Unless you’re one of the household name authors (Stephen King, JK Rowling, Malcolm Gladwell), you have to assume people thinking about buying your book will not know who you are.
So how will they learn about you? And why is this even important?
That’s what this post will explain: how to properly write your author bio, and why it’s so important.
How To Write Your Author Bio
Writing about yourself is typically a task that most writers shy away from, but writing an effective author bio doesn’t have to be painful. A few simple steps can get you to an effective bio that will not only impress interested readers and media, but also help sell your book.
Less is usually more when it comes to author bios, and you want to make sure you do (and don’t do) the following:
- Demonstrate your authority and credibility on the subject of your book (but don’t overstate it)
- Include things that build credibility or are interesting (without going overboard)
- Mention your website and any books you have previously written (but don’t oversell them)
- Drop some relevant names, if they are appropriate (without being crass about it)
- Keep short and interesting (without leaving anything important out)
You notice a pattern here? Good author bios walk the line between avoiding boring and uninspiring, while not being ridiculously over-promotional and arrogant.
Why Your Author Bio Is So Important
Even though very few authors think about it, and even less writing or publishing guides talk about it, the “Author Bio” section will impact sales, reputation and often determine what media you get.
It impacts sales very directly. “Author reputation” is consistently cited as one of the main factors that influence book buying. If you can establish yourself as an authority on your book topic, readers will be much more inclined to buy your book, read it, and regard you the way you want them to. People are considering spending their disposable income on your book and they are looking for a reason to do it or not do it, and a great bio helps them do it (while a bad bio will often stop them).
Furthermore, if you want your book to help create a business for you, or establish your credibility or authority in a subject, often the author bio is more important than what’s actually in the book—the sad but true reality is that more people will read your author bio than your actual book. It takes a long time to read a book, but it’s very easy to make a snap judgment based on a short paragraph, and most people do that.
This is doubly true for media. Most people in media work very hard under tight deadlines, and don’t have time to read long books or even long, meandering pitch emails. But a good author bio cuts right to the point by saying: this is a person who is important and I need to pay attention to them.
Now I’ll break each of the 5 rules down, and then give you tons of examples of good and bad bios:
1. Demonstrate your authority and credentials on your book subject (but don’t overstate it):
Whatever your book is about, it’s important to establish your credentials in that area. For example, if you’re writing a diet book, mention professional degrees or training or accomplishments, or other things that clearly signal your authority and credibility in that space.
If you struggle with what to say about yourself, remember that the idea is to make it clear why you’re credible and professional (as opposed to an unknown, untrusted source), i.e., why the reader should listen to you.
For some types of books and authors, this is harder to do. If there’s no clear way to signal direct authority or credentials—for example, a novel or a book about your life stories—then don’t make up things or try to “invent” authority. Focus on the other parts of the author bio.
2. Include things that build credibility or are interesting to the reader (without going overboard)
In your author bio you’ll want to include some things you’ve accomplished in your life, especially if you don’t have direct credentials and authority in the book subject matter. This will help your audience understand why they should spend their time and money reading what you’ve got to say.
If you have something about you or your life that is unusual, even if it’s not totally relevant, you should still consider putting it in your bio.
For example, if you were a Rhodes Scholar, or you started a major national organization, or won a national championship in ping-pong—whatever. The point is to show the reader that you have done things that matter, even if they don’t matter to the book.
If you are lacking on credentials or exciting things, you can always put in your passions and interests. Anything that you enjoy doing, writing about or consider a hobby, especially if they are relevant to the book topic.
That being said, do not ramble on and on about things that reader doesn’t care about. Put yourself in your readers shoes, and ask yourself, “Does this fact really matter to anyone but me?”
3. Mention any books you’ve written, and your website (but don’t oversell them)
If you’ve written other books, especially on that subject, make sure to mention them. If they’re bestsellers or won awards, even better. If you’ve won multiple awards and you are finding that listing them all is becoming tedious, aim for brevity instead. Simply writing “John Smith is an award winning author whose works include …..” is more than enough to show your readers you know what you’re doing.
If you have a website, a longer bio-page or anything else that helps promote your brand then you should make sure you include it at the bottom of your bio (assuming this meets your goals). Again, you don’t want to brag here so just be humble and simply put something like “Find out more about John at www.johnsmithwriter.com”. It’s simple and has a clear call to action.
4. Drop some relevant names, if they’re appropriate (without being crass)
Yes, name dropping can be put off readers if it’s done wrong. But there is a right way to do it.
For example, if you are relatively unknown, you can say something like, “The woman that Seth Godin called “the most important writer of our time” reveals to you the secrets of…” This way you are trading on Seth Godin’s reputation, and establishing your credentials at the same time (assuming he said this).
