Goodreads: The Art and Science of a Good Author Bio and Photograph


I’ll be honest.  From my own perspective as an author, Goodreads gives me a headache. It’s like an elephant. A giant, messy elephant. A giant, messy elephant lumbering through a fantastically confusing hedge maze and no matter what I do or what I try, I just can’t get around the elephant. In the beginning, I tried everything to make friends with it, but it’s not the friendliest sort.  I tried to go over it, but that didn’t work. Tried to slip past it, but realized that that was a mistake. Without the elephant, it would be so much harder to accomplish my Public Relations and Marketing goals. So then I decided to start trying to figure out how to ride that elephant. I climbed up onto his back, grabbed him by the ears and shouted, “Yee-haw!” as I kicked him in the ribs. He didn’t budge. So, never one to quit, I decided that I’d had enough and I was just going to eat him. And what does everybody say is the best way to eat an elephant? Yep, that’s right. Bite by bite.

So the first bite is going to be your author page. It’s the absolute first step in devouring the Goodreads elephant. And once you have your name and book title approved and you get that glorious “Goodreads Author” in the corner of your page, what do you do then? If your answer it, “SELL MY BOOKS!” then slow down! You might not think it, but even before you start marketing your book on Goodreads, you’re going to want to make sure that you have a solid, professional author bio. Why? Well, think back to your branding. You are not a person, per se, anymore, but you now have become a company trying to convince people to buy a product. You are the source from which those products come. Your books are your products, and people who consume products want to know where they originate. Are they quality? How long has the company been in business? Do likeminded people enjoy the merchandise?  I mean, it’s all in the research. You don’t want to buy your ice cream from a factory where they also fill bags of potting soil, right?

It’s easy for us writers to think, and even believe, that our work will speak for itself. And maybe it does, but that doesn’t mean people don’t want to know where the inspiration for it came from. Unless you have shelled out a couple thousand dollars and hired a Public Relations expert, it’s your job to give your customers the information (and the face) you want to represent you. And this is done with the dreaded author biography.

In publishing, the reality is that you need several author bios, depending on the venue in which you’re appearing. You need a 50, 100, 200 and 500 one in a file somewhere, all waiting to be copy/pasted on demand to suit the needs of your publisher.  The beauty of Goodreads is that your bio can be absolutely as short or long as you like. It can also be written any way you like, which gives you the flexibility and option of really connecting with your readers on a personal level and giving them a true glimpse of who you are.

In traditional publishing, author bios are written in third person, in sterile tones, and touch on specific subjects: a) your book title(s), b) your expertise and experience in your field, c) major awards and/or press coverage and d) some small, personal blurb set to prove that you are, indeed, a human being and not a Cylon.  But social media changed all of that. It gave authors the ability to speak directly to their readers and connect on an emotional level, even to be funny and adorable, and, in turn, it gave readers the instant gratification of getting to know the source from which their reading pleasure comes. Now, certainly, an author can stick with the ancient method of a third person biography on social media, and there is nothing wrong with that, but we’re talking about Goodreads. It is, after all, a site that is designed for authors and readers to meet and discover each other. It’s about people as much as the books, so a more personal approach works extremely well for anybody who wishes to use one.

Let me show you the difference. My first example will be a very professional, old school, third person author bio, well suited for a non-fiction author:

“Joe Schmo is a leading authority on mowing sidewalks, including the use of both electric, power and hand mowers. He’s the author of several award winning novels, including, “The Truth About Concrete and Your Blades” (2010, Doofus Publishing) and, “Mowing For Pleasure: Who Says A Man Needs Grass?”(2012, Idiot Press). He is a regular speaker and is endorsed by John Deere. Joe spends six months out of the year speaking at seminars across the United States and Canada, sharing his knowledge of concrete mowing techniques.  His work has created a revolution in the sidewalk mowing industry.

Joe maintains an instructional video blog, which you can watch by clicking the following link:

See? That’s a pretty good bio, really. It’s short, to the point, shows you exactly what Joe is all about and you know he’s a total winner and expert.

Here’s a more personal one:

“Hi. I’m Joe. I’m an author, professional speaker, and die hard sidewalk mowing fanatic. I was born in the prairie lands of Kansas, the first of four sons, and I absolutely loved the life we had there. While most boys my age were off playing baseball, as a child what I most enjoyed was yard work. Then, at the tender age of eleven, when my father took a job with a new company, my family left our beloved homestead and moved to Arizona, where there was no grass. It was there that I was forced to re-invent my passion for up-keeping a lawn and I took on sidewalk mowing.  I always dreamed that one day people would catch on and it would become all the rage. I am thrilled and tickled pink that today, it has.

