Nov 4 2008
This month of November, I’m going to explore some marketing issues I have involving literature. Essentially, I want to explore with you authors and readers whether the personalization of marketing converts writing into a performance art. While it may seem like some of these opinions tread close to the personal attack grounds, I want to make it clear from the outset that what I am examining and what I am inviting you to examine is the author as an advertisement for her own books and not the author as a person.
Today’s topic is author biographies. Almost every book contains some sort of author biography whether it is a page devoted to “About the Author” or whether it is simply a one paragraph on the book flap or on the inside of the back cover. Knowing something about the author is evidently important for readers. Why is that?
In other words, if a book is all about the book regardless of the creator then why the need for the “About the Author” information? I always find it fascinating to read the bios because of what they say. Some talk about their husbands, cats, dogs and children. Some talk about their shoe addiction, their childhood music lessons, their researching skills. Some claim that the author began writing at the age of five, ten, or the common “as early as she can remember.” If the author is more successful, it usually states what kind of bestselling novelist she is. (As an aside, many of my ebook copies don’t contain “about the author” sections particularly if they are Penguin, Pocket or Harlequin books. Almost all Avon books included a small “about the author” section.
In the recent poll at Dear Author, the votes laid out like this.[poll id="113"]
Many commenters liked the “facts” such as geographical location and educational background but bemoaned the cutesy stuff.
Commenter Lori quoted from the Kenyon bio on her desk and said:
But a lot of bios are like that it seems and it makes me squeamish because it’s usually not cute, not endearing, not funny and not professional.
I just hate stuff like that because it’s so high school. And the ability to write a book takes so much hard work that it just seems degrading to try and cute it up.
Tthere was one author bio that I read on the author’s site that was so closely matched to the book itself that it made me uncomfortable. It was one of those mystery chic lit stories featuring a single mother of a toddler, recently divorced, and having very similar physical characteristics to the author who was also a single mother of a toddler, recently divorced. The villain in the story was the ex husband and well, I just couldn’t read the rest of the series. Cecilia agreed with me in a sense that a bio can make you feel like you are peeking too closely into someone’s closet.
Weak as I am, I find that I am always compelled to read them, but I’m grateful when they’re not there. Anything that makes me feel like by reading the book I’m getting a view into a lonely person’s fantasies just makes me way too uncomfortable.
There is something about an author bio that is engaging for the reader but why is that? It’s not like a host of authors live in my state so I don’t have a geographical connection to most authors. I don’t read many books by Asian Americans as there are only a few of them that I know of that write romance (Gennita Low, Jade Lee come to mind). I’ve really only had one job my entire working life (if you discount the waitressing and store clerking that I did in high school and college) so a person who played the violin, worked as an airline pilot, or danced in Vegas has little “just like me” affectation. Yet, there is something about them that I find interesting, particularly if I am strongly moved by a book, one way or another.
If I really like a book, I might wonder who is this amazing creature that penned this fabulous book that made me laugh and cry and run out to buy her backlist. If I don’t like the book and think it is full of errors or bad writing or both, I might want to know who is this amazing creature who wrote this wallbanger of a book and what could her credentials possibly be to write about __________ (fill in the blank). In fact, if the author has certain credentials in the back of the book that aren’t seen in the story, the biography can work to create a more negative view of the book itself. For example, as Cecilia pointed out, if the author has a PH.D. in history and the book itself is riddled with historical errors, that reflects a more negative light onto the author’s work. For me, it decreases the likelihood I’d pick up another book by that person.
Objectively, I think that if a book is measured solely on its own merits and not influenced by the biography of the author, then we readers should not care who wrote the book, where she lives, or what kind of marital status they have. So I’m interested to know a couple things. First, why do readers respond to the author biography? and second, if we don’t respond, why are they included? Does the author biography, particularly in genre fiction, make a book have more authenticity? Is it important for the author to establish their credentials in the field in which they are writing and if so, how does that translate for an author? If the biography, or personal information of an author, makes a difference in how a reader views a book then isn’t what is being sold both the author and the contents of the book?
Next week will be the dreaded Author Photo and whether looks matter in the selling of books.