Wednesday, August 29, 2007

On How to Be Lovely

"I love your funny face...." Fred Astaire

RO: Someone is standing in a bookstore. She's holding your book in her hot little hands, reading the flap copy. She smiles, good! She likes it, or at least something in the description has struck a chord. Then she turns to the inside back cover, reads for a minute and puts the book back on the shelf. Agony. What the hell happened?

Okay, does this scene really take place in bookstores and malls all over the country? Can it? Do readers make buying decisions based on a bio and/or a picture of the author? Did you ever buy a book based on either of those things?

JAN: Yikes, I don't think I've ever bought or not bought a book based on the author bio, or worse, what the author looked like in his/her photo, but I don't know, I suppose I could have been influenced without realizing it. Especially if the person had a really bad haircut. I'm kidding. Everyone knows bad haircuts make you look literary.
Anyway, I expect it's the back cover that influences most decisions -- the price of the book. But I suppose I could be turned off by a truly pretentious or overly poltical bio. Or if, say, the book was about how to nurse an infant, and I flipped open the back page to see the author was a man and perhaps not the expert I wanted in this field.
But I don't know, this is stuff I can't worry about. The real reason people don't buy your book, I suspect, is that they've never heard of you. Sigh....And that's what I worry about...

HANK: Confession. I ALWAYS look for the photo. If there isn't one, I wonder why. If the photo is poor quality, I wonder why. I'm not only interested in what the author looks like, although that's intriguing, but I'm fascinated by why they chose the photo they chose. I always envisioned my author photo (and ok, we'll skip the rest of the discussion on that phrase. I have also envisioned the dress I'll wear on the red carpet at the Oscars, it's just something some people do...)

But anyway, I'd always envisioned my author photo in a chunky black turtleneck and maybe pearls. With an expression like: Oh, yeah, this is great and I love my book and I'm pretty happy and confident but not TOO happy and confident, just in a realistic enough way that the potential reader knows I'm a good person and pretty serious but not TOO serious. And that the photo is probably pretty much what I actually look like. In good lighting. Then the person who took my photo said if I wore a black turtleneck, I'd look like a floating head. So much for that idea.
I actually saved a photo of one author--which, of course, I tossed last week in my latest "Some of this stuff has got to go" cleanup and now I forget who it was---and she had the look down perfectly. She was sitting on a stairway, inside what you had to imagine was her cozy house, and she has her wrists resting on her knees, back leaning against the wall. Just casual, in jeans. Like she was just sitting there, and someone said, you look nice, let me take a photo. In reality, there were probably a zillion lights, but it didn't look staged at all. (I shouldn't have tossed the photo.)
And looking through some books, Suzanne Brockmann has a photo somewhat like that. And her's looks great, too. I'm definitely going to swipe the idea.
Now: Cornelia Read? That's a terrific author photo. MJ Rose, love it. Lee Child. You know the good ones when you see em. Who do you think has an especially effective one? (And anyone you wish you could tell--hey, get a new one)
(Not that this is that important. We know. It's about the writing.)
Do I buy the books--or not--because of cover photos and bios? Um, I don't think so...

RO: I think the Lee Child photo is a hoot. He's definitely an attractive guy, but don't you think he was having a little fun with that collar thing? The photographers shot about 800 pix for my jacket, and I think if they'd just taken a few more...
(Hank: Yeah, I think the collar thing would be--off--if he weren't such a fabulous writer. But there's another photo, the one on Bad Luck and Trouble, that's the one I was talking about.)

HALLIE: I do look at author photos. Sometimes just to find out if the androgynously named author is a he or a she. And I do get turned off. First by an obviously amateurish photo - if you're an author, you should invest in a professional quality photo because it's your professional face to the world. I also get turned off by too much glitz. I warm to a photo of someone who looks like a PERSON not a movie star. And it's great when the photo has got something cool about it that echoes what the book is about. My sister Nora's jacket photo is brilliant for I FEEL BAD ABOUT MY NECK...she's peering out over the collar of a black turtleneck that's pulled up to her nose.

RO: Love that picture, too...and the book. I'm worried about my neck. We could always go the JT Leroy route....mmm, maybe not. Know who that is in the picture? Any guesses?? Hint, it's not JT Leroy.

PS Oddly enough, I saw Lee Child walking down the street yesterday after I wrote this; I almost ran over and asked him about the collar thing.


  1. Imagine having an author photo taken by Marion Ettlinger? She's a genius. Of course I'd need to be an author first...

    I ALWAYS look at the author photo,I'm naturally curious-- okay, nosy. Some are a huge disappointment and some are timeless. My personal favorite is Alice Sebold's and all of yours, naturally.


