Publishers invest a lot more than a tissue’s worth in the books they publish, so it’s important for them to know who they’re working with. That is why your bio may well be the first thing an acquisitions editor reads in your book proposal. It is certainly the first thing I read. A good bio can either open the door to the rest of your proposal or stop the review process almost as quickly as it began.
Brief setup: In December 2012 I started a series of posts on how to write a book proposal. I got two posts in before realizing the series would be far more helpful to folks if I actually coached a writer through the process of crafting a book proposal. After a brief contest of sorts I decided to work with Gary Neal Hansen. My strong hope is that others will be working on their book proposals as I coach Gary through this process. To read the posts leading up to this one, see here, here, here, and here.
Following is the bio Gary sent:
Gary Neal Hansen is Associate Professor of Church History at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary and the author of Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers (InterVarsity Press, 2012). The book has received a broad ecumenical welcome, including an interview in Christianity Today, a “Best this Month” feature in The Lutheran, and an interview on the Catholic Channel of Sirius XM Satellite Radio. He is passionate about mining the wisdom of Christian history to help today’s Christians know and love God, grow in community, and serve Christ’s purposes in God’s beloved world. His sense of Christian community was shaped by undergraduate years at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle (where his pastor, Steve Hayner, once referred to him as a small group guru). Years as a small church pastor and study leave in a Benedictine monastery highlighted the range of understandings of Christian community. His scholarly writing is found in volumes published by Cambridge University Press, T&T Clark, Mohr Seebeck, Eerdmans and others, with writing for a general readership in The Presbyterian Outlook, Presbyterians Today, and Theology Matters. He speaks regularly at conferences and retreats–typically two or three times per year, and thus far in about a dozen states. He is currently developing a slow-motion book tour with leftover funds from a Louisville Institute research grant. Weekends find him with his wife and two small children looking for whatever is fresh and local at the farmers’ market, or cooking it up for friends.
Let the coaching begin. Good work, Gary! This bio has a lot going for it, though I do see some possible ways it can be improved as well.
Your bio is essentially your opportunity to tell the publisher who you are, but obviously we’re not interested in your favorite pizza toppings or what size shoe you wear. Anytime you make your bio available, whether to a conference or on your personal blog or a company or institution website, it should be tailored to the audience reading it. That is why your book proposal bio may well be the only place you use this particular version of your bio, though certainly it can be drawn upon for other venues as well. Your book proposal bio should:
- Be no more than 250 words. Shorter is okay!
- Establish your credibility. What’s your main vocational role? How are you qualified to write about the topic of your book? What work have you already done on the topic?
- Give us a glimpse of your platform. How can you help the publisher promote your book? What are your networks? How much are you speaking?
- Give us a sense of you as a person. Will you be reliable and fun to work with?
Notice that Gary’s bio does all of these things—in part because he read my previous post on this topic. I love that he says right at the top what his main vocational role is. I can’t tell you how often we have to hunt for this information—sometimes to no avail! He establishes his credibility as an author with a reference to his first book and how it’s been received. He tells us what he’s passionate about, and he gives me a sense of what kind of guy he is in the last sentence. Great stuff!
I do, however, see two places where the bio can be improved. The first is here:
His sense of Christian community was shaped by undergraduate years at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle (where his pastor, Steve Hayner, once referred to him as a small group guru). Years as a small church pastor and study leave in a Benedictine monastery highlighted the range of understandings of Christian community.
The impulse is right here. Gary is trying to show that he’s more than just book smart on this topic. He has real-world experience to offer. The problem is these sentences make me feel like his experience is relatively limited. He learned about community at school, in a church, and for a week at a monastery once. It’s probably better to frame this section in terms of the places where Gary has worked out his ideas about community. That way he’s not implying a limited basis of practical knowledge. He’s just talking about the places where he’s worked out a bunch of ideas.
Even better, however, would be some reference to the fruit of the ideas he will be sharing in the book. “Gary,” for example, “has seen the power and redemptive influence of Christian community play out in his church and small group as he and his friends have done transformative work both locally and globally.” And obviously the more concrete he can be here, the better.
The other section that can be improved is here:
He speaks regularly at conferences and retreats–typically two or three times per year, and thus far in about a dozen states. He is currently developing a slow-motion book tour with leftover funds from a Louisville Institute research grant.
This section screams “small platform,” and while I appreciate Gary’s honesty, better to say less than more in the bio if more is going to hurt your chances of publication. You will have an opportunity to speak candidly about your platform elsewhere in the proposal. I would cut it off at “He speaks regularly at conferences and retreats.”
And that brings us to the topic of the next post: platform.
Want some free bio coaching? If you would like feedback on your bio, feel free to include it in a comment on this post. Then be sure to comment on other people’s bios too. Let’s keep our comments constructive and see if we can help each other. I will comment too, as much as I can, but I’m convinced the real magic is not about me; it’s about what all of us can do together.