The Hermit Poet

February 23, 2008

Making the Most of Your First Book: Bios

Filed under: First Book Advice — admin @ 9:57 pm


So what’s the big deal about writing a bio for your book? Shouldn’t it just be the same or similar to what you’ve used over the years as part of your regular submission cover letter? What’s different?

Well, there’s actually some fairly significant differences. When you send out your work to journals, the bio is often one of the last things that is read. The work takes precedence. While it is true that at some journals, an initial reader might check to see if the submitter has been personally recommended to submit to the journal by one of the editors or if this is a submission which seems to come from a well-published poet who might have a better than average chance of turning in something publishable — but for the most part, bios are read after the fact — usually after decisions have already made. When people read a journal, they often only turn to the contributor notes after they’ve read the work — it normally has little to no effect on their decision to read the journal.

The bio at the back of your book on the other hand is doing something completely different. When we pick up a new book of poetry, one of the first things we as readers do is turn it over and read the back. Why? To see what people have said (blurbs) and to figure out who this new writer is (bio). This usually happens before the book is even opened and the first poem is read.

Moreover, when writers give readings at bookstores and elsewhere, often the person hosting the event will rely on the information in the bio to introduce them. Which perhaps is the best way of thinking of what the real purpose of an author bio on a book — it’s there to introduce the writer and suggest a number of ways in which they might be an interesting person for the reader to become familiar with.

A good bio suggests something of who a writer is, where he/she comes from, where he/she is going.

I’ve put together a list, by no means complete — nor even wholly recommended. Just a snapshot of what’s out there in approaches. I’d say pick and choose in such a way that you can build a good enough picture for your reader of who you are to pique their interest, but not feel like you’ve clobbered them over the head or that you’ve completely unmasked yourself. Be professional, but show something of your personality (no one wants to read just a big long list of places where you’ve published– that tells the reader nothing, other than you’ve published a lot)

  1. Who are you?
    • current occupation / job title
    • former career (if pertinent or intriguing)
    • identities and affiliations (ethnicity/nationality/gender/etc)
  2. Where do you come from?
    • geographically — where were you born and raised?
    • educationally — where and what did you study (or not study)?
    • conceptually — how did you find poetry? (some people use this approach)
    • family history — interesting family background which might have relevance
  3. Where are you going?
    • what’s your next project?
    • are you in the middle of graduate studies / travel / project?
    • what else are you doing?  (editing journal? playing in a band? etc)

Depending on your press, you may have more or less space to work with.  Try to examine the most recent books out from your press to see how previous bios have looked and see if there are any aspects of them that you want to keep or need to avoid.   Bios on the back cover need to be shorter.  Bios inside the book can be a little longer (2 paragraphs).

A bio is short effective advertising.  It should be informative, convincing, and engaging.  Aim for brevity while keeping it true to your own voice in tone.  Read a lot of bios and try to figure out why some work and others fail to come off.  In the end, it’s up to you as to how you present yourself — but don’t brush it off.

2 Responses to “Making the Most of Your First Book: Bios”

  1. Debbie Says:

    Thanks for this. Another blog post to bookmark for skills/tips applicable in the future (hopefully). Creating a bio/note is something I am constantly wrestling with–wanting to inform in a way that invites people to get to know you, but simultaneously feeling sheepish about appearing like there’s maybe a little bit too much horn-tootin’ in fancytown tonight.

  2. Cati Says:

    Hi Neil.

    This is good info. I used to help me write the bio for my book. Now I’m on to the next thing…

    I’m wondering: any suggestions on blurbs? Who to ask, how to go about asking, how much time to allow, etc.? I’m already in the process of asking for these, but wasn’t exactly sure how to go about it. Any thoughts?

Leave a Reply