Query Letters and That Pesky Bio Paragraph

If you've done any research into writing query letters, you've probably read that you need (1) a hook, (2) a mini-synopsis, and (3) a paragraph about you. I see a lot of confusion about what to put in that bio paragraph. Hopefully we can clear that up here.

(NOTE: This is specifically for fiction queries. In non-fiction queries, the bio paragraph is a lot more important).

RULE #1: If you're not sure what to write about yourself, write:
Thank you for your time and consideration.
And NOTHING ELSE. Seriously. The agent is interested in your story. Nothing you write here will change their mind about that.

The bio paragraph is frosting. Yes, frosting can be very pretty and tasty, but if the cake sucks, the agent isn't going to eat it. Conversely, if the cake is awesome, but the frosting is . . . weird, the agent MIGHT scrape the frosting off. Or they might decide to go with one of the other equally awesome cakes topped with plain vanilla. Which brings us to . . .

RULE #2: You are not a special snowflake.
I mean, you are. Of course, you are. But so are the other tens of thousands of writers who want their book published (that's why they call it slush, cuz, you know . . . all the snowflakes).

And you know what? All of them were born with a pencil in their hands too. Or were published in local writer's journals. Or have a critique group. Or head the local chapter of SCBWI. Or came up with the idea when they traveled to Ireland. Or were inspired by God.


None of these things mark you out as special. For agents who have seen them over and over, they mark you out as someone who doesn't realize how not-special they are. And since you can't know what they've seen over and over, see, Rule #1.

RULE #3: Include professional publishing credits only.
"Professional" means you were paid professional rates for it, typically 5 cents/word and up. If all you got was half-a-penny per word and a copy of the magazine, chances are the agent hasn't heard of the publication. And if the agent hasn't heard of it before they read your letter, they're not going to care when they do.

RULE #4: Include previously self-published books if you sold more than 20,000 copies.
Less than that isn't as important as you'd think.

RULE #5: Mention if you share some background relevant to the story.
Like you have a degree in whatever skill the protagonist uses to solve his problems, or you live in whatever exotic location it's set in (Canada? Not so exotic. The Ozarks? Surprisingly, yes).

RULE #6: You can include something unique about yourself. I guess.
I don't want to tell people not to include stuff like this -- it's memorable and unique, and I've seen it done in cute, writerly ways that made me laugh.

But you won't ever look bad if you follow Rule #1. I mean, what could be more unique than living in Thailand and raising 10 kids? But I didn't say any of that in my query, and it didn't hurt my request rate any. In the bio paragraph, less is more.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Tell us in the comments.


Steve MC said...

This slushy snowflake agrees.

It's kind of like if someone is telling you about a book they want you to read - I really can't imagine what they could say about the author to get me to read it other than, "He spent a year in Antarctica as a mercenary, and he was in the worst of the 2010 penguin revolt." And even then, that's only if the title is Penguin Revolt.

Adam Heine said...

I would TOTALLY read that book.

Matthew MacNish said...

There is really only one rule - if it works it works, and if it doesn't it doesn't.

But honestly, I completely agree with you. I included a bunch of BS in my query the last time I queried, and the request rate was pretty high (for fulls, not representation, obvs), but I really don't think it had anything to do with any of what I call housekeeping details.

In fiction, the story is the only thing that matters. That's why I tell people to get right to it, and leave personalization and housekeeping to the end, if they're going to include it at all.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Daniel Smith said...

Thanks for the detailed explanation.

And thanks for giving me something for my vanilla bio paragraph: I can use Rule #5 with my WIP.

"I love it when a plan comes together." - John "Hannibal" Smith played by George Peppard on The A-Team

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I usually go with #1. But now I'm considering querying my MG novel next year, so I'll be revisiting the query. It's interesting the 20k number that Janet Reid tosses out, because I was just at a conference where the number was 100k, or don't bother. And even then it was "yeah, but are those 100k sales at 99cents??"

Attitude, people. You just don't know what kind that person on the other end of the query letter is going to have.

My thoughts on this right now are thus: I'm a self-published author. I've sold a bunch of books. I'm going to keep doing that. It's part of the package with me-the-author, so it's good for the agent to know that up front. If they have an allergic reaction to self-publishing, they're not the agent for me. If they scoff at my 19,508 sales (as of this morning), they're not too savvy about the market these days, and also are not the agent for me. In a way, it's a litmus test for the AGENT, not a bio for me.

Or... I stick with #1 and let the story sell itself. I think I can move copies of a book because of my record of... selling copies of books... but the MG market is different, and my YA sales may not mean much there. Publishers pick up a book because they think that THEY can sell it, not because they think the author can sell it (celebrity/well-known authors aside). And I want them to pick it because they think that THEY can sell it - that is somewhat the point, after all.

Then again, with publishers going after self-pub authors without agents, I'm not entirely sure an agent is going to be necessary in the future (although in my case, probably yes, because I'm in MG).


Matthew MacNish said...

The fact that Susan has sold that many SP YA books is still incredibly impressive. MG may be harder to sell for SP ebooks, but YA is certainly no Adult Thriller or Erotica, which seem to really dominate in SP.

Angela Brown said...

I would stick with #1. Seriously.

KayC said...

I agree wholeheartedly. My standard is Rule #1 - or will be when I finally finish my edits and send out my carefully crafted query!

Myrna Foster said...

"You are not a special snowflake." lol

I've always included my publishing credits (with Highlights) in my PB queries, but I wasn't going to with my YA query. I didn't think poetry credits would be relevant. But another of my CPs (Krista) has been telling me that including them shows agents that I have a history of working with editors (basically that I'm not a crazy or difficult to work with). What do you think?