Author Bios: What’s Missing from the Back Inside Flap

by Alafair Burke

I promise this next sentence is an honest intro to today’s post, not just BSP: This weekend I officially joined the board of directors of Mystery Writers of America and became President of the New York chapter.  (Pause for applause.)

In preparation for the annual MWA board funfest (aka orientation day), the unparalleled Margery Flax requested a biography to distribute to fellow board members.  I sent her the usual jacket copy:

A formal deputy district attorney in Portland, Oregon, Alafair Burke now teaches criminal law at Hofstra Law School and lives in New York City.  A graduate of Stanford Law School, she is the author of the Samantha Kincaid series, which includes the novels Judgment Calls, Missing Justice, and Close Case.  Most recently, she published Angel’s Tip, her second thriller featuring Ellie Hatcher.

Her response was polite, quick, and resoundingly clear, something like, “Are you sure that’s all you want to include?  This is usually a longer fun one, only for internal board distribution.”

In other words, Yawn, Snore, Zzzz….

I can take a hint, so I gave it another try.  Borrowing in part from my website, I allowed myself thirty minutes to hammer out something that would give those who hadn’t met me yet some sense of who I am and where I’ve been.  Margery’s assurance that this was purely internal was freeing.

After I submitted my specially-designated “MWA board bio,” I couldn’t stop thinking about the sterileness of those book jacket author bios, scrubbed clean of all personality.  As writers, we’re committed to exploring the human stories that lurk beneath the superficial, but when asked to describe ourselves: Yawn, snore, zzzz…..

I’ve spoken a few times during author appearances about a hypothetical world in which books (like the law school exams I grade as a professor) would be published anonymously, their authors known only by a randomly assigned number that readers could use to “identify” the authors they consistently enjoyed.  After all, what separates reading from television and film is the active role of our mind’s eye.  To read books without knowing an author’s age, gender, race, religion, region, education, attractiveness, or work experience might truly unleash our imaginations.

Despite my musings about a utopia of anonymous publishing, I’ve come to realize why publishers emphasize (and readers desire) personal information about authors.  The most delightful unexpected benefit of writing has been meeting some of my favorite authors.  I already read these folks religiously before I met them, but I’ll admit that I read them differently — and more richly — now.  I recognize the wry winks in Laura Lippman’s most leisurely paragraphs.  I hear Michael Connelly’s quiet voice in Bosch.   I think I really know what Lisa Unger means when she writes on Ridley Jones’s behalf that she’s a “dork.”  And those short, little, maddeningly frustrating sentences from Lee Child are now sexy as hell.

But I didn’t get any of that from the book jackets. 

As the traditional print media and personal appearance opportunities for authors to introduce themselves to readers continue to dry up, many of us have taken to the Web.  We do that not only to get our names out there, but also because we recognize that readers are more likely to experience our written work as intended if they come to it with a sense of who we are. (For example, an online reviewer once dissed a line of Ellie Hatcher’s, something like “kicking it old school.”  The fact that it’s corny to talk that way is of course precisely why she’d say such a thing. And if the reader “got” Ellie or anything about my work, he’d know that’s — ahem — just how we roll.)

So as we’re knocking ourselves out to convey our souls to readers, maybe we should take another look at book jacket bios.  The publishers are going to type something beneath that favorite photo: It may as well be interesting.  And so, even though Margery promised to keep this unsanitized bio a secret, I’ve decided to blast it out to the world:

Alafair Burke is the author of six novels in two series, one featuring NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher, the other with Portland prosecutor Samantha Kincaid.  Although reviewers have described both characters as “feisty,” Alafair might accidentally spill a drink on anyone who invokes that word to describe her or anyone she cares about.

Alafair grew up in Wichita, Kansas, whose greatest contribution to her childhood was a serial killer called BTK.  Nothing warps a young mind quite like daily reports involving the word, bind, torture, and kill.