Also, if you’ve worked for or with very well-known people, name dropping is not seen as bad; it’s seen as an effective signal to the reader of your importance and ability. What matters is that there is a reason that you are using someone else’s name that make sense, and is not just a gratuitous name drop.
5. Keep short and interesting (without leaving anything important out)
While your readers are interested in finding out more about you, they don’t want to get bored, or listen to arrogant braggadocio about how great you are. If your bio is too long, or too full of overstated accomplishments and awards, it will turn your readers off and actually make you look less credible.
Typically if you keep your bio under 200 words you’re going to be ok. Anything longer than that means you’ve gone on too long about your accomplishments, your personal life or both. Cut it down to the most important things.
Examples Of Different Author Bios
Good Balance: Tim Ferriss
Tim does lean aggressively into the idea of listing all the cool things he’s done and noteworthy outlets that have talked about him, but still makes his bio interesting and relevant to the reader of his books:
Timothy Ferriss is a serial entrepreneur, #1 New York Times best-selling author, and angel investor/advisor (Facebook, Twitter, Evernote, Uber, and 20+ more). Best known for his rapid-learning techniques, Tim’s books — The 4-Hour Workweek, The 4-Hour Body, and The 4-Hour Chef — have been published in 30+ languages. The 4-Hour Workweek has spent seven years on The New York Times bestseller list.
Tim has been featured by more than 100 media outlets including The New York Times, The Economist, TIME, Forbes, Fortune, Outside, NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox and CNN. He has guest lectured in entrepreneurship at Princeton University since 2003. His popular blog www.fourhourblog.com has 1M+ monthly readers, and his Twitter account @tferriss was selected by Mashable as one of only five “Must-Follow” accounts for entrepreneurs. Tim’s primetime TV show, The Tim Ferriss Experiment (www.upwave.com/tfx), teaches rapid-learning techniques for helping viewers to produce seemingly superhuman results in minimum time.
Confusing & Slight Overselling: Cheryl Strayed
Cheryl is similar to Tim, but runs several unrelated things together in a confusing way, and mentions things that no reader would ever care about (e.g., the director of a movie based on her book). This same bio could be 25% shorter and much stronger.
Cheryl Strayed is the author of #1 New York Times bestseller WILD, the New York Times bestseller TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, and the novel TORCH. WILD was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as her first selection for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. WILD won a Barnes & Noble Discover Award, an Indie Choice Award, an Oregon Book Award, a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, and a Midwest Booksellers Choice Award among others. The movie adaptation of WILD will be released by Fox Searchlight in December 2014. The film is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and stars Reese Witherspoon, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby. Strayed’s writing has appeared in THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS, the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, Vogue, Salon, The Missouri Review, The Sun, Tin House, The Rumpus–where she wrote the popular “Dear Sugar” advice column–and elsewhere. Strayed was the guest editor of BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 2013 and has contributed to many anthologies. Her books have been translated into more than thirty languages around the world. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and their two children.
Bad Doctor Bio: Dr. David Perlmutter
This is a long, uninterrupted string of hard to process things. Dr. Perlmutter is very qualified, but mentions everything (including medical school awards) which detracts from the overall effect.
David Perlmutter, MD, FACN, ABIHM is a Board-Certified Neurologist and Fellow of the American College of Nutrition who received his M.D. degree from the University of Miami School of Medicine where he won the research award. Dr. Perlmutter is a frequent lecturer at symposia sponsored by such medical institutions as Columbia University, the University of Arizona, Scripps Institute, and Harvard University. He has contributed extensively to the world medical literature with publications appearing in The Journal of Neurosurgery, The Southern Medical Journal, Journal of Applied Nutrition, and Archives of Neurology. He is the author of: The Better Brain Book and the #1 New York Times Bestseller, Grain Brain. He is recognized internationally as a leader in the field of nutritional influences in neurological disorders. Dr. Perlmutter has been interviewed on many nationally syndicated radio and television programs including 20/20, Larry King Live, CNN, Fox News, Fox and Friends, The Today Show, Oprah, Dr. Oz, and The CBS Early Show. In 2002 Dr. Perlmutter was the recipient of the Linus Pauling Award for his innovative approaches to neurological disorders and in addition was awarded the Denham Harmon Award for his pioneering work in the application of free radical science to clinical medicine. He is the recipient of the 2006 National Nutritional Foods Association Clinician of the Year Award. Dr. Perlmutter serves as Medical Advisor for The Dr. Oz Show.
Good Doctor Bio: Dr. Benjamin Carson
Contrast this to Dr. Carson, who focuses only on the credentials and status signifiers that the reader would care about and understand, like his specialties and companies he works for.
