2017 BIO Conference – Boston, MA

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Thanks to everyone who attended the Eighth Annual BIO Conference in Boston.

You can see the program from the conference below.



Beyond the Book Review

This panel explored the work most writers are now expected to do: to expose their books to readers through social media and beyond. Session moderator Lisa Napoli was joined by Andrew Richard Albanese, senior writer at Publishers Weekly; Rachel Cass, head buyer at the Harvard Bookstore; Marjorie Kehe, book editor for the Christian Science Monitor; and Taryn Roeder, a senior publicist at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Roeder said she begins planning a publicity campaign a year before a book is published, which includes determining who the audience is. Then, she said, “six months out, I’m really pitching to the media.” During the process, she looks for all the help authors can provide, such as writing op-eds or reviewing other books relevant to the subject.

Bringing in an outside publicist is not necessarily a good investment for authors, explained Roeder, but they should tell the house publicist, “I will support myself on a tour” and ask for help booking events. Roeder added that authors need to remember that “nobody in a publishing house doesn’t want the book to work” but that does not guarantee a book will be reviewed. Newspapers receive about 1,000 books every week and only review between 20 and 40. At the same time, fewer newspapers are reviewing books.

At Publishers Weekly (PW), Albanese said his publication’s 20 critics review about 9,000 titles in print and online annually. Even on the Internet, he said, it’s tough to get space for a review. At PW, Albanese said, they pay attention to social media campaigns for books not yet released, and he stressed the importance of authors building a following through a website and other social media. “The way [the public] comes to you is through the device in your pocket,” he said. And, he added, “Not only talk the story of your book but promote your book,” aiming to get advanced sales.

At the Harvard Book Store, Cass said, publishing sales reps start trying to create interest in a title about six months before its release. Factors that influence the store’s decision to buy include: whether the author is local; if there is an event, will it draw press; and whether or not the biography is a fresh take on a well-known person. The store does handle some self-published titles, limited to local authors. Cass said comments on Twitter and reviews also shape the store’s buying decisions.

The Harvard Book Store puts on 300 to 400 events each year. And so, Cass explained, “Obviously we care about book sales, so we are looking for local interest, press, also works on diversity.” Roeder added here that the number of potential sales is important in considering whether to hold an event. Cass then stated that it also pays off to “be a good citizen of your community,” by patronizing local bookstores, joining writers’ groups, and starting the word-of-mouth publicity about a book.

At the Christian Science Monitor, Kehe said her audience is well educated, global, interested in travel, and are tremendous book readers with a strong interest in biography. Kehe and the others agreed that there is a danger in “spoiler reviews” that give away too much. Cass added that this is true at book events in stores, as well. “Don’t give it all away,” he declared.

Moderator Napoli, who has been promoting her recent biography of Joan Kroc, added that local radio appearances are very helpful. When she was a producer for NPR, “a well-crafted personal email” always caught her attention. [JG]

Parallel Lives

While not a new technique, focusing on the lives of several subjects in one book has become increasingly popular. Moderator Kate Buford led a discussion on how to write about parallel lives with three authors who have recently used that approach: James McGrath Morris, author of The Ambulance Drivers, which explores the friendship of Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos; Alex Beam, who addressed a similar literary relationship between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson in The Feud; and Kate Bolick, who wrote about the lives of five women who influenced her own life, in Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own.

Bolick’s book is something of an outlier, as she became a character in it—she tried to look at the younger version of herself as a biographer would examine any subject. She wanted to uncover the forces shaping her during those times, relying in part on her own diaries. Bolick sought to see how her thoughts about the decision to marry or stay single were shaped at different times by the lives and writings of her five subjects: Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Edith Wharton. The five women did not have parallel lives, as far as interacting with each other. The connecting tissue is in how they influenced Bolick. She relied on detailed biographies of her subjects, but also read their writings and turned to “a different kind of primary source”—spending time where Wharton once lived. In one case, speaking with a biographer working on a book about one of her subjects also gave her useful insights.

Beam also relied on existing biographies to flesh out some details of his two characters’ lives, while focusing on their exchange of letters to show the nature of their relationship. Using the secondary sources, he said, can lead to something he called “dueling biographers syndrome,” when an author tries to sort out competing descriptions of a subject’s life. Morris also turned to other biographers, though his research with primary sources showed him where the earlier biographers made mistakes. For him, finding the papers of several of Hemingway’s previous biographers was a boon. Their notes sometimes revealed details that the biographers chose not to put in their books.