I self-published my first book, “Look Who’s Laughing Now” in 2009, to dismal sales, but it eventually landed in the hands of the vice president of John Deere Corporation, who insisted that his entire staff read it. That was where my humble beginnings come from and now, I am a mega star in the field, as well as a published author of five best selling books on Sidewalk Mowing.

I would like to thank each and every one of you who has come along on this dream of mine and who shares the passion I have for the sound of metal grinding against concrete. It is a fabulous world and I am so happy and proud to share it with you all.”

So, you see the difference? It’s all in how you want to approach your public. Joe could hide behind the façade of being a stuffy professional, and that would be just fine, or he could come out with open arms and embrace his adoring public. It all comes down to branding and the message that you wish to send out to your public and whether or not you want to keep them at arm’s length. Neither is right or wrong, it’s just a matter of how you want to come across.

It can be difficult to write your own bio and build yourself up. It can seem egotistical when the truth is that you’re really insecure. But you’ve written a book. You’ve done something that not everybody who wants to has had the courage and fortitude to do. You really have accomplished something big. So you have every right in the world to tell people. Plus, believe it or not, people want to hear it.

What you do NOT want to do in your bio is to make it about your book. Mention the book, certainly. Add links after your presentation, absolutely! But, remember, on Goodreads, you have both an AUTHOR page and BOOK page. Don’t make them both the same, that’s just wasted branding.

Now, onto the next bite of the elephant. Equally important to your author bio will be your author photograph. What the heck do you need one for? That’s a simple answer. So your readers can get to know you. Why? Remember your brand. You’re not just a person now, but you’re a product just like your books. Did you ever not really pay attention to a music artist or movie star until you read an article about them? That’s branding. It’s also classic public relations. If you don’t at least show people a little of who you are, they won’t be interested and they certainly won’t love you. So, you may not have movie star looks. So you may not like the way your front tooth is a little crooked. So what? It’s you. Remember what I said before, you wrote a book. You published it. You are somebody now, so be proud to show that mug off! There are plenty of successful people who needed braces at twelve and never got them or who put on a little weight over the years. So what? It’s all you. It’s all good.

Again, traditional published dictates that an author has three good shots, usually for a press kit or a speaking engagement. Those include a close up (head shot), a shot of you from the chest up, and a full body shot. Goodreads allows you to post a profile picture, but then you can add more if you so choose. Do it. Get a good shot and pop it on there, but then add a few more. This is where you can put pictures of you and Fluffy, or you, the kids and your significant other on last winter’s ski trip. Give people a little glimpse into the real life and world of the author. Show them who you are. Embrace yourself and allow yourself to be embraced.

Now, the profile shot you have on your author page doesn’t have to be handsome, but it has to be appealing. The best advice I can give you is to try not to look like a serial killer or a psychopath. Don’t take it in a wife beater or your husband’s white t-shirt. Wear something kind of nice, it doesn’t have to be a suit or a gown, maybe a sweater or a shirt with buttons. Take the bandanna off your head and the pony tail out. Comb your hair. Look professional, but not like you have a tree up your butt, and, no matter what, look approachable, even if you are a little bald or sort of have crazy eyes. Put a little joy in the moment. Be enthusiastic. This is your AUTHOR PAGE! This is your moment to shine! This is YOUR spotlight! You earned that! Allow your author page to reflect all your excitement and pride. It’s OK to do that nowadays, especially on Goodreads. I promise.

Oh! And don’t put your book cover as your profile picture. Why not? Because, you are not your book and, as I said above, you are going to have a book page, too. More than one, perhaps. I know you want to sell your books more than you want people to admire your lovely smile, but that’s not what your author page is about. It’s about YOU. Use it as an opportunity to brand yourself. Remember, since they all stem from you, you’re equally as important as the stories you write.

This should be enough to get you started on perfecting your Goodreads author page. I will never pretend that Goodreads is simple, because it’s not. The site has all kinds of this and that stuffed all over every inch of every page. I’ll cover those in upcoming blogs. In the meanwhile, take the first couple of bites out of your elephant by perfecting how you display your image (aka your brand) on your author page. If you can let go and allow yourself to shine, you’ll endear yourself to your public. And that, my friends, is at least a quarter of the elephant all gobbled up right there.