Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Autobiographical Portion of Our Program

When submission guidelines ask for a bio of the author to be included in the submission packet, what are editors looking for in general? I have no previous publications to list in the bio, I'm still trying to get that first publication.
1. Don't be cute. At this stage, the bio is about information, not personality. (The bio that eventually goes on your book's backflap might have some touches of personality, but that's later.) So don't tell me you're a "former kid" or that while you're not an expert on a subject, you have "a lot of theories" about it.

2. Don't be weird. Discretion is the better part of valor. You're making a good first impression, so don't over-share. If you're a mother, it's ok to say you're a mom and leave it at that. If you're a mother of seventeen children (twenty-two if you count your husband's other wife's kids), then it's ok to say you're a mom and leave it at that.

3. Try not to veer off topic. I really don't care how many pets you have. Or their names. Or their recent surgeries.

4. Tell me if you are a teacher (not a homeschooler), a librarian, a bookseller, or if you work in publishing. I do not care if you are a nanny, professional clown, swim coach, or ventriloquist. I don't care if you're a fricking play structure-- it's not about how many children you come in contact with, it's about how many children's books you come in contact with.

5. Tell me if there's anything that will help you market the book-- a blog, a lot of experience giving entertaining presentations, whatever. Keep this to the things that will look good on paper-- if you happen to have a cousin with a van/loudspeaker setup, you're going to have to talk us through how driving through the city streets broadcasting "Come And Sit On My Lap and Other Stories! A Magical Trip to the Funny Spot!" is going to help, and that's a conversation for later, possibly with our lawyers.

6. If you are writing nonfiction, tell me if you're a specialist in the nonfiction topic you're writing about. Do not tell me you're in insurance if your manuscript is about caterpillars or teddybears. And if your manuscript is about insurance, well, your manuscript had better not be about insurance.

7. Tell me about your previous books published at houses that paid you for your work. If there aren't any, say "I am not previously published."

8. If you can't say anything else, tell me what inspired you to write about this subject, while strictly adhering to rules (1) and (2). Do not tell me that writing about unicorns is your "dream vision." Do not joke that the idea for your novel about mail bombs came to you after a particularly vexing experience with a publisher's submission process. Do not tell me you're writing about china dolls because you have a collection of 379 of them from around the world and they line the walls of your writing room and with them watching you, you "never have to feel alone."

As I have said before, every query, every cover letter, every submission, is really just trying to get across two big things: (1) How great your manuscript is. (2) What a yahoo you are not.

If you can get those two things across, you don't really have to worry about anything else.


Kimbra Kasch said...

The autobiographical POP:

This information - is everything I've always feared
I wish I was cute – unfortunately I’m only weird.

lisa and laura said...

"Trying to get across two big things: (1) How great your manuscript is. (2) What a yahoo you are not."

Words to live by and slightly hilarious. A query manifesto for writers.

Jo Treggiari said...

Oh such great timing for this subject! I am reworking my bio for a query and glad to know that I can include my blog and all the writing workshops I've done for kids.

Bob Schechter said...

You forgot

(9) Tell me about your Academy Award, Grammy Award, and Emmy Award nominations


I'm curious, do editors tend to read the cover letters before at least having a quick peek at the manuscript? Or do they first start reading the manuscript, and then, if intrigued or impressed, go back to the cover letter to see who they're dealing with?

Editorial Anonymous said...

I usually skip straight to the manuscript, but I've seen other editors read cover letters first.

Anonymous said...

WMy husband always tells me to mention my PhD. He thinks it will be impressive and put me ahead of the masses. I think it means nothing (unless I'm a PhD in astrophysics and I'm writing a nonfiction piece about space..."no" to both). In fact, I think it would be a turn off to sign with PhD.

Stephanie McGee said...

Thanks for answering my question, EA. I appreciate all the valuable help you put in your blog.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Okay - dead bugs and farting handpuppets? Are you serious?

Sorry - got sidetracked by your sidebar.

Thanks for the bio info. Very useful!

Anonymous said...


A ten-page academic Cv is not impressive in a children's book submission. It just makes you look a little crazy and potentially hard to work with.

Anonymous said...

Does magazine publication matter at all or do most editors/agents not really care?

gael lynch said...

Love this entry, EA...promote without over-promoting, state without the yahoo. Play it cool. And then...pray like hell and wait.

Kimbra Kasch said...

It actually should have been the Autobiographical POOP - not POP

Maybe I'm overthinking this - like everything else - so I'll just Stop

Anonymous said...

This is the most clear information I've ever seen on this topic; thank you! The bio portion makes sense now! The only part of the query I'm still unclear on is if you should mention completely unrelated publishing credits (for example, locally-produced--but not self-published-- teachers' manuals when you're querying YA fiction) when the Publishing Credits section comes up.

Anonymous said...

Do these rules pretty much apply to query and cover letters written by agents on behalf of their clients? What are your expectations for letters by agents, in particular agents you haven't met and may not know very well at all? Should agents hype and vouch for the manuscript? Or should they be more "businesslike," perhaps providing more information regarding potential markets, etc.?

Anonymous said...

What about paying credits that don't relate to the genre/category/topic of the book? I couldn't make up my mind what I wanted to write, so I was all over the place, and it shows in the credits. I've seen advice that says include them because it shows you can work with the editor, and advice that says don't include them because they don't relate to the genre. For me, as I submitted my query, I couldn't help wondering if such diverse credits was sending the wrong message to the agent.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Agents are allowed to share their enthusiasm for a project (where authors are better off not getting into how great they think their work is), but agents should also be giving context for their enthusiasm-- a bunch of empty praise words will strike me as hot air.
Businesslike is never out of place.

