I have some books coming out soon. Someone suggested I needed a new photograph for the place on the back cover where an author’s photo appears. I’d rather stick with photographs from an earlier day. But that is a mistake. We all age and the entertainment business (which books form a part) is biased toward youth. No one can get away from the fact that age doesn’t improve our appearance. Still, it is better to act your age and let others see the erosion of time in small doses than spring a new photograph, which has a gap of many years from the publication date of the book.
The question is what kind of image is appropriate in the age of Facebook where people (if my FB friends are anything to go by) update their photos weekly. I have been doing some research, checking out other authors and their photographs, and thought I’d share my research findings.
Not that many years ago readers rarely saw an author’s photo except for the one on their dust jacket cover of his or her latest book. Most of these author photos came within the category that might be called passport or driver’s license images. Headshots of a face that would rather be someplace else and taken by an official whose job qualification most likely didn’t include a course on photography.
In the pre-Internet days, the not super famous author often had his or her photo taken by a spouse, a friend, or a neighbor. As writers gained fame, their photographs became more like a movie star. The idea was to create an image of the author that had a hint of glamour, mystery or intrigue.
Now there is a competition among authors to look friendly, mysterious, charming, dangerous, thuggish, or like a gangster, psycho ward patient, or sometimes like someone who might want to read what they’ve written. That is the trick. To draw enough attention so as a reader wants to buy your book.
An argument can be made that dust jacket photos are less important in the digital age. Enter your favourite author’s name in a Google web search and click on images. Hundreds if not thousands of photos pop up for well-known authors. Many of these photos are uploaded by well-meaning fans who attended a book launch or talk; rarely of the author nude sunbathing (which would certainly kill my sales). These non-professional photos often reveal more about the author’s character and physical appearance than the carefully posed official photo the publisher places on the dust jacket.
What interests me in this essay is the idea of the range of choices available in selecting an author’s photo for a book and for the publicity machine that goes into action to promote the book. The author is obviously involved as his or her agent, editor and marketing department.
The more I study the photos of other authors, the more confused I’ve become as to what works. In Thailand image and face are important concepts that guide daily life. It is a culture where it is claimed that most people don’t like to read. But they enjoy looking at photographs. That favors some authors, and leaves others on the shelf.
Here are a few rules that have worked for author photos in the past.
Rule #1: Use a pipe
A pipe is a good standby prop for an author–typically a male one. Giving an air of authority, the smoking pipe worked for Raymond Chandler.
George Simenon also used the pipe in his photos. As did some author photos of Hunter Thompson.
The pipe was good enough for Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner.
If you look at this link to Southern Writers all but one are smoking in their photograph.
Rule #2: Use a gun—controversy plants an image in the Readers Mind
Hunter Thompson figured this one out. He left the pipe to Chandler and Simenon and decided there was no better way to gather attention than switching to a handgun. When I lived in New York City I had a series of author photos for His Lordship’s Arsenal with me with a shoulder holster and .38 handgun. I could argue that it fit the title and story. Doesn’t matter. I did this. I let myself be photographed with a gun. I’ve tried to suppress that photo. But, yeah, I did that. I know I already said that. But it haunts me. I looked at a photographer, held a gun, let him snap away.
Hemmingway was there before Thompson.
William Burroughs was another writer who had a history with guns.
Two out of three of these authors killed themselves with a gun; the third accidentally shot and killed his wife in Mexico. Guns with authors don’t have a good pedigree.
Rule #3: Using your fist—The Macho Man Look
Author photos showing the scribbler as a boxer, marital arts specialist, or sportsman conveys the message the prose are laced with large doses of testosterone.
Here’s Hemmingway striking a pose.
Rule #4: Use your (or someone else’s) pet—Pose with an animal
I have also posed with animals. My current Facebook photo shows me with my golden lab Oscar. Why do we want to drag our pets and other animals into an author’s photograph? There must be a deep insecurity to need the company of an animal to sell a book. Again, I’ve done this. Poor Oscar. A dog can’t give an informed consent. If they could, they’d want a piece of the action from the book. Dogs should have agents instead of fleas. (Not to suggest that Oscar has fleas–he doesn’t.)