Both Beam and Morris were working with relationships in which one of the two authors clearly outshone the other in today’s literary marketplace: Nabokov for Beam and Hemingway for Morris. Interestingly, both came away feeling that these literary titans were the less-appealing characters, in relationship to their lesser-known friends. Morris said he fought to contain his bias against Hemingway, emphasizing that empathy is more important than liking a subject. “Hemingway is not a nice guy . . . but by the end of their journey, I could explain to you why the way he was, and it’s not his fault.” His lashing out at Dos Passos and others, Morris said, was rooted in deeper psychological sources than mere cruelty.

Beam, though, took some issue with this, suggesting the “moments of unfairness” in his book were one of its virtues and empathy “doesn’t have to be everyone’s tool.” By the end of his book, Beam said, he ended up “despising” Nabokov, who brutally turned against Wilson, who had helped him get established in the United States. Critics, though, disagreed on which subject Beam liked more. For Bolick, she liked all her subjects, which is why she chose to write about them, but Maeve Brennan and her writings on singlehood for women was the genesis of the project. In general, she said, she wanted her and her subjects to seem “as if we were all a little clique of friends.”

In looking at some of the useful strategies and techniques for successfully writing about parallel lives, Morris said biographers should avoid a “whiplash effect”—going back and forth between the two subjects in alternating chapters. That might be necessary to set the stage for the relationship the biographer is addressing, but it’s best to do it sparingly and then get into the subjects’ direct interaction. And doing just a slice of the related lives, as he and Beam did, is much easier to handle than a dual cradle-to-grave approach. Parallel lives biographies also give a new perspective to a relationship, since the author can explore it through the lens of both people involved. Beam said a biographer interested in writing about a fascinating but obscure subject might be better able to sell a book linking that character with someone who is better known.

Bolick, in response to a question from the audience, said she thought writing about the parallel lives of women was empowering, and authors today could rely on feminist scholars who did the “hard work” of writing the first biographies of important female subjects. That allows Bolick and others to draw on those resources while doing parallel lives biographies or “slice-of-life” books on those subjects. She said that during this current “public feminist movement,” a second wave of feminism, “there’s more of an appetite in the media for these kinds of books.”

Selling a book about a group of previously unknown subjects is easier, the panelists mostly agreed, when it places the group in the context of an important historical movement or current events. The example offered was Hidden Figures, which highlights the key role a group of black, female, mathematicians played during the early years of NASA. Kate Buford summed it up by explaining that a parallel lives biography should be able to answer the following question: “Why this book now . . . how did this subject transform his or her time?”

Biography and Style

With the unexpected absence of Patricia Bosworth, James McGrath Morris pinch hit for her and led a conversation with James Atlas on the elusive nature of style in biographical writing. Voice and tone play into it, Atlas said, though tone is “an indescribable quality.”

One of Atlas’s mentors while trying to develop his own style was the essayist and critic Dwight Macdonald, who reviewed drafts of Atlas’s biography of Delmore Schwartz. Macdonald was brutal in assessing Atlas’s academic approach to the subject, calling the prose “pretentious,” “cliché,” and “verbose,” while imploring Atlas to “leave the reader alone” and “spur your Pegasus to a livelier gait.” Macdonald called Atlas’s “academic tics” part of a “stylistic disease” and suggested he put more of himself into the writing.

Atlas said he also learned something about style while studying at Oxford with James Joyce biographer Richard Ellman. Open any page of the Joyce biography, Atlas said, and “you will find some kind of sly aside…or guarded, veiled insight about Joyce’s erratic behavior or some comic moment.” Ellman is nowhere in the narrative, yet those elements of his writing helped define a definite style.

Another part of style is choosing which details to include to illustrate a scene. Atlas talked about the impact of “painterly” writing, saying, “When we talk about style, we’re talking about how to achieve that…effect, of being the voice in your book that walks you through the story.” In part, Atlas said, “style is being yourself, just as you would be in a novel, or any other piece of writing.

Morris later picked up on the comparison to fiction, saying that he borrows stylistic devices from novels he reads—even Harlequin murder mysteries. That can mean ending a chapter with a cliffhanger, or repeating a few words within a quote for emphasis—something Morris said he picked up from Dickens. Some of his other suggestions for developing style included writing about what you want to read and having a trusted “true reader” go over the manuscript to help find sections that don’t work. And style, ultimately, must serve the story, not be a distraction.

