Biography Geography: WTF?

Writing and Selling Your MemoirI noticed this weird thing when I was updating my own bio (something you should probably do at the start of every calendar year, just to make sure it's up to date and doesn't talk about upcoming books that came out in October 2011, not that I am guilty of that… no, not at all): most author biographies start with geography. 

Is it me, or is that a little bizarre?

I mean, I'm guilty of it, too. I noticed this while I was formatting my about.me page, and my first thought was to say that I'm from Pittsburgh. Now, being from Pittsburgh isn't inherently interesting except that anyone else from Pittsburgh who is around my age probably knows at least four to six people that I know, because even though Pittsburgh is a biggish city, it's like a bunch of small towns all stuck together, joined permanently by a strange dialect, sports, slight weirdness, and a very midwestern friendlyness. 

But is it the most important thing to know about someone, where they're from? Aside from anyone else from Western Pennsylvania that I might possibly know, or who knows my mother in law (more likely), is this crucial information for a person to have? Hardly! 

But that's the default! WHY is it the default? I do NOT KNOW. It is SILLY. It's giving the most prime real estate of a paragraph, the first sentence, to a mailbox. Why? I have no idea. 

 

Then, after geography, comes the Parade of Past Professions. Random lists of interesting jobs that were held before that person became a writer? CHECK! That's pretty common, too – though often much more charming than opening with the geographic birthplace. I know there are some readers who love to support local authors, or feel a kinship with someone who is from the same place they are, but in all the populace that might stumble upon a bio, I have to assume that the likelihood of someone with geographic similarities encountering a bio and making a buying decision based on that similarity is pretty freaking low. 

I asked myself: what's the first thing I as a reader want to know about an author? When I'm looking for information about an author, what is it that I want to know? 

Usually, it's when's the next book is coming out. Depending on the writer, that might be a frequently updated bio, especially if someone is publishing yearly or twice yearly. But shouldn't there be a sort of general rule as to what makes the best first impression in a written author biography? I should think so, but when I search on the topic, the answers are varied, and also often boring. 

So what should be the first thing you want to know about an author when you're looking for information – aside from geography? And hey, if everyone except me wants to know where everyone else is from, and I'm in the minority with this bafflement, I yield to all of you with excellent atlases. We can all road trip. You drive. 

 

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Random Musings

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  1. 1
    Jenna says:

    OH HI! I’m originally from Pittsburgh! That means we’re automatic friends. Unless you are friends with the handful of people that I really can’t stand, and then we’re automatic enemies. It could go either way.

  2. 2
  3. 3

    I’m always trying to figure out what the writer’s affinity for the material is, and logically, bios should probably lead with that, but I think we all open with where we are from because it is something we have in common with everyone. We didn’t all go to college or even high school or work in cool jobs but we’re all from somewhere.

    Mostly, Jersey.

  4. 4
    Jenny Lyn says:

    My current bio talks about my love of reading more than anything else because I was a reader first and romances will always be my first love. I end with a little general info about where I live, family, etc., and yes, it’s boring. It just seems to be the norm for authors.

  5. 5
    Awaskyc says:

    Since bios are often printed on covers (and cover stock is printed in advance of book stock, especially if there is embossing or foil, to reduce cost), and it can cost a lot to change a cover once the printer has the files, for physical books, it’s often not possible to update the author bio very frequently at all. It could be years—and that’s assuming the book prints. So that might not make it the best place to put up-to-date information about upcoming books. It’s a lot easier to update the ad card in the front of the book, or the ads in the back, just cost wise.

    I do not know why author bios are the way they are. Bios for romances often include a note not only that the author is married, but that her husband is doting or loving or devoted, as if this is NECESSARY PROOF that they know what they’re writing.

    Personally, my favorite author bio is W.E.B. Griffin’s, which is a list of mostly military associations, including the Army Otter-Caribou Association. Who knew there was such a thing.

  6. 6
    Holly says:

    Hi,

    I work in children’s and YA so the standards might be a bit different, but generally, when we are creating an author bio we start with any other books that the author has written. Then we move on to random lists of interesting jobs or anecdotes that tangentially relate to the book, and end with geography.

    It generally looks like:

    AUTHOR’S NAME is the author of TITLE, TITLE, and TITLE. Before becoming an author she was INTERESTING RANDOM JOBS and she still enjoys __________________. She was born in PLACE, but now lives in OTHER PLACE with FAMILY, PETS, ETC.

    It’s kind of basic, but it gets the job done and it keeps the focus on the writing. Oh, and of course, if we know what the next book is and when it is coming out, we will include that as well. And we always include a link to the author’s personal website or social media.

  7. 7

    Interesting. I went back to my bio (I’m a blogger not author) and I dont have my geography there or follow the norms.
    “Romance Book Review blogger. New releases and old favourites. I just love to share my passion with others who love romance books as much as I do. Lousy cook but a great friend. Reads with a passion and prefers passionate reads.”

    So either I have a sucky bio or because Im a blogger I don’t fall into the standards.

