Monday, September 8, 2008

Author Bios

Author biographies, those little blurbs that accompany the author photo on the inside back cover flaps of hardbacks, give us glimpses into the lives, personalities and credentials of authors. The author bio is primarily a marketing tool (hence its placement on the cover) whose purpose is to convince you that the book you are considering buying will be worth your investment in time and money. The biographies are usually quite brief--a few sentences that tell where the author lives and what other books she has written. For example, "Author X lives in Maine with her four cats. She studied nineteenth-century English literature at Famous University. The Book in Your Hand is her first novel."  The main point of such bios is to establish the author as Someone Worth Reading: someone who knows how to write and whose credentials demonstrate her grasp of the subject matter. 

Sometimes author bios "go off the board" and include picturesque details about the author and her interests. For example, the author bio for The Heretic Queen tells us that author Michelle Moran "lives in California with her husband and a garden of more than two hundred roses." I thought that was a neat detail to include, for it tells me something about the author's sensibilities. Now, as I read Michelle's books, I will be on the lookout for descriptions of flowers and their scents and colors to see how they demonstrate Michelle's love of gardens. I find that I appreciated this type of bio more than the standard resume type. Not only is it more interesting to read, but it helps me imagine the person behind the name better. Unfortunately, when I checked out the author bios on a dozen of the hardbacks on my shelves, very few were as engaging as Michelle's. This is a shame, because I think more personalized details could forge bonds with potential readers just as effectively as credential-type details, if not more so.

So, some questions for you:

1.  Do you read author bios?

2.  What type of details do you like to see there?

3.  Does the author bio affect your decision to buy the book? Have you ever bought/not bought a book based on what you read in the bio?

There is an even greater issue lurking behind this discussion of details: why is the author bio important at all? Does it matter whether the author likes cats or runs triathalons? Shouldn't the book be judged on its own merits?

I'm looking forward to reading  your answers to these questions and your thoughts on the larger issue. In the meantime, off to brainstorm some interesting details for a bio of my own...

18 comments:

Amanda said...

Oh I definitely read about the author. My B.A. is in history and we were taught to always see who is writing the book. See where they are leaning or biases are. For instance, I read a history book on America first half of the twentieth century written by an author how loved Teddy Roosevelt and had written previous books on him. And there it was...every other event, the author remarked back to Teddy. It was quite interesting!

Michelle Moran said...

Wow, Julianne. I think you're the first person to ever comment on my bio!! I had no idea people (aside from myself) actually look at bios. And yes, I absolutely love flowers, and although I have two hundred roses, daffodils are actually my favorite!

What intrigues me about bios are authors who say that they split their time between two countries. I don't know why it's so interesting, since I do it myself, but I'm always forced to wonder, Do they own two houses? Why those particular countries? Who watches their house while they're gone?

Anonymous said...

Sometimes an author will also mention previous books they've written and if I enjoy the story, it will definitly effect what book I'll be searching for next! :)
Renee

cindy said...

i do. but i don't put too much weight on them. mine is very boring right now. maybe it'll change.

Daphne said...

I like reading the bios but it wouldn't affect my decision to buy/not buy or like/dislike a book. I think they add a personal touch and make the author more relateable and real (I like pictures of the author for the same reason). I agree with the comment about mentioning other books that they have written - great marketing!

Julianne Douglas said...

Michelle--if you don't mind my asking, how/why did you decide to include the roses detail in your bio?

Michelle Moran said...

Actually, it's a pretty boring story. My first bio said that I lived with my husband and my cat, Anubis (which fit in since Anubis is an Egyptian god). But then Anubis passed on to the great cat heaven in the sky and something had to replace him.

I toyed with saying I split my time between LA and France, but that sounded too cliched. I also thought about including how I go on archaeological digs, but then that would require a longer explanation, since I don't have a Ph.D yet which makes my status strictly volunteer.

So I opted for roses, which require no explanation whatsoever! Although my garden really does influence my writing. The two hundred roses rise in seven in tiers, and my desk looks out over them. It's quite inspiring, especially when all of them are in full bloom. In my first book, my narrator loves working with herbs. And in The Heretic Queen I tried to include as much description of the landscape as the story would allow.

So what will your bio say, Julianne?!!

Julianne Douglas said...

That's so interesting, Michelle! I would love to have a workplace that looked out over such a garden. Right now I write at the dining room table amid my youngest's Lego creations and my eldest's college applications.

Hmm...as for my bio, at this point it would sound pretty standard/boring. I could list my schools/degrees (pretentious) or say how I lived in France for several years (yeah, so?). I'm only working on my second novel, so I don't have a list of books to include. Maybe I could reveal that I got engaged at the top of Mont Blanc or started fencing at the age of 40? I'm still searching for the perfect detail to make my rather humdrum life seem more interesting...That's why I'm really curious to hear what people like to learn in these bios. Thanks for sharing your story!

Sarah said...