From Kansas, Alafair dreamed of fleeing west.  Fearing their daughter might fall prey to a 1980’s version of the Manson Family (um, Nelson?), her parents prohibited her from attending school in California.  Ironically, she ended up at Reed College, where the bookstore sold shirts that read “Atheism, Communism, Free Love,” and Alafair found herself (lovingly) nicknamed Nancy Reagan and The Cheerleader.

From Reed, Alafair went to the decidedly less hippy-ish Stanford Law School. Although she went with dreams of becoming an entertainment lawyer so she could make deals at the Palm and score seats at the Oscars, she eventually realized she had watched “The Player” one too many times, and instead decided to pursue criminal law because she was obsessed with the Unabomber.

Most of Alafair’s legal practice was as a prosecutor in Portland, Oregon, where she infamously managed to tally up a net loss on prison time imposed during her prosecutorial career.  (Help spring two exonerated people from prison to put a guy called the Happy Face Killer behind bars, and it really ruins your numbers.)  As hard as it is for her to believe, she is now a professor at Hofstra Law School.

When Alafair is not teaching classes or writing, she enjoys rotting her brain.  She runs to an iPod playlist with three continuous hours of spaz music (think “It Takes Two” by DJ Rob Bass, “Smooth Criminal” by Alien Art Farm, and “Planet Claire” by the B-52’s). She insists that Duran Duran, the Psychedelic Furs, and the Cure hold up just as well as the so-called classics. She watches way too much television, usually on cable.  She wants Tina Fey to be her BFF.  She likes to drink wine and cook. 

She discloses TMI on the Interwebs, blogging regularly at Murderati and logging teenage-territory hours on Facebook.  She will golf at the drop of a hat even though she’s bad at it.

Most importantly, Alafair loves her husband, Sean, and their French bulldog, The Duffer.  She also loves her parents, but if you ask her about them, she’ll ask you about yours.

What do you think?  Should all authors let loose on their jacket flaps?  Would it affect that crucial decision of whether to purchase?  Would it change how we read?  If you’re a writer, what should your author bio REALLY say?  And if you’re a reader, what would you like to know about some of your favorite writers?

P.S.  As a follow up to my last post about my sometimes odd marketing attempts, I brought a video today for Show and Tell.  Not the usual literal movie trailer, the clip is intended to evoke the themes, setting, and tone of my new book, 212, out in March.  It also allowed me to bop around to Lady GaGa for countless hours and tally it mentally as work-related.  What do you think?

23 thoughts on “Author Bios: What’s Missing from the Back Inside Flap

  1. Brandee

    Congratulations! [Insert loud applause] I loved your biography and eagerly await your new book after your teaser trailer. Author bios can intrigue me enough to pick up a book, but it’s usually the story that grabs me first. After I already know I enjoy the writing, then I love to find out more about the author. Blogs, Facebook and Twitter have been great places to do so. I never would have met Toni Causey in person without them. That would have been a crime.

  2. toni mcgee causey

    Alafair, the video’s a lot of fun–I watched it twice. Great choice of song, too. And I think it’s very effective in getting across the subject / theme of the new book. Great job!

    I’d fear the longer bio, if only because I’d be cited for overuse of the adjectives "clueless," "destructive," and "tenacious." There are probably some things it’s best that readers don’t know.

  3. PK the Bookeemonster

    The bio in the book means very little to me as a reader — if they weren’t there at all, I wouldn’t mind. Most of the time, I am already familiar with the author’s work. If it is a new-to-me author then it was the story that got my attention. Perhaps the only thing I might need is how to get more info on the author’s works, therefore a website would be of potential interest.
    "The author has traveled world, attended the best schools, is friends with celebrities, has beautiful and talented children who contribute to a gajillion charities, etc., etc.," So what? Is the book good? How about: "The author’s award-winning series based on a deranged serial killer, comes from extensive personal experience …" might get my attention but should also involve law enforcement. 🙂

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alafair

    Congrats on your MWA appointments! Do we now call you "Ma’am" or would a simple curtsey suffice?