Reflecting the “painterly” aspect of style, Morris sees the information gathered while researching a subject as “a tray holding paint.” The author’s task is to choose a little bit of the right colors from that palette at the right time, instead of hurling all the facts on the canvas. Using quotes in an effective way also shapes style. Morris said he tries to use them judiciously, to express an emotional tonality that he as the author can’t express himself.

Offering some closing thoughts on style, Atlas encouraged writers to read the books that inspired them, and find out what techniques those authors used that were so effective. He added that books should be engaging to read, even if the subject’s story is at times a sad one. Morris said, “As biographers, we’re better off stylistically if we get in touch with our emotional bones rather than our rational bones.”

Book Proposals

The literary agent, biographer, and founder of London’s Biographer’s Club, Andrew Lownie, offered insights into what biographers should put in a proposal to entice an agent, the pitfalls to avoid, and when it makes sense for an author to go directly to a publisher.

“The more you can give [in terms of chapters], the easier it is for the agent to decide if he/she will represent you,” explained Lownie. He repeated several times during the two-hour session that the first three chapters are the best ones to provide, for they give the agent a sense of a writers’ style, pace, storytelling talents, and how they weave plot and subplots through the work. “It’s all in the writing,” he said, but a proposal submission should also include chapter endnotes and pictures that will “bring whole things alive.” Lownie added, “Titles are huge—something that pricks up the ear, grabs them” and makes an agent want to represent the author.

To target an agent, Lownie said writers can consult several sources as a starting point. The website Publishers Marketplace, at $25 per month, offers an extensive listing of agents with email addresses and phone numbers. [https://www.publishersmarketplace.com/]. “It tells you what agents have been selling. See who they deal with. Knowledge is power.” He also said Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Kirkus provide useful information on what is going on in the industry. Concerning how to judge an agent, Lownie said, “Look at their website; the better the website the better the agents.” Then, writers need “a pecking order” of agents to query. Simple things, such as addressing the agent correctly, are important. Also helpful, is letting an agent know about a possible tie between the author’s work and one the agent has already sold.

Lownie said to be realistic for there will be rejections. “Just ignore them and move on,” he stated. “Don’t take it hard . . . it’s all very subjective” in how an agent or publisher decides to work with an author. “Sometimes,” he added, “they don’t think the project is commercial enough” and reject it. They also are looking to sell in more than one country.

Lownie said his agency handles 12 books a year and has about 200 authors. Regarding submissions, his agency tries to read everything the day they receive it. In general, a response to a proposal should come within three weeks. If sending to more than one agency, be upfront about that in the initial contact and identify to whom the submission was made. He also said it was better to do no more than three at a time. To build trust, he said, “If the book has been sent to publishers, tell me.” It’s also probably better to try agencies in the country in which the author lives.

Once writers land an agent, Lownie said, authors need to remember that although “we try to help you, we are not a social service; we want to sell books.” Lownie said his agency sometimes works with university and academic presses, but the profit margin is low. He encouraged authors to go directly to those presses. And, he warned, “Your interest and your publisher’s is not the same . . . and all contracts are not the same.”

Getting expert advice on contracts is important. Lownie said hiring a developmental editor is a good step, but buying “author services” can be costly and of little or no benefit. Also, writers should not pay to get reviews and, if self-publishing, “You should not pay for production.”

Lastly, Lownie explained, the process of getting a book to the marketplace takes about a year once it is in a major publisher’s hands. There are two seasons—July to Christmas, which often features many celebrity bios marketed as gifts, and then January to July. For authors starting out, the latter slot is a good place to be. In general, he said, writers need to get in front of people through social media and attending conferences. “You need to go where editors go.” [JG]

Slice of a Life

“Slice-of-life” biographies have become increasingly popular in recent years. In this session, moderator Will Swift drew out experiences and helpful suggestions from three biographers who have chosen to focus on a narrow part of their subjects’ lives. The participants were: the 2017 BIO Award-winner, Candice Millard, who has written three of these books, including her most recent, Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the making of Winston Churchill; Joseph Lelyveld, whose most recent book is titled His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt; and Patricia O’Toole, whose biographies include When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House.

For Millard, her first interest when approaching a new subject is to write about a topic that fascinates her—such as the birth of modern warfare in the Churchill book—by telling the slice-of-life story of someone connected to the theme. She said, “The story is the engine, and then you’ve got these train cars you can load up with all the other stuff you want to talk about, and people will stick with you if you have a great story.”