    I am not usually impressed with “Best Selling” included in their name because that can be greatly exaggerated. As much as I dislike the NY Times methods of listing their top author ratings, I do think it is impressive when I see “NY Times Best Selling” or “USA Best Selling” in their bio. BUT it is still not a deciding factor with me to buy their books.

    I’m Canadian so I admit that I cheer a wee bit when I see an author list that somewhere in Canada as their home. But their location is rarely a reason I’d buy a book. I guess just curiosity.
    If I am looking for a date for the next release, I dont look for that info on the bio page, I go right to the “books” tab and seek out the “Coming Soon”

    When I read someone’s bio and they’re an author, I mostly want to know what type of books they write and the heat level of the books. If the bio is too long. I wont read it.

  8. 8
    kayedacus says:

    Of course I had to go look at mine before I could chime in. Mine sort of follows the pattern that Holly outlined:

    After my marketing tagline (“Humor, Hope, and Happy Endings!”), I go into “author of . . .” but don’t list titles; rather, I list my two genres (contemporary and historical romances) and my three publishers. Then my education (degrees in English/writing) followed by the positions I’ve held with both a national writing group and a regional writing group. I then wrap it up with where I live (important to my contemporary romances, as three of them were set in my hometown) and what I do to pay the bills.

    I’ve heard at conferences that the writer’s bio is almost like a resume of why you’re equipped to be writing the book now in a potential reader’s hands. So, if you’re writing books set in the location in which you live (or used to live), then, yes, I can see how starting off with your geographic information would be important. However, now that I’m working on British-set Victorians, it’s probably more important that I update mine to concentrate on the years I spent in and since college studying early to mid-19th Century British literature and history.

  9. 9
    Rij says:

    Geographical info is useful in my work as a librarian. Random books are much more likely to make their way into our collection if the author has some tie to the area.

    As a reader, I read bios of previously unknown authors for two reasons: Either to see what the author has written in the past or to see if there’s any “warning signs”, comments of information that make it more likely that the book will annoy me. Warning signs can be, for example, strong political opinions, boasting, oversharing and the tendency to ramble too much.

  10. 10
    Sarah Wynde says:

    When I wrote my bio, I told myself that the first time someone commented on it, I would change it to a real bio, but no one ever has, proving to my satisfaction that no one actually reads them. I always believed that, I just never had a way to test it before.

  11. 11
    Peggy O'Kane says:

    Hey did you see that handsome obviously Latino man read a poem on Monday?  He is from Maine.  That is to say despite being really from away (Anywhere other than Maine)  Richard Blanco is a from Maine for the purposes of the Maine writers collection. He lives with his partner in the western mountains. Knowing where someone is from and where they have chosen to be is important to me as a library collection development policy.
    But it also speaks to me in ways the landscapes of their writing reflect the places they have called home. 

  12. 12
    MeliMac says:

    As a geographer, location is ALWAYS the first thing I’m curious about, so I like that about the author blurb.  I think some random fact about what they look at outside their window when they’re thinking, what their favorite word is (mine is megalopolis—geography anyone?), or whether they think the egg or chicken came first should also be included.  It’s nice to know other people have quirks, even authors who write stories we love….

  13. 13
    Sami says:

    I care mainly if they have dogs. I just thought “What do I remember from any author bios I’ve read?” and first thought: DOGS. Of course, a lot of books I read are about the author’s dog(s) so it can be redundant to talk about them again in the bio, but otherwise…tell me about your pets and your upcoming books (but first off/in a crass way because that sounds like GIVE ME YOUR MONEY I WROTE ANOTHER THING) and I’m happy (but geography and past jobs are fine, too, if rarely memorable.)

  14. 14
    Inez Kelley says:

    I’m a relative newbie to the romance publishing world (My first book came out in 2009) but my bio has morphed more times than Mystique from the X-men (I am temped to share the evolution of that bio here but won’t.) It went from informal to informational to friendly to… now, I guess. There were variations of all those, as well.

    Each editor and publisher has opinions, and, of course, the ‘rules’ change randomly. Bios are often requested by bloggers and such and they may have a length requirement. Some want links to your website/blog. Others don’t want any links.

    The mainstays are my name. I write romance. And that is about it. Everything else is subject to change. 

  15. 15

    I think that we (as humans) are fascinated by place. After all, one of the first things we ask when we meet someone is, “where are you from?”

    For someone of us, where we are from does say a lot about who we are, and the experiences that made us. Additionally, I have to say I DO get excited when I learn someone is from West (by God) Virginia, because I always want people from “home” to do well, and I look for glimpses of my world in their books.

    And for some books, the place is as much of a character as the people: Spenser’s Boston. Donna Leon’s Venice. I think when someone writes about their home—and they love their home—it deeply affects their writing and I often find it very appealing.

