Monday, October 1, 2007

Your Biography

Lately I've noticed a number of queries that were skimpy on a biography. Most agents really do care about your professional and personal history - at least in how it connects to your work. I've listed below the basic areas you should hit.

  • Publishing Credentials. Previous books, short stories, etc. Other agents might feel differently, but POD books don't impress me, unless the sales are significant.

  • Professional Career. What do you do for a living? How does it affect what you write? Do you have a special knowledge that will be evident in the manuscript?

  • Personal Details. List anything that affects your writing. Where do you live? Hobbies? Major events in your childhood? Family?


Anonymous said...

It seems many agents and publishers are far more interested in having a marketable author than in the quality of the actual writing. For example, this exchange is posted on a noted horror/sf author's blog describing how he first got published:


I got to have this conversation with [my current agent] that day at the convention: Hey, why are you interested now? You just rejected me like two months ago?

"Well yeah," says [agent]. "But that was before I met you."


It's hard not to take this as a contemptuous slap to all the hardworking, possibly brilliant writers producing award-quality material who will never be published because they lack the wherewithal to travel to conventions and charm agents. Which brings me back to your statement that recent queries skimp on biographies: it seems as if you're implicitly condoning the idea that if the author isn't interesting (i.e., marketable), then the writing isn't worth your time. Is that truly the case?

Robin S. said...

Hi Jonathan,

In the (very) rough draft of a query letter I've started; I have yet to tackle the bio section.

From what I read on your list of things to include, biographical information needs to have at least a tangential relationship with the work being presented. I thought as much, since, from what I can see, a query letter is an introduction and offer of a product and a request to enter into a business partnership of sorts.

So - I'd like to offer biographical information in a query letter, but, since, other than some decently received openings on Evil Editor's blog (I know they don't count, don't worry, I'm just kidding) and a letter from a well-regarded NYC lit mag that they liked the story I'd submitted (Chapter One of my novel, really) but "it wasn't right for us, please send more"..,
I have no publishing credits. And these aren't credits.

I'm in corporate relations/fundraising as a profession, so that's not gonna do it either. The only thing I could say that would have any bearing on what I'll be sending is that it's a novel set in the American South in the 60's, and I'm Southern.

Thsi kind of thing may be why you're not seeing much in the way of bios - when unsure, people are steering clear, so as not to presume a personal relationship where none exists.

Jonathan Lyons said...

First, most authors don't get agents at conventions. Second, I'm not condoning anything. Third, "interesting" and "marketable" are not the same thing at all. If you're not interesting, I can't help you. It's a different story if you don't have a platform, which is what I believe you mean by "marketable". Sorry if I come off as touchy, but it's frustrating to see my post misinterepreted.

Considering I've sold a number of debut fiction books from authors with no platform whatsoever, I certainly am not suggesting that you must have one for me to look at your work. However, I do want to know anything and everything about you that relates to your work when you send me a query.

Yes, I want to know about your publishing credentials, if any. But I also want to know if you have the knowledge base or at least sufficient interest in the subject in order to properly write the book. If you're writing a financial thriller, did you ever work in the financial markets? Did you take business classes? Do you have friends or relatives who work in the field? Do you follow the market?

I had one client who I signed up who had written a quirky, literary novel. He had no writing credentials whatsoever. However, he's a soul searcher - and to convey this he let me know about all the varied jobs he's had over the years. A small thing - but it was enough for me to request a partial.

Tell me why you wrote this book. What influenced you? Even if it was simply reading good procedurals growing up, I want to know.

Maybe your query will have floored me in the first paragraph and I won't get to the biography. This does happen. But if it doesn't, you should try to include any information that will get you over the hump. Considering agents get hundreds of queries each week there's a good chance I've read a query with a similar idea before. I can't request every query, so I need to know from you something, anything, that let's me know that you're committed to the book.

Jonathan Lyons said...


I understand what you're saying. I think we inevitably project ourselves into our writing, which is a good thing. It's what makes it so intimate. What connections are there to you and the story besides the South? How did you come to the plot line you've chosen? What motivates your characters, and does the same apply for you?

I think there's always something to say that can help. Telling agents these details isn't presuming a personal relationship - it's letting them know why you wrote the book, and some reasons why it's good (besides the obvious one that you're a good writer).

Robin S. said...

Hi Jonathan,

Thanks for the feedback. This struck me: "I had one client who I signed up who had written a quirky, literary novel. He had no writing credentials whatsoever. However, he's a soul searcher - and to convey this he let me know about all the varied jobs he's had over the years. A small thing - but it was enough for me to request a partial."

I hadn't thought something like this could be included in the bio section, and it's good to know.

Robin S. said...

Sorry, Jonathan,

I didn't see your follow-on comment when I just sent my reply.

You're right, of course. The writing is personal, not memoir, but still, drawn from personal experiences, as are so many, many works of fiction. I'll mention that connection when I query.

Thanks again.

K.C. Shaw said...

It almost sounds like a query/cover letter should be similar to a cover letter for a job application. I suppose that's analogous in a way. I do put a list of my publishing credits in the last paragraph of my queries, but I don't supply personal information. To me it seems inappropriate. Of course, I'm not actively looking for an agent, so maybe cover letters to editors are different.

What would you suggest in a case like mine, where I write fantasy? My background as a temporary secretary and elementary school teacher doesn't have much to do with, for instance, dragons (well--maybe teaching does). How tangential can a connection be before it just sounds silly or, worse, desperate?

Bernita said...

So if I were quering a paranormal, mention that I was a former forensic occultologist might help?

Jonathan Lyons said...

Look, if you've got publishing credentials, and they're strong, than that's a good enough biography initially. If you don't have any credits, there hopefully is something you can tell me that helps your case.

If you're really one of those people that has absolutely nothing you can say in your biography (which I find hard to imagine), then you're query just needs to be a home run. Again, I ask for plenty of partials based on the query alone, but if I'm undecided I go to the biography for more help.

Jennifer L. Griffith said...

Thanks for another great tip, Jonathan!!

Jonathan Lyons said...

I just thought I should make one final point here. A few people have said that revealing personal details feels unprofessional. I just want to make clear again that you should only consider providing personal information if it specifically relates to your project. Any other information is not relevant and you're correct in thinking that agents won't approve.

Matt Osborne said...

I've discovered that a writer not only must write well, but have a mind for business, branding, and marketing (i.e. self-promotion) in order to get published. Is it just me, or is none of that taught in college creative writing courses?

Chumplet said...

If I mention in my query that my first two novels had been accepted by legitimate small presses that are, God forbid, POD, this would hinder rather than help?

Not every agent looks down on POD, so I'd adjust my query to satisfy the preference of each agent.

When I finish my next novel, I think I'll just not mention the first two if I choose to query you, Mr. Lyons.

That leaves me with my sparkling personality!

Michael S. Hugh said...

The problem I face is that most agents want a one page query letter in which you have to fit your background in one paragraph.

How do you say that you are ex-paratrooper, travelled the wolrd as a spuer cargo for an oil company, became a partner on Wall SStreet, etc. etc. and fill how it impacts your writing in one paragraph

That's the problem I usually have - but I also see what you're saying so I only put one or two lines and how they relate to the novel


Kelley said...

I wonder when listing publishing credits-is it better to list ones that relate specifically to your book/genre (for ex, if I've written humorous women's lit, I would list credits received from humor pubs, women's lit pubs) or do you list a range of credits to show you have, well, range. Assuming, of course, you have the credits to choose from. I'm always stumped, because you want to sell that specific book, but also show you're in this for a career.

Reyna said...

This is great info to know.