A Query Letter Format: Part 2
Platform, platform, platform.
Last week we talked about the first parts of a query letter: salutation, manuscript basics, and book summary. Today, it’s all about Author Bio and Platform.
<dun Dun DUN!>
I know, platform strikes fear into the heart of writers everywhere. Hopefully this will make it less scary.
Part 4: Author Bio
The work matters. The book and the writing and the story matter. But more and more, the author matters, too. Don’t be disheartened if you feel your author bio is lacking. It’s not the only thing. It’s just one of the things.
For fiction writers:
If you’re writing a novel, here are some things that are helpful to see in an author bio: publication in journals, magazines, newspapers, websites reasonably related to your subject matter; relevant higher education (don’t mention anything high school or earlier, unless you were the youngest writer published in the New Yorker). Residencies, conferences, workshops. Professional development or mentorship. Previous book publications. For fiction, it’s a lot less fraught, I promise. These things are not mandatory—they’re just helpful.
Have you self-published? That’s ok. Mention it. It’s much more helpful to include sales figures, but not everyone wants to share that. It’s vital if you’re querying the book you self-published (a topic for another newsletter). Self-publishing is not the kiss of death some think it is. It’s also not the savior some think it is. But it counts. It’s a previous publication. It’s a real book.
What about social media if you’re a novelist? If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Do you have a sizable Twitter following (+5000)? Do you have a well-trafficked blog (+100k unique visitors a month)? Do you have a popular newsletter (+5000 subscribers)? (May I suggest the wonderful Substack?) Include these in your query, with numbers and links.
The thing is—the book can’t create your platform. It has to exist before the book comes out because that’s how you promote your book—to people who already know who you are. They are the easiest to reach. They are the most likely to buy your book. A publisher cannot create readers out of thin air. When was the last time you picked up a book at a store or library out of the blue or clicked a random link and bought a book? Right. You probably heard about it somewhere, someone told you about it, you saw it retweeted from someone you know. That’s the chain you want to be able to activate, that a publisher wants you to activate, to promote your book. (We’ll also talk about later how hard this is and how it’s not fair and how we all have jobs on top of our jobs and not enough time for effective social media. I know. You’re not the only one who feels this way.)
For non-fiction writers:
If you’re writing non-fiction, all of the above applies, except it’s mandatory. Non-fiction requires a platform, and often credentials. Those are not the same thing. A platform is how you can get in front of people who already know who you are. That can be social media, publications, speaking engagements, and more. Your credentials are what qualify you, in the reader’s mind, to write about what you’re writing about. That may be degrees and special letters behind your name, or that may be life experience. Again, think about the reader. If you’re at the store looking to buy a diet book, are you going to choose the one by the famous TV doctor, the works-at-big-name-hospital doctor, the fitness guru from all the magazines, or a person with no recognizable credentials whatsoever? You may have amazing things to say about diet and health, but the reader needs to trust and know you before they purchase the book.
Again, especially in non-fiction, the book can’t make the platform or credentials. That has to come first.
If you’re writing memoir, you’re kinda stuck in the middle of these two things. Your credentials are often your lived experiences. You don’t always need an established platform, when your story is remarkable enough. If your story is well trod ground in the world of memoir, then you’re going to need an established platform. You’ll know if it’s well trod ground because you’ll probably have already read all the other memoirs about your subject. If you haven’t, well, time to go to the library.
Here’s what to definitely not put in your author bio:
I’ve been writing since I was a little kid/five years old/I could hold a pen.
Me, too! It has no bearing on your current ability to write a book that will sell.
I was the editor of my high school newspaper/lit mag/etc/etc.
Me, too! It has nothing to do with your adult writing career. It does not prove you are more of a writer.
In my job, I’ve written 8,765 documents/briefs/blog posts.
Me, too! If it’s not related to the subject of your book, it it’s relevant to your query. It doesn’t, again, “prove” your worth or skill as a writer. Your book does that.
None of these things are automatic rejections. But they don’t help your case. It’s 100% ok for a first time novelist’s author bio to be: “This is my first novel. I’m a full-time accountant in Your Town, USA. In my spare time, I foster dogs and play cribbage.” Totally fine!! Everyone starts somewhere. (For non-fiction, as above, no relevant bio is harder.) You can even put a cute personal detail in there. It won’t necessarily help or hurt your changes, but one sentence is don’t going to doom your query. DO NOT apologize for your lack of bio. DO NOT. Self-deprecation has no place in a query. Would you say in a cover letter “Gee, I’m sorry I’m not more qualified for this job.” No, you wouldn’t.
Next week we’re going to get into comparable titles or X meets Y comparisons, agent personalization, submission guidelines, to attach or not to attach, closing your query, and other odds and ends. Whew! That’s a lot. Better tell all your friends to sign up so they won’t miss out.
And hey, if you’re a paid subscriber and you want me to answer a specific question in the (paid) newsletter, email me! (No pitching. No query review.)