I always read bios, simply because I'm curious (or maybe nosy). I never look for anything in particular, but the bios that stand out for me are those that include some bit of memorable or unique information. Like Sarah Bower mentioning that her ambition is to go on tour with the Barmy Army. I also think that the bios Susan Higginbotham comes up with for her HNR "top 10" pieces are hilarious. Anything that helps people remember the author and/or novel is a good thing, imho.

Chad Aaron Sayban said...

I read the bios from the human standpoint of trying to connect with the author, but I've never purchased a book because of it. It is interesting what a writer chooses to include. My question for the published authors is did the publisher have any input into what was or wasn't included?

Michelle Moran said...

Humdrum?! Um... having a Ph.D, getting engaged at the top of Mont Blanc and starting fencing at the age of 40 is definitely not humdrum!!! And I LOVE the fencing detail. Are the masks as hot and sweaty to wear as they look? I've always wondered...

And Chad, no, the publisher doesn't really have much to say about the bio. If an author wanted to include something slightly inappropriate, like how they have the world's largest toenail clippings collection, then they would probably veto it! But otherwise, they simply ask for short and sweet.

Catherine Delors said...

Ah no, please don't say that splitting one's time between LA and France is cliche!

To answer Michelle's query about the logistics, I solved the problem of the dual houses by having none in either place. I rely on the homes of family and friends, hotels, temporary rentals, etc. A bit unnerving, but quite an experience. Of course, that rules out 200 kinds of roses, and I love roses, but that's the choice.

Yes, I read bios too. For fiction, the shorter, the better, but a personal detail beyond the number of kids, cats, dogs and goldfish will catch my eye.

Michelle Moran said...

Oh shoot, foot in mouth disease :]

If I'm totally honest here, what I actually meant by cliche is: I wonder how many people that's actually true for (versus they spend two months abroad and declare it home!). It seems like everyone splits their time and I wonder... really?! They must have some sort of fortitude I don't have, because I find it incredibly difficult. I have only one home, and like you Catherine, I split my time between friends in France (and renting). I wonder what other authors' solutions are (who really do split their time)!

Sheramy said...

I don't think putting schools/degrees or the like is pretentious, especially not if it relates to the subject of the story. It's a way of showing you are knowledgable about your subject.

I already have had to fill out an author questionnaire for Avon/HarperCollins. I guess they'll abstract a little bio based on what I told them, and I bet my doctorate and professorate will be part of it. And why not: it's who I am. I would never have written my book if I weren't those things. I can't imagine anybody being turned off by it, and if they are, well...!

Fuzzy History said...

The bio is more important to swaying my opinion about buying a book if the book is non-fiction. But I enjoy reading author bios. In many ways, fiction is a personal experience. In a small way, the bio helps me get to know the author. The more "out there" the bio is, the more intrigued I am.

Julianne Douglas said...

Sheramy, I agree with you that degrees and such can be very important, especially if related to the story. "Pretentious" wasn't the right word, and I'm sorry if I offended you! The interesting thing about your experience is that you had to fill out a questionnaire from which the pub will compose your bio. Did they ask for any personal type of info (along the lines of Michelle's rose garden), or was it strictly professional things?

I suppose it can be a double-edged sword. If the bio is simply a dry academic-type resume, it might fail to excite readers, yet if it is full of "fluff," a potential reader might wonder (especially in the case of hf) whether the author knows her subject well enough to write about it. A creative bio does seem to promise equally creative writing. (Although thanks to your post, I now know that authors don't necessarily write their own bios.)

Sometime I'll have to look at the successive books of an author to see whether the bios become more or less personal, longer or shorter over time. I wonder whether they are more important for debut writers or established writers and how they change.

Sheramy said...

No, I wasn't offended by 'pretentious'; I know what you meant. The Author questionnaire had something like 'describe yourself in X words' or some such, and then had more specific questions about this and that, how I was inspired to write the book, what I like to do in my spare time (what's that?), etc. They asked for my CV as well. I admit with the 'describe yourself' question I struggled, because I worried I did sound like an ivory-tower pigeon...but then decided *%&$ it, I am who I am. I worked too hard --and so did you! -- to hide anything.

By the time I read somebody's bio, I've already decided whether or not I want to read the book. Story first.

I took fencing in college. I was rubbish but had fun!

Tess said...

1. Yes

2. I like to know about their education, background and a bit about them personally.

3. It would depend. If it's a non-fiction book, I'd be more predisposed to buy it if the author has credentials. In fiction, not so much, though if it's historical fiction, I might be swayed by at least one degree in history.

Yes, a book SHOULD be judged on its own merits. I think we like to know about the authors because it gives us a connection to them and their work. OTOH, I've reviewed and loved books by authors about which I've known very little. If I get involved in a series or find myself waiting eagerly for the next release, it's then I want to know more.

Also, I think the internet has really increased our awareness in this area. Before that, you'd know a bit about an author from a bio and maybe a newspaper article or magazine interview, and that was it. But now we're so used to finding out everything about everyone courtesy of Google.