    You are absolutely right to threaten to spill drinks over anyone who uses the word ‘feisty’ because although its US colloquial meaning is ‘excitable, irritable, touchy or spirited’, it actually comes from the old US dialect word ‘fist’ meaning ‘a small aggressive dog’, that in turn comes from the Middle English ‘fisten’ meaning ‘to break wind’.

    I used to have ‘Would rather have a motorbike than children’ on my author biog, but I’ve given up on that as it was causing too many raised eyebrows. I still have the fact I opted out of mainstream education at the age of 12, though, and mention the death-threat letters that kicked off my crime writing career in the first place.

    And, to be honest, I think that’s more than most people would ever want to know about me ;-]

  5. Bryon Quertermous

    I like seeing these kinds of bios on author websites. I wouldn’t mind seeing shorter versions of the funny bio on a book jacket. Harlan Coben used to have pretty good ones. Electronic journals (both literary and crime specific) have always made good use of the humerous short bio and I always like to have something entertaining about my bio instead of just the facts. It usually covers up the fact I have no professional business being published anywhere.

  6. JD Rhoades

    This is the one I once submitted for a panel at Thrillerfest. it was shortly after the whole scandal about the drug-recovery memoir "A Million Little Pieces" being fabricated by James Frey. I though maybe with the right bio, I could get that kind of notoriety. The moderator, Jim Born, delivered it with a straight face.

    J.D Rhoades never knew his parents; he was found abandoned on the steps of a cut-rate Filipino tax preparation service in Slidell, La. As a child, he was bounced around between a series of orphanages, reformatories and opium dens. His first brush with the law came when he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. He was seven years old at the time.

    He first turned to drugs at the age of five, when he discovered he could get high by snorting Nestle’s Quik through a rolled up copy of Highlights magazine. Since then, He’s ingested marijuana, peyote, heroin, psilocybin, uppers, downers, screamers, laughers, dried banana peels, glue, paste, mucilage, LSD, DMT, STP, ABC, CNN, TLC, Sterno, Drano, Bondo, Ketamine, Dopamine, glucosamine, Ovaltine, and Krispy Kreme.

    He once did all of them in the same night and woke up two weeks later, hanging upside down by his knees from a tree limb in Duluth, Minn., singing the Aria from “Die Fledermaus.” In German, a language which he does not speak.

    He once killed a stripper with a fondue fork and disposed of the body using an electric pencil sharpener. It took 14 hours.

    He kidnapped the Lindbergh Baby.He was the shooter on the grassy knoll when Kennedy was shot. The only reason he missed is because he was completely plastered on cheap tequila and absinthe.

    He knows Tom DeLay personally.

    Unfortunately, even that wasn’t enough to get me on Oprah. Bitch.

  7. Louise Ure

    Alafair, I adore the longer, more creative bio. Even without knowing you, if I’d read that line about a prosecutor with a "net loss of prison time" I would have been compelled to buy your work. What a hook.

  8. alli

    "Planet Claire" by the B-52’s is not spaz music! Ask my 2 and 3 year olds! 😉

    Congrats on the appointments. Your author bio is excellent. I would much rather read one like yours than some of the stuffy ones on jacket copies. The reason I like this is because it gives me a sense this person is real, has weird hobbies, watches cruddy TV to unwind, excellent music taste, etc. Ie this author is not sitting at their pristine desk, happily typing novel after novel without breaking a sweat while listening to Mozart. Maybe I’m prone to liking "real" author bios because I can relate to them, and as an unpublished writer, it gives me a feeling I could be like them one day (when the stars align). As a reader, I like to know the person keeping me entertained is an everday sort who has a fabulous talent – and not some perfect person dreamed up by the publicity department.

  9. Chris

    Wow, that might be the most effective book trailer I’ve seen yet. Short, and definitely gives a good idea of what the book is about. Very cool.

    I’m ambivalent about the author bio inside the book itself. I’d rather see a list of links where I could explore the author a little more if I wish to — website, anything like Facebook or Twitter they may use, etc.

  10. Becky LeJeune

    I enjoy all of the "extras" in books. I read author bios — go looking for it if I can’t find one — and the acknowledgements pages, too. I think they both can tell you a lot about the author.

