3/13/14 THE SCARY AUTHOR PHOTO
Confession: that little thumbnail photo of me up in the left-hand corner of my posts is over ten years old. It was taken right before my first book was published, although it never ventured much farther than my publisher’s website. I am famously photo-phobic. I didn’t even want to be in my own wedding pictures. But even I know that a ten-year-old picture is pushing the boundaries of both usefulness and credibility. Do I still look like that? Sure, if you squint or stand real far away.
Do you choose the books you buy because you like the way the author looks on the cover? The publishing industry thinks you do. And there’s more: the author photo, once considered optional, has now become an integral part of marketing a book. Unfortunately, how attractive the author is makes a difference. In our cluttered, noisy marketplace, being mediagenic matters more than ever. The better the photo, the more likely an author is to acquire media bookings and reviews, thus receiving more golden opportunities to spread the word about her book and help propel it into readers’ hands. I’ve used the feminine pronoun on purpose, by the way, since this mediagenic challenge applies more to women than men. (That last sentence deserves its own blog post, but this isn’t it.)
So, with that in mind, here’s a stress-free guide for the author trying to snap that all-important, don’t-blow-it cover shot:
1. Look as attractive as you possibly can, but enough like yourself that people who meet you in person won’t think you hired someone from Central Casting to pose for your photo;
2. Try to pose naturally, taking care to avoid the following postures: the hand-to-face (guilty!), the chin-in-hand, the casual nature shot (points deducted if you include a dog), the working-hard-at-my-writing picture, and the super-chillin’ seated-with-arm-draped-across-furniture look. Pay no attention to the fact that once you’ve eliminated these poses, there are no more poses left to try;
3. Let the portrait reflect what you write. The mystery or thriller author might strive to look slightly mysterious, the romance writer should throw in a little glamour, the non-fiction writer should aim to look as if he/she is credible enough in the field to have a handle on the topic. Try not to get anxious when you remember that if you write more than one genre, you may need more than one author photo;
4. Totally forget about the fact that this portrait can deep-six your publicity campaign and may even inspire potential buyers to quickly slam your book — photo side down – back onto the shelf;
5. Remember this: although it’s true that a book with a visually appealing cover will sell more copies than one with something drab and dismal plastered across its front, there has been no definitive research done on whether an author photo actually helps sell books.
It could be worse. Back in 1623, a publisher of Shakespeare’s First Folio commissioned an engraved portrait of the author to be placed on the title page of the book. The picture, meant to establish Shakespeare as the author of what was a fairly expensive book (again with the marketing!), has inspired joking ridicule throughout history, including comments that Shakespeare has “lopsided hair,” a head too big for his body, and a “pudding face.” How could the author let such a cringe-worthy portrait slip by? Easy: at the time both image and book were published, Shakespeare had been dead for seven years. He had absolutely no control over the portrait his publisher chose.
Even if living authors have little say over their cover art, they at least have some sway over which photo is chosen for the book cover. We can still kibosh the likeness with the weird ears or the one that makes a driver’s license look like a work of art.
I will be grateful for that. I will be hopeful. I will not forget to smile.