Dr. Benjamin Carson is a Professor of Neurosurgery, Plastic Surgery, Oncology, and Pediatrics, and the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. He is also the author of four bestselling books—Gifted Hands, Think Big, The Big Picture, and Take the Risk. He serves on the boards of the Kellogg Company, Costco, and the Academy of Achievement, among others, and is an Emeritus Fellow of the Yale Corporation.
He and his wife, Candy, co-founded the Carson Scholars Fund (www.carsonscholars.org), a 501(c)3 established to counteract America’s crisis in education by identifying and rewarding academic role models in the fourth through eleventh grades, regardless of race, creed, religion and socio-economic status, who also demonstrate humanitarian qualities. There are over 4800 scholars in forty-five states. Ben and Candy are the parents of three grown sons and reside in Baltimore County, Maryland.
High Status And Short: Lynn Vincent
This bio is the perfect “less is more” for an author with a lot of credentials. When you have done what Lynn has done, you can just say it quickly and succinctly.
Lynn Vincent is the New York Times best-selling writer of Heaven Is for Real and Same Kind of Different As Me. The author or coauthor of ten books, Lynn has sold 12 million copies since 2006. She worked for eleven years as a writer and editor at the national news biweekly WORLD magazine and is a U.S. Navy veteran.
High Status But Undersells: Michael Lewis
Contrast this to Michael Lewis, who is a very well known author, but still leaves quite a bit out of his bio that would help many readers understand who he is and why they should care (even Michael Lewis is not famous enough to assume people know him).
Michael Lewis, the author of Boomerang, Liar’s Poker, The New New Thing, Moneyball, The Blind Side, Panic, Home Game and The Big Short, among other works, lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife, Tabitha Soren, and their three children.
Bad Amanda Ripley
Many authors have different bios on different books (because they leave the bio writing to their publisher, which is a huge mistake). You can see the difference in the author Amanda Ripley. Her bad bio is strangely both boring and overselling:
Amanda Ripley is a literary journalist whose stories on human behavior and public policy have appeared in Time, The Atlantic, and Slate and helped Time win two National Magazine Awards. To discuss her work, she has appeared on ABC, NBC, CNN, FOX News, and NPR. Ripley’s first book, The Unthinkable, was published in fifteen countries and turned into a PBS documentary.
Good Amanda Ripley
Contrast that to this good bio, where she comes off as much more of an authority—mainly because her other books are mentioned, as were her awards.
Amanda Ripley is an investigative journalist for Time, The Atlantic and other magazines. She is the author, most recently, of THE SMARTEST KIDS IN THE WORLD–and How They Got That Way. Her first book, THE UNTHINKABLE: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes–and Why, was published in 15 countries and turned into a PBS documentary. Her work has helped Time win two National Magazine Awards.
First Person Bio: Charles Duhigg
Personally, I don’t think first person bios work well. But some authors like them, as do some readers. The only place they feel appropriate to me is as About pages of websites. But of the first person bios I’ve seen, this is the best.
My name is Charles Duhigg, and I’m a reporter for The New York Times. I’m also the author of The Power of Habit, about the science of habit formation in our lives, companies and societies.
I’ve worked at the Times since 2006. Last year, I was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize for a series about Apple named “The iEconomy,” and before that, I contributed to other series, including “Golden Opportunities” (which received the George Polk Award, the Sidney Hillman Award and a Deadline Award), “The Reckoning,” (which won the Loeb and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), and “Toxic Waters,” (which received The Scripps Howard National Journalism Award, the Investigative Reporters and Editors’ Medal, the National Academies’ reporting award and others.)
I’m a native of New Mexico and I studied history at Yale and received an MBA from Harvard Business School. Before becoming a journalist, I worked in private equity and – for one terrifying day – was a bike messenger in San Francisco. I have appeared on This American Life, The Colbert Report, N.P.R., The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, and Frontline.
If you would like to contact me, I would love to hear from you. I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org
Overselling: Rebecca Skloot
Below is an example of unnecessary overselling. Rebecca Skloot wrote a major best seller (Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), but she mentions all sorts of nonsense in this bio that no reader will care about. You get the “doth protest too much” vibe from this. Compare this to Tim Ferriss, who also lists a lot but does so quickly and gets it out of the way.
Rebecca Skloot is an award-winning science writer whose articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; Discover; and others. She has worked as a correspondent for NPR’s Radiolab and PBS’s NOVA scienceNOW, and is a contributing editor at Popular Science magazine and guest editor of The Best American Science Writing 2011. She is a former Vice President of the National Book Critics Circle and has taught creative nonfiction and science journalism at the University of Memphis, the University of Pittsburgh, and New York University. Her debut book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, took more than ten years to research and write, and became an instant New York Times bestseller. She has been featured on numerous television shows, including CBS Sunday Morning and The Colbert Report. 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.