  16. 16
    Sandypo says:

    So yinz are from Pgh? Me too! Squirrel Hill to be exact, but I’ve been in New England (primarily metro Boston) for more than half my life so I consider myself a New Englander at this point.  But I try to ride the incline or at least get a “cut” of pizza when I’m back in the burg, which is rather infrequent at this point. And I still say “gum bands” occasionally!
    BTW, I enjoy your blog and your writing tremendously.

  17. 17
    Allison P says:

    I guess the other thing is that we all have to be living somewhere (death, taxes, and location?). I like whenever things get a little goofy, and if

    When I wrote up my Twitter description, I spent a lot of time studying everyone elses (cause I’m a nerd)(and anthropology is cool) and found authors often followed the same pattern: Genre you write, house/editor/agent, and the last sentence devoted to something quirky. I was very alarmed at the prospect of being original/quirky in 140 characters, so I think I just ended up talking about food I liked.

    Hmm, maybe everyone should be required to put down their favorite food.

  18. 18
    SB Sarah says:

    I want to be part of the Army Otter-Caribou Association.

  19. 19
    SB Sarah says:

    I never thought about tying the bio information to library collection decisions – how cool!

  20. 20
    SelenaBlake says:

    I’m of two minds here. I don’t think anyone gives a hoot about where I’m from. But since I love to travel, I’m mildly curious where the author lives. But if that information is missing from a bio, I’m probably not going to notice.

    What’s important to me is getting to know the author better. If I feel a connection to the author, I’m more likely to pay attention to her and her work in the future. That’s why I think including interests, quirks, etc can really spice up a bio.

    Also, I have two bios. One is the basic “for everyone” bio. And the other is written for media and includes more information about my successes as an author. I highly doubt a reader will care how many hundred thousand copies I sold last year, but a blogger/journalist probably will.

    One thing I haven’t seen anyone talk about yet is forms of contact within a bio. I include my email addy, website, facebook (and twitter… I think.)

  21. 21
    SB Sarah says:

    Sandypo – I’m from Point Breeze. And I totally say gum bands.

    I take it all back. Discussing geography first is clearly important and fun!

  22. 22
    SelenaBlake says:

    I love that idea of including food. In fact, I did on my twitter bio. Milky Ways ROCK!

    I have found kindred spirits via Twitter and a love of chocolate professed via the bio. Just sayin. :-)

  23. 23
    Faellie says:

    The three first identifiers for any person are: name, location and occupation.  They tend to be the things which are used when introducing someone – “This is Soandso Smith from Xburg who is a writer”.  From those three pieces of information, it’s usually pretty easy to slot someone into their cultural context.

    For an author, we already know their occupation (writer), and their name may or may not be their own (although pen names can be even more revealing, in their way, than a legal name).  That just leaves location to do the job of providing social context.  It is always easier to find one’s way into a piece of writing if one has a context within which to do it.

  24. 24
    SOS Aloha says:

    Aloha, Sarah!  I’m guilty of being nosy about geography.  I love to know from where authors hail as a point of reference.  I believe someone from the UK will write a different kind of UK set regency historical.  Likewise, when I learn an author is from my adopted state of Hawaii, I feel a kinship.  I also like to know author’s hobbies.  I get bored from bios that are very generic, “likes to read”, etc.

  25. 25
    SelenaBlake says:

    I notice that in a lot of the interviews I get. The very first question is “where are you from?” I wonder why that is. Perhaps it goes back to when people didn’t move around so much so when you did meet a new person they were obviously not from your town…

  26. 26
    Tam says:

    I also think that British romance authors write very different regency historicals.  Even if they’re US-based, I like to read ‘X spent sonsiderable time in the North of England researching the wool industry, and recommends X Inn in Stamford, which is still standing.’  When the authors have never been to the places they’re writing about, I think it sometimes really shows. 

    I also sometimes like to know if the authors have kids, to be honest. I remember reading ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue, and promptly googling to see if she had a small boy because the protagonist’s voice sounded so much like my own five year old. 

  27. 27
    SelenaBlake says:

    I don’t believe I’ve ever included upcoming titles in my official bio. I might include one in the shorter blogger bio that is at the bottom of a guest blog post. Even in ebooks, listing titles would become a laborious task. I generally just include the name of my bestselling series and leave it at that. That’s what I’m known for and it’s specific enough I think.

  28. 28
    MissB2U says:

    Telling someone where you are from opens up the possibility of common ground in a way that welcomes the other person in without disclosing too much personal information.  It might also let peope think they know something about you based on where you’re from.  Their read (heh) on you might not be accurate, but it gives them a way to feel connected.  I’m actually more interested in knowing where an author lives, because I like to wonder how they ended up there and how that location adds to their creative process.  One of the things I’ve learned is not to make assumptions about people.  Anyone can be from anywhere.

  29. 29
    larissa says:

    You’re tempting me to put something bizarre at the near-end-but-not-last-line of my bio. Or to announce in that space some kind of giveaway.

  30. 30
    Sandypo says:

    Oh my gosh! Did you go to Linden? That “cut” of pizza I get is always at Mineo’s, by the way.  I lived on South Linden Avenue for a year at one point. Small world, huh?

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