Is the Author Bio the New Blurb?

When the news broke this week that JK Rowling had secretly published a "quiet" crime novel under the pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, everyone had something to say about it. Especially me.

Some believed JK Rowling wanted to try her hand at something without the huge burden of expectations that comes from being one of history's most financially successful authors.  Some thought the "discovery" of her alter-ego to be too convenient, as, predictably, the book's sales shot through the roof after the revelation. Some felt deceived that they had read/purchased/critiqued something without realizing who really wrote it.

I have every confidence that Rowling truly wanted to make a fresh start. There's no way she can ever publish anything under her name without having it compared to Harry Potter. There just isn't. Her publisher, on the other hand, may not have been as altruistic. My issue isn't with the pseudonym or keeping that a secret. It's with the falsified biography.

Here is what was published as the biography to accompany the pseudonym:

Born in 1968, Robert Galbraith is married with two sons. After several years with the Royal Military Police, he was attached to the SIB (Special Investigation Branch), the plain-clothes branch of the RMP. He left the military in 2003 and has been working since then in the civilian security industry. The idea for protagonist Cormoran Strike grew directly out of his own experiences and those of his military friends who have returned to the civilian world. 'Robert Galbraith' is a pseudonym.

I admit, I was a little dismayed to see many authors I respected were not only of the opinion that fake biographies were okay and "business as usual," but that reader concern about their authenticity was misplaced and something to be made fun of. Oh, those silly readers with their expectations of respect and trust...

This isn't about the fake name or the gender switch. For me, it's entirely about Rowling claiming to  have skills and expertise she clearly did not.

Here's why I think Rowling made an error in judgement when she decided to craft (or allow her publisher to craft) this entirely fake persona.

  • Claiming experience you don't have misleads readers/buyers.
  • I, as a reader, place a differing level of trust on books based upon that expertise.
  • Claiming to be a cop, with specific previous assignments, takes this offense further, because cops (and EMTs, doctors, nurses, firefighters, or members of the military) are people who do difficult/dangerous jobs, are our "first responders," and information shared as this persona may be taken as "fact" by someone reading the book and misapplied.
  • In the US, it is a criminal act to impersonate a police officer. Granted, she's not donning a uniform, flashing a badge, or false imprisoning anyone, but she is using that status to assume the authority and level of trust granted to someone in law enforcement. 
To me, this isn't about the money. If she wanted money, she would have released the book under her own name, or added a "writing as" thing to the cover. And as JK Rowling, she absolutely could have demanded it. I think it's about wanting to write free of expectations and wanting to get respect from the book world for something other than children's lit.  There's nothing whatsoever wrong with that. But she could have done both without crafting this elaborate, and false, biography that trades on experience she doesn't possess.

So what this brings me around to is...what does a biography give you as an author? What is its purpose? Are fake personas (rather than simply fake names or switching genders) the norm? Am I that naive? And what about all of those thriller/crime authors who are really who they claimed to be? Shouldn't they be upset that someone is claiming that same level of experience without paying her dues? Or that as a result, readers are going to be very skeptical going forward, of anyone who claims to tell an authentic story because of their occupational insight? Because right now, I'm wondering if Barry Eisler has the credentials he professes to have. Or if Tess Gerritson was ever a physician and Kathy Reichs a forensic anthropologist...

And if the author bio has all of the veracity of a fellow-author blurb, why bother, really?


  1. Liz just tweeted this post as I was exiting out. I will admit that the fake bio threw me for a loop. I don't think or hope that's the standard. I thought maybe crafting a bio that hinted that this was a known name bestselling author writing under a pen name would have been suffice. I guess it wasn't and I thought it was inappropriate and poorly done because you are correct. I assume that the biography shared on the back of the book and on the author's website is accurate and true. Now I don't know what to think. I haven't seen the "business as usual" folks around but it just goes to show yet again the great divide between readers and writers on issues such as these. Thanks Amber.

    1. I'm glad it's not just me. I've been in the book business a long time, and I've never had the impression that fake work histories were accepted practice.

      Honestly, I feel a bit sick that some authors feel this is commonplace and no big deal. The only reason to include work experience is to raise the level of trust between the author and the reader. "Trust me," it says, "to get the details right, because I know this world."

      And if that is completely false, where does that leave us?

  2. And I tweeted it because I completely agree. I saw a lot of people saying "I'd never buy a book based on the author bio." Well, I wouldn't buy it based just on that either, but of course the authenticity it appears to lend to the author's fiction might sway some readers. If it didn't, why would this fake bio ever have been written. I mean, it claims flat out that the fiction was inspired by/informed by the author's real life experience. (Obviously, by itself, it did not make the book a best-seller.)

    I guess from now on I will just assume that EVERY ELEMENT on a book cover is a marketing tool. Would authors and readers be going around saying "no big deal" if this were a work of non-fiction, where the author's expertise is meant to be assurance of the book's worth? How is this different? When I pick up a work of fiction, I don't assume that therefore the author him/herself is a fictional construct. Unless it's, you know, Lemony Snickett.

    1. I feel a bit betrayed. I know that's an exaggerated response, but I've been in the book industry a long time, both as a bookseller and as a reader. I've never had an inkling that full fake personas created solely to trick the reader into believing in the book were okay.

      What other reason, other than to falsely convey accuracy and trust, is there to put that kind of information into a biography when it isn't true?

  3. Nicely said, Amber, and I couldn't agree more. I feel as if we readers are manipulated often enough. We don't need this too.

    1. I agree. There's so much manipulation. I'm feeling a bit more charitable to the FTC right now. The disclosure thing seemed onerous when first proposed, but I wonder if this kind of deception isn't even worse.