“Does not live in Surrey”

The wolf’s publishers have asked for a new bio. Is there a winning formula?

In December, my publisher sent a friendly email asking for a new, detailed bio. This is what they had on record:

“A Melbourne-based illustrator, who works in digital illustration styles and is also an experienced designer. Her passion lies in picture book illustration.”

So… a designer/illustrator who lives in Melbourne, uses computers and is passionate about what they do. “Tell me more!” shrieks the international book-buying bigwig, “I must have this Melbourne-based person who likes their job!”

It wasn’t the publisher’s fault; I hadn’t sent them any decent material to work with. So they sent samples of their other author/illustrator bios. Each was of about two to three paragraphs. All were witty, original, and broke free of the standard formula, which I’ve worked out to be:

  1. Origin / past life
  2. Love of reading / writing
  3. Something personal
  4. Work and achievements
  5. Evidence of passion, hobbies, general goodness
  6. Pets and family
Avoiding the formula

I’ve written a few bios before, for different publishers, sites and book releases, and kept them a little different to one another. And they’re fairly detailed because I’m not famous, and so need to sell myself whenever possible. But I notice each of my bios follows the above formula or, worse, this one (from gailcarriger.com):

[Name] lives in [City] where she pretends to be a [pithy comment on boring day job] when she would rather be writing. She spends her free time [standard hobby] and [less standard hobby]. She also likes to [quirky and slightly off base skill – like fencing or black belt in some combat thingy ]. She lives with a [tolerant, saintly, long-suffering] spouse/partner and two [witty descriptor] [cats/children] and a [dog/garden].

Pets are for cuddling, not bios.

Pets are for cuddling, not bios.

Snigger. Cringe. I have definitely mentioned pets. Some people try to subvert this. Here’s the last line from Douglas Adam’s bio in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy:

“He is not married, has no children and does not live in Surrey.”

So back to the wolf, and the recent bio request. A couple of years ago the same publisher sent out an author questionnaire as a way of building author profiles. It had some sensible questions, “What’s your creative space like?” and some odd ones: “What is your favourite colour?” is a particular non-question I’ve never been keen on, for example. It reminds me of the spammy “Let’s all have some fun and get to know each other” posts on Facebook where you have to list preferred junk foods according to the individual letters of your name and then emotionally-blackmail your friends into doing same. Anyhow, the quiz seems to have disappeared from the publisher site, which is a good thing as I looked the document over for this post and didn’t like my answers (“bluey-green” incase you’re wondering).

So how to move forward? It all seems to be about balance.

Shout it out, but don’t be shrill

Avoid listing every project you’ve ever worked on, all your degrees or letters after your name, awards, presentations, media appearances. This is boring and hard for the reader to process. It’s also overselling, along the lines of:

“Her book has received widespread critical acclaim, with reviews appearing in The New Yorker, Washington Post, Science, Entertainment Weekly, People, and many others. It won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize and the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, and was named The Best Book of 2010 by Amazon.com, and a Best Book of the Year by Entertainment Weekly; O, The Oprah Magazine; The New York Times; Washington Post; US News & World Report; and numerous others.”
Biography of Rebecca Skloot, quoted in Book in A Box

Don’t pretend to be humble either

As flimsy as a house built from straw, the mock-humble bio is a real stomach turner. This is from The Man Who Was Thursday, by GK Chesterton, Penguin, 1976. A well-loved copy is by my desk, but GK’s ‘humble-brag’ bio is smug and offputting:

“GK Chesterton was born in 1874, and educated at St Paul’s School where, despite his efforts to achieve honourable oblivion at the bottom of the class, he was singled out as a boy with distinct literary promise. He decided to follow art as a career, and studied at the Slade School where, while ‘attending or not attending to his studies’, he met Ernest Hodder-Williams, who formed the fixed notion that Chesterton could write.”

Over 100 years ago, and a different time yes, yes but STILL… Pass the sick bag GK.

The ‘rules’

So it’s a fine line. The list below is from Book in A Box. This post is worth a read if you need to write a bio.