Asked how to bring a fresh eye to a subject who has been written about many times before, Lelyveld said slice-of-life biographers should focus more on a specific question about their subjects that they want to answer, rather than worrying about covering old ground. With his FDR book, for instance, he was interested in discovering Roosevelt’s thinking “about his own mortality, and his health, at the end of his life.” When Lelyveld couldn’t find archival information on that, he turned to the political aspects of the president’s final days and “the way he did think about all issues.” Lelyveld also tried to look at other things going on around Roosevelt that were “preoccupations” of his, to understand how he related to them—an approach that helped Lelyveld organize the narrative.

O’Toole said one tactic she used, when writing about Theodore Roosevelt, a subject who had been written about many times before, was to look at the correspondence between people who knew TR and wrote about him in their letters. Those letters contained insights not revealed in letters written to Roosevelt. She said it might not be a useful technique for all subjects, but it can be helpful with famous ones. For Millard, one key to a good slice-of-life work is to examine the periods in the subjects’ lives before or after they became famous.

To bring a character to life, said O’Toole, the key is to choose interesting incidents that advance the story or reveal a new dimension of the subject’s character. Millard said that part of that process for her is to be drowning in primary source material before she begins to write. “You have to have that to have all the little details,” she explained, and for the dialogue that will result in the engrossing story she wants to tell. Her process involves doing several years of research, then extensive outlining, before returning to the research to fill in the gaps.

Swift asked the panelists how to integrate other parts of the subjects’ lives into the slice they are trying to illuminate. One thing Lelyveld did was to look at how some of FDR’s past experiences shaped his response to later events. One example: Lelyveld looked back to Roosevelt’s government service during World War I, and his perceptions of Woodrow Wilson as a wartime president, to see how they shaped Roosevelt’s approach to addressing his own challenges as a wartime president. For Millard, when writing about Theodore Roosevelt, she needed to provide some context of why he ended up where her story finds him: in the Amazon rain forest, struggling to stay alive. And for O’Toole, she said her goal was to use the slice “to illuminate the whole,” and one day in the life can be a doorway to that illumination. In her TR book, she also wanted to look at him through the lens of a theme. It took her three years to come up with one: the idea that his term in office led to several enlargements—of the presidency, his character, and the role of the United States in the world.

The Challenges of Writing About the Unknown

Publishers don’t often jump at books about relatively obscure figures, and finding enough material on them can be challenging for a biographer. This panel, moderated by Sonja D. Williams, looked at why it still can be rewarding to write about the “unknown” subject.

For Pamela Newkirk, the impetus for writing Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga came from her being intrigued “by the notion that a white African explorer forged a friendship with an African . . . who ended up in a zoo” exhibited with chimpanzees. Despite her interest, she faced a major obstacle—the lack of primary source material related to her subject, beside one, single, direct quote in a newspaper account: “Me no like America.” The Bronx Zoo, where Ota Benga was kept, denied that he had ever been exhibited, yet Newkirk found written accounts of this from other sources, including the New York Times. A key find was anthropological field notes describing him in the Congo with other pygmies. There were also letters to Ota Benga in his native language that she drew upon.

Marlene Trestman, author of Fair Labor Lawyer: The Remarkable Life of New Deal Attorney and Supreme Court Advocate Bessie Margolin, said that before tackling an unknown subject, “You have to convince yourself you have a story that others would want to read.” Trestman had not intended to write Margolin’s biography herself, but had tried and failed to entice others to tackle the subject. “Sometimes,” she said, “you’re the only one left.” Trestman, who shared some traits with her subject—both were Jewish orphans living in New Orleans who later became lawyers—said, “My goal was to write her back into history.” She added that it takes perseverance to research, write, and find a publisher for a project like hers; she spent 11 years on the book.

Quincy Whitney said her book, American Luthier: Carleen Hutchins—the Art and Science of the Violin, came about after she pinned down Hutchins for a newspaper interview. In the end, Hutchins asked Whitney to be her biographer. As time went on, Whitney found her subject “a very private person” who drew a line between her public life as a violin maker and expert on acoustics and her inner life. But Hutchins’s husband was helpful in providing useful background information.

As to publicizing books about unknown subjects, Newkirk said, “Some of it is serendipity.” She already had an agent and this was her fourth book. Her 5,000-word piece on Ota Benga in the Guardian went viral, spurring interest and sales. Whitney, on the other hand, said she had a ripple effect from things she did and wrote, which spread word about her book. While Trestman said it was networking that paid off for her. “You do have to do it yourself,” Newkirk agreed. She talked her way into being the speaker at important events, calling on better-known friends to join her in discussing the work, in order to attract larger audiences. [JG]