where this one came from.
  3. “New York Times” – Pure name association. Most people think the NYT is credible. By mentioning it, some of that credibility rubs of on Brandon. That’s neurology, baby!
  4. “bestselling” – hey, look, other people love this guy, too!
  5. “New York Times bestselling” – wait, you just said both of those. Yep, but NYT bestseller is a concept, it carries its own credibility, and now Brandon gets to bask in its magic sales copy.
  6. “natural successor” – this is one of those word combos that we’re conditioned to regard as credible. Natural is good. Being a successor is legitimate. Put them together and you’ve got a phrase that the brain automatically associates with “great”.
  7. “Robert Jordan” – name dropping. We’re doing the same thing as with NYT, but for Fantasy nerds.
  8. “natural successor to Robert Jordan” – another one of those greater-than-its-parts moments. This directly links Brandon to Robert. In case you missed it from the name dropping and word association games.

If you want to really stretch the reasoning, it also contains three more: “Nebraska”, “1975” and “Utah”. Without going into too deep into neurobiology, when the brain recognizes something, regardless of what it is, it gives itself a little flush of dopamines as a reward. Recognition, in mental terms, equals feeling good. So if you recognize any of those three, you will automatically be more positively disposed towards Brandon and his writing, especially if you’ve got strong memories of the terms[note]An interesting thing is that this dopamine rush isn’t conditional upon whether your memories are positive or negative. You could have had a horrible time in Utah, but as long as you recognize the name you get a bonus – the dopamine feel-good moment is faster than the long-term memory retrieval of “how horrible it was.”[/note].

Examples of Author Biographies

Here are some more examples, first Vernor Vinge’s, from Rainbow’s End:

Vernor Vinge, winner of the Hugo Award for his novels A Fire Upon the Deep, and A Deepness in the Sky, along with two other times for shorter works, has also written the hard-science fiction novels True Names, The Peace War, Marooned in Realtime, Tatja Grimm’s World and The Witling. A mathematician and computer scientist, he lives in San Diego, California.

And the breakdown:

  • “Hugo Award” – credibility building and name dropping all at once
  • “for his novels A Fire Upon the Deep, and A Deepness in the Sky” – hey, he’s gotten the Hugo TWICE, also, Science Fiction fans love these novels, you should buy them RIGHT NOW!
  • “along with two other times for shorter works” – this is an interesting one; it says that ‘hey, he’s got FOUR Hugos’ as well as ‘hey, he’s versatile, he writes short fiction as well’, which is another way to build credibility.
  • “hard-science fiction” – another interesting point: this actually tells people off. If you open the book and read the bio you instantly know if you WON’T like it – hate hard SF? Leave it alone. This makes sure that it reaches the correct audience and gets favorable reviews. And it tells vendors (Rainbow’s End was published right at the cusp of the shift to online) where to shelve the book.
  • Titles – Upselling: Check out these books, interesting titles, right? It also builds credibility by being specific: Vinge hasn’t just written “more works”, he’s written these specific works.
  • “mathematician and computer scientist” – yes, he’s got the cred to write hard SF, he’s a real scientist, you know.

And contrast this with an older one, from Ian M. Banks’ “Use of Weapons”, published in 1989 (hardcover) and 1992 (this paperback edition):

Ian M. Banks was born in Scotland in 1954. He studied at Stirling University and received a degree in English. He moved to London in 1979, and his first novel, The Wasp Factory, was published in 1984. His recent novels include The Player of Games and Consider Phlebas. Banks now lives in Edinburgh, where he is at work on his next novel.

Boy, does this bio show it’s age. Only 25 years old, yet so outdated.

The first part it entirely about Banks – it’s a Bio – but it doesn’t sell, and doesn’t really build credibility because there’s nothing there to link it to the type of grand SF that Use of Weapons is (BTW, it’s still a great book even though it’s older!). It doesn’t mention that The Wasp Factory was very controversial and highly acclaimed, that Bank’s won BSFA awards for both Player of Games and Use of Weapons (the hardcover in 1990). It does list his Culture novels (Player and Phlebas) of which Use of Weapons is the third, but it doesn’t say that they’re linked. All in all, it’s a biography snippet. You could have read something like this as a stub on Wikipedia, and while it does show that Banks has done other work, and is presumably a professional or semi-pro novelist (“at work on his next novel”) it doesn’t really sell, it doesn’t really invite the reader to engage with the author, and it doesn’t really build credibility.

Contrast this from the author description for the 2007 re-release of Use of Weapons (taken from Amazon):

Iain Banks came to controversial public notice with the publication of his first novel, The Wasp Factory, in 1984. Consider Phlebas, his first science fiction novel, was published under the name Iain M. Banks in 1987. He is now widely acclaimed as one of the most powerful, innovative and exciting writers of his generation.

How different is that?

Author Bio’s for Non-Fiction

I thought I’d give an example for a non-fiction author’s bio, as they’re often quite different from the fiction ones. For one, credibility building is key in non-fiction bios, and engagement is often secondary as non-fiction readers often are fans of subjects and not authors.

Here’s a non-fiction author’s bio, from Anthony Loyd’s “My War Gone By, I Miss It So”, paperback edition:

Anthony Loyd was born in 1966. He served as a platoon commander on operations in Northern Ireland and the Gulf before leaving the British Army and going to live in Bosnia. Later employed as a special correspondent fot The Times, he has subsequently covered eight other wars in places as diverse as Chechnya, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Kosovo.

No mention of other books, since this is Loyd’s debut, but a lot about his relationship to conflicts and war journalism (My War Gone By is about living as a war correspondent during the Balkan wars in the early 1990’s). The bio is pretty much entirely credibility building: Loyd’s a soldier with personal experience of conflict in Northern Ireland and the Gulf, he’s been a Times correspondent (name dropping) and has reported from eight wars with four name-dropped conflicts the audience is supposed to recognize.