  1. Demonstrate your authority and credibility on the subject of your book (but don’t overstate it)
  2. Include things that build credibility or are interesting (without going overboard)
  3. Mention your website and any books you have previously written (but don’t oversell them)
  4. Drop some relevant names, if they are appropriate (without being crass about it)
  5. Keep short and interesting (without leaving anything important out)

Also, be aware your bio may get cut and pasted, chopped up, and find itself in odd places. In 2014 I wrote this bio for Hachette:

“Lucinda Gifford’s background encompasses architecture, design and advertising – but picture books have been her life-long passion. Lucinda discovered the usefulness of drawing skills in year 4, when her on-demand horse sketches ensured continuing popularity with the girls in her class. She now enjoys drawing creatures of all sorts – including cheeky humans and nervous little fish.”

This last line was relevant to the book I had just illustrated for Hachette – Frankie and Finn by Klay and Mark Lamprell, which featured a family of anxious fish. But then it got cut and pasted, and stuck onto other sites and reviews and, out of context, the line about the ‘nervous little fish’ just seems weird.

Having fun with it

Here’s some other bios I’ve written, for Walker Books and Five Mile Press.

They’re ok… but in children’s publishing we can be more playful, especially if the bio is linked to or within the author’s book. Here are excerpts from my recent favourites:

“Jen Storer lives on an island in the Pacific Ocean, in a giant cave shaped like a gorilla’s head… She has a pet iguana named Robert and her hobbies include fire walking, stamp collecting and telling lies….”
Danny Best: Never Wrong, Jen Storer and Mitch Vane, ABC Books, 2016

“When she is not working, she entertains her acquaintances at afternoon tea, practices her French conversations and decorates articles, such as table runners and antimacassars, with intricate arrangements of lace, embroidery and the wings of beetles.”
Wordwood Mire – A Stella Montgomery intrigue, Judith Rossell, ABC Books, 2016

The wolf’s taste in bios and taste in company is linked; Jen and Jude are both very entertaining and they have entertainingly silly bios…

The fabulously famous bio

Of course, internationally well-known authors can afford to be short and pithy, and even knowingly reference their own books. Here’s Lemony Snicket’s one-line bio (‘despondent’ comes from Snicket’s wonderful picture book ‘Thirteen Words’):

“Lemony Snicket is often despondent, mostly about his published research, which includes A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Composer Is Dead.”

And Morris Glietzman’s for Penguin. It’s simple – after 36 books, why not?

“Morris Gleitzman grew up in England and came to Australia when he was sixteen. After university he worked for ten years as a screenwriter. Then he had a wonderful experience. He wrote a novel for young people. Now, after 36 books, he’s one of Australia’s most popular children’s authors.”

Cressida Cowell’s bio gets off to a striking start:

“Cressida Cowell grew up in London and on a small, uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland. She was convinced that there were dragons living on this island, and has been fascinated by dragons ever since. “

but ends with the formulaic:

“Cressida lives in Hammersmith with her husband and three children.”

But because Cressida’s work is popular and hilarious, the husband and child count is an interesting tidbit (well it interests me at least).

Cressida Cowell - a rare gem

Cressida Cowell – a rare gem

Here are excerpts from other bios I’ve enjoyed. Norman Hunter’s genuinely interesting hobby:

“After the war, he moved to South Africa, where he continued to work in advertising. Conjuring was still one of his spare time occupations.”
Norman Hunter, The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm’, Bodley Head London, 2013

A glimpse of funny back-story (I’d love to see The Listies as Mr and Mrs Twit):

“They met back in dinosaur times when they were cast as Mr and Mrs Twit in the RMIT kids show by Lynne Ellis…”
Ickypedia, by The Listies, published by Penguin, 2015

A great start for Kathryn Apel‘s online bio:

“Kathryn Apel is a born-and-bred farm girl who’s scared of cows.”

And a strong ending, courtesy of a perfect quote from The Sunday Age, rounds things off for Mem Fox:

“Mem Fox’s books are like a warm blanket; they have a way of making the world seem a little cosier.”
Sunday Age

Now stop waffling Wolfie, and get on with your bio. There’s more than enough material here.

Further reading on writing a bio:

No One Cares About Your Life Story: 9 Tips for a Better Author Bio

How to Write Your Author Bio (And Why It Matters)
(do scroll down for the dreadfully boastful, rubbish and lengthy bio of disgraced conservative campaigner Dinesh D’Souza)

10 Tips on How to Write an Author Bio

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