Ridiculous Overselling: Dinesh D’Souza
I’ll end with one of the worst bios I’ve ever seen. This is a real bio, pulled off the Amazon page of his recent book. It is over 500 words of preposterously insecure and arrogant crap. I can’t imagine reading this bio and not respecting the author less afterwards:
Dinesh D’Souza has had a 25-year career as a writer, scholar, and public intellectual. A former policy analyst in the Reagan White House, D’Souza also served as John M. Olin Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the Robert and Karen Rishwain Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He served as the president of The King’s College in New York City from 2010 to 2012.
Called one of the “top young public-policy makers in the country” by Investor’s Business Daily, D’Souza quickly became known as a major influencer on public policy through his writings. His first book, Illiberal Education (1991), publicized the phenomenon of political correctness in America’s colleges and universities and became a New York Times bestseller for 15 weeks. It has been listed as one of the most influential books of the 1990s.
In 1995, D’Souza published The End of Racism, which became one of the most controversial books of the time and another national bestseller. His 1997 book, Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, was the first book to make the case for Reagan’s intellectual and political importance. D’Souza’s The Virtue of Prosperity (2000) explored the social and moral implications of wealth.
In 2002, D’Souza published his New York Times bestseller What’s So Great About America, which was critically acclaimed for its thoughtful patriotism. His 2003 book, Letters to a Young Conservative, has become a handbook for a new generation of young conservatives inspired by D’Souza’s style and ideas. The Enemy at Home, published in 2006, stirred up a furious debate both on the left and the right. It became a national bestseller and was published in paperback in 2008, with a new afterword by the author responding to his critics.
Just as in his early years D’Souza was one of the nation’s most articulate spokesmen for a reasoned and thoughtful conservatism, in recent years he has been an equally brilliant and forceful defender of Christianity. What’s So Great About Christianity not only intelligently explained the core doctrines of the Christian faith, it also explained how the freedom and prosperity associated with Western Civilization rest upon the foundation of biblical Christianity. Life After Death: The Evidence shows why the atheist critique of immortality is irrational and draws the striking conclusion that it is reasonable to believe in life after death.
In 2010, D’Souza wrote The Roots of Obama’s Rage (Regnery), which was described as the most influential political book of the year and proved to be yet another best seller.
In 2012, D’Souza published two books, Godforsaken and Obama’s America: Unmaking the American Dream, the latter climbing to #1 on the New York Times bestseller list and inspiring a documentary on the same topic. The film, called “2016: Obama’s America,” has risen to the second-highest all-time political documentary, passing Michael Moore’s Sicko and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. In addition, 2016 has risen to #4 on the bestselling list of all documentaries.
These endeavors–not to mention a razor-sharp wit and entertaining style–have allowed D’Souza to participate in highly-publicized debates about Christianity with some of the most famous atheists and skeptics of our time.
Born in Mumbai, India, D’Souza came to the U.S. as an exchange student and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College in 1983.
D’Souza has been named one of America’s most influential conservative thinkers by the New York Times Magazine. The World Affairs Council lists him as one of the nation’s 500 leading authorities on international issues, and Newsweek cited him as one of the country’s most prominent Asian-Americans.
D’Souza’s articles have appeared in virtually every major magazine and newspaper, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, Vanity Fair, New Republic, and National Review. He has appeared on numerous television programs, including The Today Show, Nightline, The News Hour on PBS, The O’Reilly Factor, Moneyline, Hannity, Bill Maher, NPR’s All Things Considered, CNBC’s Kudlow Report, Lou Dobbs Tonight, and Real Time with Bill Maher.
Remember: Your Bio Grows as You Grow
Treat your bio as a living document. Just because you’ve written it once, does not mean it’s finished. As you grow and change as a writer so too should your bio.
Also, remember that if you are writing for different genres or different topics that some of your accomplishments and past works will be more relevant to your readers than others. It’s not a bad idea to tweak your author bio for each new work you release.
If You Can’t Write About Yourself, Have Friends Help You
People, especially writers, have a hard time writing about themselves. Often, the Author Bio is the most difficult part of the book marketing process.
If you are unsure about whether your author bio seems either incomplete, or too arrogant, run it by a few friends for feedback. For example, Ryan Holiday had his friends Tucker Max and Nils Parker write his bio for the BookStrapper series, and vice versa. It’s always easier for your friends to praise you and see the amazing things you do.
Conclusion: Take This Seriously
Getting your author bio right is an important task. In fact, this small section is usually the only source of information potential readers have about you (the author), and that’s why it is one of the most important pieces of marketing material you write for your book. Take it seriously, get it right, and it will help you sell books.