Man, I hate getting photos taken. I never seem to look like myself, or at least the self I see in the mirror. But it’s not that important, because if photos are being taken, it usually means something fun is happening like holidays or a party, so who cares how you look, right? Not so when it comes to the all-important author photo. On the torture scale, it’s right up there with writing a blurb. You’re trying to condense everything you ever wanted to say about yourself as an author into one awkward shot and the results inevitably fall short of the goal.
Luckily, when it comes to self-publishing and eBooks, there’s no real need for an author photo because there is no dust jacket. So it begs the question, do readers really care what the author looks like? Publishing companies and agents have always considered author photos an important marketing tool for selling books and we always hear how the readers aren’t just buying your book, they’re buying into you as a writer. Personally, I would have to say that an author’s image is really unimportant to me as a reader. I’m currently reading Wonder by RJ Palacio and I have no clue what she looks like. I didn’t even know if the author was male or female when I bought the book. So it really doesn’t make a difference to me if she is young or old, black or white, serious and intelligent or fun and intelligent. I’m loving the book, so as far as I am concerned, her work is done!
I had this discussion with my sister and she said she actually found it off-putting to have an author’s photo on the back of a fiction book – that it somehow breaks the spell, or that magical contract between writer and reader that doesn’t concern itself with reality. I have also found this to be true, depending on my perception of the author photo. If I feel I can identify with the author and the photo fits the style of writing, I feel an even greater connection to the work. But if the photo is ridiculously staged and contrived, it can be a bit of a turn off.
For example, when I bought Kate Morton’s ‘The House At Riverton’, I flicked to the back cover and saw a pleasant photograph of a woman sitting happily on the ground in a stable of some sort. To me, the image said “This is me, no fuss, just down to earth.” Literally!
Maybe it’s the duck-egg blue paint peeling off the distressed wood, her casual outfit or her warm smile, but I instantly felt comfortable with this author. There was no black and white artsy stuff, or that patronizing ‘high brow’ stance with the hand contemplatively touching the chin (you know the one). It just feels natural.
However, when I began reading Jojo Moyes’ ‘Me Before You’ and saw the following image on the cover, my response was completely different.
Confusion reigns on this one – I mean what is she doing in the middle of a field, propped up on an old land rover with a type-writer on her lap? Barefoot?? It makes absolutely no sense. Maybe for a magazine shoot (maybe!) but for a book, this seems ridiculous to me and over the top. I can understand the desire to get the author’s personality across to the reader, but this just comes across as smug and it actually made me wish I hadn’t seen the photo before reading the book. I see that Ms (Miss, Mrs?) Moyes has another photo on her Twitter page, which gives a remarkably similar feel to that of Missus Morton and I have to say, I much prefer it. It’s warm, it’s easy and it’s almost as if we’ve caught her in the middle of an autumnal stroll in the countryside. Simples.
But then again, it’s easy to critique other authors’ photos, and my interpretation is of course completely subjective. Someone else might be wholly enamoured by the vision of an author straddling a clapped-out jeep and find these ‘smiling in the barn’ photos twee. It’s impossible to gauge how readers will react to the image, no matter how hard they try to be all things to all readers. And let’s face it, these famous authors have had help – expensive help, like professional photographers and hair and make-up people. So what chance do us self-published authors have? Is it just a matter of taking a rather grainy selfie and sticking that up on our social media platform, or should we consider taking the whole author photograph thing more seriously?
If you’ve done any kind of marketing for your book, you will undoubtedly have been asked for your author photo, so it’s something we’ll all have to do at some point. I decided to have my photo taken in my garden with very little preparation on my part or the photographer’s. It went a bit like this:
Me: “Oh listen, can you take my author photo?”
Me: “Great, it won’t take a minute!”
Followed by an hour of terse remarks like, ‘What are you doing with your mouth?’ ‘You look like you need the loo!’ I thought I was smirking, as opposed to outright smiling, suggesting that I’m a content writer, but also deep and thoughtful. In the end, we just started talking about why I write and what I enjoy about it and we finally got our shot. It’s not exactly perfect, but I wanted an authentic image and I think we achieved that.
I think the main thing is to avoid selfies or cutting and pasting yourself out of a wedding photo (especially if you were the bride!). Whether readers care what we look like or not, I suppose it is like a business card in a way and so it deserves a little bit of consideration.
As self-publishers, we’re used to thinking independently and creating our own rules and Mel Sherratt is a prime example of this when it comes to her author photo. Traditionally, crime writers have to look mean and moody to suit their genre, but not Mel. She just looks so damn happy to be a successful author with a large and loyal readership, who wouldn’t want to buy her book?!
At the end of the day, I think it’s important to be yourself and satisfy your own needs, without trying to guess what people want. (A good motto for life there, methinks.)
You can get my books here.