  2. Amy--how wonderful. I just went to her website--and wow. You're so right. Although scary--it would be like having your author photo taken by Walker Evans. Or Margaret Bourke-White.

    When I worked at Rolling Stone, I did a big project with Richard Avedon. He was incredible, as you cam imagine. Debonair and witty, charming. And of course, so talented. He took our photo in front of the CIA building. I spent about an hour in the bathroom, slathering on make-up, getting ready. I was going for glam.

    In the photo, however, I look like a--well, some sort of 60's revolutionary.

    And as for your hilarious aside of "of course, I'd need to be an author first"..puh-leeze. WHen your book hits the best seller lists, we'll all point to this posting and remind you.

  3. I don't really pay any attention to the author photos, although if someone looked a little too much like a Century 21 realtor it would probably turn me off -- but not enough to make me put down the book. Only one author's photos have ever mesmerized me -- Michael Chabon -- beautiful prose, beautiful man!

  4. I suspect the question of a cover photo is like everything else: Will it help to sell the book? If there's no picture, I figure it's a newish author without a big following yet and average appearance (or no initiative to have a great photo taken on his or her own nickel). People like photos of interesting or attractive faces--not the same thing--and those can help pique interest in a book. If an author has a following, her fans want to know what she looks like but will buy the book anyway. And if the author is really big, she can have the whole back cover and Annie Liebovitz at the publisher's expense.

    It's interesting to see the evolution in cover photos of long-time top selling authors. Compare the perky blonde rabbit-teeth photos of vintage Nora Roberts with the sleek leather and guns look of a new J.D. Robb. And yet Mary Higgins Clark always looks like herself no matter how they dress her up.

    Bottom line: I think a great photo can get any author some more exposure and browser sales, while a bad photo can hurt a lesser known author. I don't think the photo has to be studio quality, just an interesting depiction of the author.


  5. Here's my new policy: I'm not buying any books unless the author in the photo has more crows feet than I do -- or s/he is a delightful blogger :)

  6. Hi, Guys,

    I remember one conference that I attended at Clark University. We were all waiting for the guest of honor to appear. We had bought his book and thought we'd recognise him from his photo. The only thing was, the photo was at least twenty years old. His hair had turned salt and pepper and he'd gained quite a bit of weight. Just when we thought he was a no-show, he finally introduced himself. I vowed then and there to update my photo every few years.

    Great blog you've got going here!


  7. You're so right, Ruth. (And welcome! Thanks for the kind words!)The old compared-to-reality situation. It would be so tempting to get out the old air brush and erase some wear and worry, and come out with a glam new self.

    Then, you show up at a signing or something, and instead of peole saying "so nice to meet you" and "I'll take two" they're buzzing about whether you used a stand-in for your photo. And so much for credibility.

    I have a really great picture of me from about ten years ago. The lighting is just right and I look tough but savvy. I had a moment, or two, of trying to convince myself I could use it for my cover. I could expalin away the discrepancy, I told myself, by pointing out that my hair was different.

    Right. Although it was really me. Just not any time recently.

    I didn't do it. But at least now I'll pass Lisa's "more crows feet" test.

    And yeah, Mo, the evolution is fun to watch.

  8. Hi Ruth, welcome to the blog!

    On my first novel, Final Copy, I was posed sitting on an old fashioned wing chair. At least two librarians told me I looked OLDER than I was in real life -- but it wasn't the photo of me, so much as the wing chair. Once when I was at the Springfield Fair selling books, the publisher had a huge blowup of the photo at the booth and when I told people I was the author, they'd look from the photo to me and tell me that I was wrong. For the next book, I got a new photo!

  9. Hank, I've seen you on the news lots of time and I'm not convinced you have enough wrinkles to qualify for Lisa's crow's feet test.

    Next time I have to have an author photo taken I'm using a stand-in--someone who looks like Angelina Jolie maybe.

  10. Darlene--I LOVE the author stand- in idea. I think it's a gold mine.
    Listen to this. We make it--cool--that you have someone other than yourself as your author photo. It doesn't even have to be a real person.

    I could pick maybe--a drawing of Brenda Starr. Nancy Drew. A photo of Candice Bergen as Murphy Brown. So it becomes about theme and attitude.

    And then, it's--cool--that the author is anonymous. So then when we go, um, pick up our awards, people say--oh, thats what she looks like. And it becomes kind of a neat secret. A mystery solved.


    And Darlene, two more things. One: Write back and give everyone the address for your wonderful blog.

    And two: thanks for the no crows feet assessment. I have just three words for you: lighting lighting lighting.