  11. Anonymous

    Nice book trailer. Acquiring the rights to use that music to avoid possible Federal copyright infringement must have cost you a fortune.

  12. Alafair Burke

    Maybe my next book project should be a compilation of "real" author bios. It was fun to write my own, but I suspect drafting these for my friends might be even better.

    As for the copyright issue on the trailer, I was happy to learn that You Tube has an arrangement with most music publishers that allows you to use copyrighted audio in exchange for placement of ads on your You Tube page. I expected the ads to be "buy the song" links to purchase Lady Gaga’s music online. However, the fact that the ads are instead for skanky singles pages was worth the time I put into the video. It’s validation that I did in fact capture the themes of the new book!

  13. judy wirzberger

    Congratulations on your MWA presidency, NY. I’m sure you enjoyed hanging with our NORCAL chapter president Simon Wood. Hope you’re in SFO and can drop by a meeting this year!

    I always enjoy reading more about my favorite authors, but usually after I’ve read the book(s). I realy like learning where they live, for some odd reason. I’m looking for a connection, I suppose. For instance, I spent a night in Wichita at a round hotel with pie-shaped rooms and had to make an emergency landing there another time when flying in a Cessna 182 as the world got green. Yep, tornado.

    However, I don’t think readers should get huge amounts of personal information from a book – They need to attend a book signing – but then, I’m lucky. I live close to M is for Mystery.

    And Louise was right on (as usual) – that would be a great hook – net loss of prison time. Ha! Do you hold the record?

  14. Pete

    As a reader, I find that an author’s photo and their website link is sufficient. If I love the book, then a lack of information would likely compel me to learn more about the author and their work- online.

  15. Barry Eisler

    Alafair, congratulations on being made President of the New York chapter. Well deserved and it’s good to know the MWA recognizes talent.

    Great post. Should authors let loose on their jacket bios? How long should a bio be? These questions and others like them can only be properly answered by starting with another question: what are you trying to accomplish?

    With the bio, I would argue you have two objectives. One, get the potential customer to take the next step closer to the cash register (immediate goal). Two, shape your brand (longer term goal). I’m amazed at how publishers don’t get this (though I shouldn’t be. Publishers don’t get a lot of things).

    For more on what makes an effective bio and on the similarities between publishers and cargo cults, here’s a guest post I did last year on Buzz, Balls & Hype.

    And you are wrong, wrong, wrong on Up in the Air!


  16. Michael

    I always ignore the writer’s photo and bio. If I want to lose myself in the world of the characters I don’t want reminded they are just fictional creations. When I was a columnist for newspapers I always refused to pose for the writer’s photo. I find a writer’s quality falls equal to the rise in the writer’s visual fame. So much of the writer’s realism comes from observing the real world. Clark Kent sees the real world, Superman does not. For the visually famous author reality is from only his point of view, while the Clark Kent author reality is from various points of view.

    What is more important, the reader loves the writer or the writer’s words?

  17. JT Ellison

    Very nice!!! And the bio is fantastic. Barry Eisler said once that you should always open with the fun stuff, not which books you’ve written. When I revamp my bio – I’m taking both of your opinions into account.

  18. pari noskin taichert

    I loved the bio. Loved it.
    I do read author bios and enjoy when they manage to be more than cookie cutter. Even before I was published and knew many writers, I still like the bios because I cared about how the person — or marketers — decided to rep him or herself.

    That said, the bio on my books is fairly boring. My website bio — though out of date now — is a bit better.

    Liked the trailer too. Definitely looking forward to the new book!

  19. kim

    I always read the writer’s bio – and an interesting one is much more likely to make me want to read the book. The one you wrote here is hilarious – would make me interested in what you wrote. A boring, cookie-cutter bio is a waste of time to me – if that’s all they can come up with, why would I want to read the book? And part of it is just my own nosiness – and innate curiosity – if the bio mentions facts like you did about law school, etc. – I find my mind wandering to how did this person go from that to writing – and on and on in my head, trying to put the puzzle pieces together about that person.


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