I'm not sure I know just what you mean. Can you give me examples?

Sandy said...

Thanks so much for this post. I've always wondered what I should be including in the "bio" paragraph of my queries since I haven't been published. It's a relief to know I've been including the right information.

Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

As a previously unpublished author, is it permissible to simply state in the biography portion that I am unpublished, or does this send the wrong message?

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I know just what you mean. Can you give me examples?**

The book I'm working on is urban fantasy, and I've done thriller in the past.

What I've had published:
Flash fiction
Inspirational non-fiction
News articles (newspapers)
Trade magazine articles
War stories
Writing How-to articles

I ended up going to non-fiction a lot because there just wasn't short story markets in the genres I wanted to write.

Cheryl Pitt said...

Okay, what do you have against homeschoolers? (dukes up)

Editorial Anonymous said...

The titles of those credits aren't going to be terribly interesting to the editor who wants urban fantasy, but including that list as-is would be fine, to give a sense of your having done a bunch of for-pay writing work.

Editorial Anonymous said...

I have mixed feelings about homeschoolers. I know a number of them who are fantastic teachers to their kids; smart, dedicated, and imaginative.
And there are plenty of others who are homeschooling out of one or more misguided, ignorant reasons that make me fear for their children-- who will one day be able to vote.

The point is, in a cover or query letter, there's no way to know which kind of homeschooler you are, so it's best to leave it out.

Stephanie J. Blake said...

If you ahve no real writing credits, can't you just say:

"I have a BA in English and am a member of the SCBWI."


Cheryl Pitt said...

EA: I respect your opinion, and I'm glad you've met some competent homeschoolers-there are more of us than you might think :)

I still feel that statement was terribly unfair. There are just as many yahoos sending their children to public school.

I do agree though that due to the generally negative public opinion of homeschoolers (usually formed in ignorance-an uneducated bias)it would be best to leave that information out.

FYI-I homeschool my oldest son. With his curriculum he reads aloud to me or I read aloud to him at least 60 novels/school year; many are classics and award winners. That of course does not include my (or his) extra curricular fun reading. Depending on what grade/subject they teach I feel I may be exposed to more literature than your average teacher. Even more so when my youngest will be school age and I'll be covering two different age level curriculums.

Editorial Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree that there are plenty of twits sending their kids to public school!

But I wasn't comparing homeschoolers to other parents. I was comparing homeschoolers to accredited school teachers. There are still a few loonies in school teachers, but the percentage is a hell of a lot lower.

In terms of query and cover letters, I don't really care if you're a parent. We see lots of horrific manuscripts from parents. There's no qualification process for being a parent.

And as I say, we don't care how much exposure you have to kids-- but high exposure to kids books is worth a couple points.

Christine Tripp said...

Actually, there are more successful writers/illustrators who not only do not have children but who are not even married. What is really astounding is, most of them are known for their picture book manuscripts (and they are the illustrators too)

It seems to be all about not so much living through a child as it is still being one.

Bob Schechter said...

Christine makes a good point. But it's not just childless writer-illustrators, like Dr. Seuss, that come to mind, but writers/poets like Lewis Carrol and Jack Prelutsky. Maybe they had an advantage because they didn't confuse their child's love for them with their child's love for their manuscripts?

Lisa Schroeder said...

So, do you think doing videos like this one might hurt my chances for working with an editor in the future? I already have editors who like working with me. But, you know, things change...

Hopefully there is a good, acceptable kind of yahoo and then there's the kind you speak of? :)

ae said...

It is not BEING is REMEMBERING one...the pain, the insecurity and stupidity, the want, the hope and bravery against all odds..even if the odds seem minor to you and me.

Anonymous said...

You know, after reading several blogs, I'm starting to believe that agents and editors are just as "yahoo" as writers. Perhaps writers have to hide their "yahooness" in order to get published, but some of these agents and editors (not you, of course) are Brr SCARY!!!

Earlofthercs said...

Hi EA,

great blog, very informative.

Im a musician (indepenant but with a distribution deal. Couple of albums, one single that charted). Should I mention that? Up until very recently I wasn't performing (or releasing) childrens music but it does mean I have experience touring, promoting & selling product to a specific audience and have something of an exisitng fanbase.

If not to the above, say I did release a childrens music album (or sell an individual song directly to a music publisher) that'd be worth mentioning on a writers bio though, right?

David Dittell said...


Hilarious. I always feel odd writing up my own bio for exactly the same reason as the author of the question -- I don't know what people want from this.

It feels like foreign territory. I know in my fictional writing what it is that people expect/look for, but what exactly is the art of the bio?

This helped a lot. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Um, actually, nannies and homeschoolers read thousands of books, many of them hundreds of times over, out loud to many, many children every single day. Consequently, they do know what books children adore and why, probably better than anyone in the world or at least on the level with regular elementary and preschool teachers. And many of these children grow up to attend Harvard and the United States Air Force Academy, among many other prestigious places of higher education.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Anonymous, I've known many homeschoolers (not so many nannies). Some of them are *amazing*--so dedicated and imaginative and hard working for their children's education.

And some are religious nuts who think the only textbook their kids need is the bible or lazy, prideful people who can't stand that teachers keep telling them their children are lazy and prideful and need to do some work before they can pass the third grade.

So being a homeschooler comes with no guarantees when I see it in a letter.

I've also known many teachers, and know there's quite a mix of quality in that group, too, but at least there's a qualification system in place.

Probably the best thing for one of the awesome homeschoolers to do is put in their letter how many picture books and children's novels they have read in the past year.

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