In my opinion, a good query letter is broken down into three parts – the quick intro, the pitch, and the bio. Strangely enough, the third section (the bio) often generates the most questions and uncertainty with writers. In fact, when I speak at writers’ conferences on the topic of how write a query letter, there are typically a ton of questions about this small paragraph. So with that in mind, I have tried to cobble together some notes on what to include and what not to include in a query letter at the end when you’re talking about yourself and your writing.
FICTION VS. NONFICTION
Before you read on, you need to realize that the bio section of a query letter is a completely different beast for fiction vs. nonfiction. If you’re writing nonfiction, the bio section is typically long, and of the utmost importance. This is where you list out all your credentials as well as the greatest hits of your writer platform. The importance of a nonfiction bio cannot be overstated. It has to be fat and awesome. Fiction bios, however, can be big or small or even not there at all. Most of the questions and notes I address below are discussing the murky waters of fiction query bios.
YES: INCLUDE THESE ELEMENTS IN YOUR BIO
- Mention prior traditionally published books. This is the top bio credit you could have — past traditionally published books. Always mention the title, year and publisher. Beyond that, you could quickly mention an award your previous book won, or some praise it received.
- List any published short stories. If you got paid for them or they ended up in a respected journal, that is always a great thing to mention. It immediately proves you’ve got fiction writing cred.
- Discuss self-published books that sold well. If you had past self-published books that sold well, feel free to quickly discuss them. Such discussion will show you already have a small (or big!) audience and know how to market. Concerning what number of sales is impressive, I would say you should sell at least 7,500 e-books before an agent will be impressed. Truthfully, the number thrown around at a recent conference was 20,000, but I believe that’s pretty high. (Note that your target number of book sales must represent true sales — not books downloaded when you gave them away for free as part of some kind of promotion.)
- Tell if you’ve penned articles for money. Feel free to skip titles and just list publications. For example: “I’ve written articles for several magazines and newspapers, including the Cincinnati Enquirer and Louisville Magazine.” Brevity is appreciated here. The agent can inquire if they want more info.
- Divulge awards won. The bigger and more impressive, the better. For example, if your manuscript was a finalist for the RWA’s Golden Heart Award, that’s a big deal. If you won third place in a local writers group contest where the group was so small that there is no chance to agent has heard of it, that award is likely worth skipping in the bio. Use your best judgment here.
- Share if you’re active in a recognized, nationwide organization – such as the Romance Writers of America (RWA), the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the American Medical Writers, etc.
- If you have an MFA. However, simply having a basic degree in English is common enough that a mention will likely not help you.
- State your profession if it connects to the book. I wasn’t sure about this one until I heard several agents saying they wanted to know. What this means is that if you’re writing a legal thriller and you’re a lawyer, say so. Same thing for doctors writing about medicine/hospitals, musicians writing about musical protagonists, and so on.
- Your research — but ONLY if it involves travel and seems like something amazing. If you’re writing a book with a Native-American protagonist, it’s not worth mentioning that you have done “heavy research on the subject.” (That makes it sound like you’ve scoured the web and read a few books — nothing that will knock anyone’s socks off.) But … if you spent two years living among the Sioux people on a reservation, then is that worth mentioning? I say yes. It’s research on a whole new level. If your novel is set in Paris and you worked there for 10 years as a translator, then say so.
- Explain your platform if you feel like certain elements are impressive. Nonfiction writers must discuss platform at length. Fiction writers don’t need to discuss such elements, but certainly can if they believe they’ve made notable progress in an area. If you’re a blogger for a big YA Authors blog, say so. If you contribute to The Huffington Post or other websites/newsletters of note, say so. If you run a local writers’ conference, say so.
(Hi, everyone. Chuck here chiming in for a second. I wanted to say I am now taking clients as a freelance editor. So if your query or manuscript needs some love, please check out my editing services. Thanks!)
NO: SKIP THESE ELEMENTS IN YOUR BIO
- Don’t say the work is copyrighted. All work is copyrighted. Saying so makes you look amateurish.
- Don’t say the work is edited. All work should be edited. Saying your work is edited is another sign of an amateur.
- Don’t say how long it took you to write it.
- Don’t mention past, autonomous self-published books that did not take off. If the book you are pitching is the sequel to a released e-book, then you will have to disclose such info. But if this new book you’re pitching has nothing to do with previous self-published works that sold poorly, then just skip any mentions of those books. Elaborating on them will only hurt your chances.
- Don’t say anything about a desired movie adaptation. And especially don’t say that you should play yourself in the film adaptation of your memoir.
- Don’t mention you have a website or blog. Neither is a big deal, unless they’re huge in size. You can always paste the URL of your blog or website (or both) below your name in the e-mail signature for the agent to investigate if she wishes.
- Don’t say this is your first novel.
- Don’t say your age. The people who mention their age are typically very young or seniors. This will do you no good.
- Don’t say you’re part of a small writers group at the local bookstore. Only membership in big organizations is worth noting.
- Don’t say that family or friends or writing peers or your goldendoodle loved it. Their opinions will not sway an agent.
- Don’t say God or aliens told you to write the story. This will get you the wrong kind of attention.
- Don’t list your favorite writers. The only time to do this is if the agent put a call out for something specific, like “more fiction in the style of William Faulkner,” and your favorite write is indeed Faulkner.
- Don’t say how many drafts of the novel you’ve went through.
- Don’t talk about your personal life or what you like to do for fun: “I’m going through a nasty trial separation right now. Besides that, I just LOVE ‘Arrested Development,’ don’t you? Buster is my favorite character! Anyhoodles, thanks for considering my manuscript…”
- Don’t say that the book was rejected by other agents.
- Don’t say that the book is fiction, but partially based off your own life.
- Don’t say that you have children, and that qualifies you to be a writer of kids books.
- Don’t discuss pen names. If you want/need a pen name, that is definitely something that needs to be addressed, but you can tackle that subject when an agent calls you to offer representation and all topics are aired out appropriately.