And the fact that he’s born in 1966 (he’s less than 30-years-old at the time of the book’s publication) says that this is no Walter Cronkite type reminiscing about his youth. This is a young, hard-hitting tough guy of a war correspondent.

How to Write an Author’s Bio

Ok, you understand what makes an Author’s Bio tick. Now you need to create your own. Where to start?

Start at the beginning: decide which of the three goals (credibility, engagement, sales) you want to have foremost. You need to prioritize them – choose all three and you’ll fail at all three, choose one and you have a chance to shine.

[bctt tweet=”Functions of an #Author Bio: credibility, engagement, sales. Choose one. ” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

If you’re a neo-pro[note]That’s a great listen if you’re an author starting out.[/note], or this is your first novel/story sale, you may want to show credibility:

Joe Blow Neo-Pro, author of “Spring Chickens”, has spent twenty years in a hen-house, hand rearing the chicks.

In other word: you know what you’re talking about, you’ve lived it. Or you may want to name-drop:

Joe Blow Neo-Pro, author of the SF novel “Spring Chickens”, follows in the footsteps of Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov.

Read: Hey, look, I’m just like those guys.

Or you might want to build engagement. This is what I do:

For more writing and free stories visit: www.wiltgren.com

And if people click through (most of my sales have been to online magazines) they’re confronted with A) my blog (what you’re reading now, good, isn’t it?[note]That’s online-speech for “please subscribe”.[/note]) and B) the ability to subscribe to know when more of my stories come out (also, new blog posts, please do subscribe). BTW, did you notice the bribe? Click, click, free stuff ahead!

Same with Brandon’s Bio above:

www.brandonsanderson.com

No “please visit”, no bribes, just where to find him. Of course, Brandon Sanderson doesn’t need to bribe people (seriously, have you read any of his novels?).

Add a Call to Action

That address, bribe or “please visit” is what’s called a “Call to Action” in marketing circles. It’s the same as writing “if you liked this post, please share it with your friends” or “let us know what you think” or “pleeze friend me, OK, dude?” – you’re ending (because the call to action almost always comes at the end) your information by asking the reader to do something.

[bctt tweet=”Call to Action: Getting your #Readers to Do Your Bidding!” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

You don’t need to be as open about it as I am. Brandon Sanderson’s call to action is somewhat more subtle as it doesn’t state any appeal to click or visit his site outright, but the appeal is there in the fact that you’re supposed to know what to do with an URL.

A point about call to actions: you can include them inline in the text. When I’m highlighting the books I mention with sponsor links to their Amazon pages, I’m creating a call to action: click this link so I’ll get some sponsorship dollars. It’s fairly subtle, and I’m not saying please buy these books, but it’s still there.

The same with placing a link to excerpts or similar inside a block of text – the very fact that it’s a link acts as a (somewhat weak) call to action.

Add Supporting Detail

But a call to action can’t stand on its own. If you’re writing about baking cup-cakes and suddenly say “go to my Monster-truck ticket subscription page”, you won’t get much effect[note]Unless you manage to appeal the famed “monster-cup-cake” crowd.[/note]. Thus you need to add stuff that works well with your call to action.

If your preferred reader action is for them to buy more of your books, then you need to show that you’ve written more books, that they’ve won prizes, are part of a series or some other hook that will get readers interested. The best way is if you can mention your works/rewards/reviews as both credibility building for you, and supporting your call to action at the same time.

The same goes if you want to build credibility. You can’t just say “Joe Blow is a great writer.” You need to show how Joe is a great writer, by appealing to what others thing about Joe[note]This is a logical fallacy called “the appeal to authority” – logical fallacies work great in marketing.[/note]. By showing that other people love Joe’s work, you’re borrowing their credibility, even if its implied, and putting it on Joe. This is why people will go to extreme lengths to get an Amazon Bestselling Writer badge (which isn’t that hard to get).

Adding Personal Details

This is a bit controversial. Personal details work to engage the reader with you as a person. Sometimes you don’t want that (see Heinlein’s “bio” and blurb), while other times you very much do (like in Loyd’s bio). Whether to use them or not, I’ll leave up to you. I do, because I don’t have much to come with when it comes to NYTimes bestselling credentials.

When you’re adding personal details you never, ever want to say something private. Don’t mention your divorce or incontinence unless you’re writing a divorce manual or a living with incontinence guide. Be personal, not private.

That means that the details you add should say something about you that you’d mention at a office party, not something you’d take up with your therapist.

Good details are also quirky, or extraordinary. I say that I’ve been a coal loader and a martial arts teacher, because coal loader is unusual and martial arts teacher is viable in the nerdy world of SF and Fantasy. If you’ve been on the ISS, then state that (if you’re writing SF, if you’re writing Romance you’ll need to add a romance twist to it). Find something that can convey, in as few words as possible, that you’re a different person from all the other writers out there.

[bctt tweet=”#Writing an Author’s Bio: Be Personal but Not Private.” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

This works in job applications as well: I mention that I’m a writer and game designer because that sets me apart from all the other communications specialists out there. And something distinctive and distinguishing, personal but not private, is a good way to make you memorable.

PS. If you like this article, please share it with your friends and networks.[note]Notice the subtle call to action? ;)[/note]

Summary

  • Functions of an Author’s Bio
    • Selling More Books
    • Establishing Credibility
    • Engaging the audience
  • Writing an Author’s Bio
    • Decide on a main function
    • Figure out the Call to Action
    • Add supporting detail
    • Decide whether to add personal detail
    • Be personal but not private
    • Try to add something memorable or quirky

Mentioned works

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