Rule #5: Use of Hats or other Head Covering
I am also guilty of having done the hat thing in publicity photographs. This is almost as shameful as the handgun, the dog, and baby photograph (to be revealed later in this essay).
But I am not alone. Some authors look better than others in hats. I am not one of them.
There are many images of David Foster Wallace in headgear.
But no author does hats better than Kelli Stanley.
Rule #6: Use Avatars or Computer Enhanced Images
All of us on this website have our faces rearranged by resident digital plastic surgeon Colin Cotterill who is celebrating his birthday in the southern jungles of Thailand, where he’s rumored to be creating -three-dimensional images of authors as various birds, lizards, and fish.
For examples of rule six, look to the right on this page. There’s a whole row of digitally fiddled images. There is absolutely no evidence that the enhancements have helped our book sales or brought people to this website. But we are sticking to the look.
Rule #7: Use an Iconic Spy-Author Image
A few authors manage to catch this brass ring of stories that come from covert operations. Those who came from that world and turned to writing gave us a series of photographs that are timeless. The authors’ images come from an age long passed. Their books and photos nonetheless have acquired a legend and are handed down from generation to generation. The problem is this only works if your bio includes a stretch of time spent as a spy.
I was never a spy so the iconic photo is out.
Rule #8: Adopt the Please-Buy-My-Book Look
If you find a way to reach out to the reader with a plea—Please buy my book–then you are begging, shrilling, pimping or otherwise swimming against the heavy current of commercial sales in the business of books. As most authors effectively ‘drown’ in the struggle to keep their head above water, some do a better job of pitching the book to readers.
Alternatively, you can go with the I-am-going-to-teach-you-something-and-meanwhile-please-watch-my-back look. Salman Rushdie is likely praying but for different reasons. He strikes a pose as he speaks to you and if you want to hear he has to say, buy his book.
Sometimes the direct approach works. No need to beat around the bush.
Rule #9: Use a Baby Photo
Yes, that is me. And yes, it was used on a book that one day someone will write (if they haven’t already) Heart Talk was his most ambitious, comprehensive and significant book—Heart Talk. If the author’s photo is anything to go by, I seem to be sending a message I wrote it when I was 18 months old. Some critics take the baby photo as an opportunity to suggest that I burnt out early.
I can report the book sells like sand to a nomad in the Sahara. The cute author’s picture might have worked for the first ten years. Now no one notices it. Like the book, it has been transferred into literary limbo until some new generation decides that learning Thai in this rather odd, eccentric way is in fashion and Heart Talk is rediscovered.
On balance, I wouldn’t recommend the baby photo. Unless you are writing about an obscure language and think a baby picture will bring you sympathy.
Rule #10: Use a Disturbing Photo
A police mug shot seals the deal that the writer has waltzed on the noir side of life. Below is Ezra Pound looking crazy and dangerous.
Charles Bukowski made it a point write prose and poems intended to disturb readers. His photograph below could also appear under hats and other headgear. Bukowski looks like he just slipped out of a straight jacket.
If an author really wants to draw attention, then a photograph of him (or her) in bed with another author guarantees a second look. Below Durrell and Miller are having a good laugh.
After an exhaustive search for the ‘right’ look I’ve still not decided what photograph will go out with the new books. The choices must be greater than a headshot, holding a book, loading a gun, headwear, or pipe. I suspect the baby photo works only once. Of course, there’s always Oscar. I am showing my availability bias here. The fear is that one day I will wake up and look exactly like my passport photograph. That will definitely kill sales. But that isn’t the point. This is, after all, the reality check website, and what better way to check reality than deal with that fine line between who you are and how you want others to see you.
There is something profoundly vain and narcissistic in writing a book. Author photos are the intersection in this enterprise where vanity and narcissism collide and you look for the equivalent of the literary Higgs-Boson particle that emerges. Having plans for the next round of publications this fall, I will have thirty books with an author’s photo on the cover. I can look from 1985 and see evolution truly works—what goes extinct, what mutates, and what adapts. Each photo traps the author into a tiny sliver of time, age and fashion. Like youth, those things pass, leaving the photo as evidence of what is gone. An author sees himself as he was and wonders why he chose that image. It is a mystery that can only be rationalized by hindsight bias. A reader sees the same photo on an old book and asks what is he or she really like behind that mask.
An author named Logan P. Smith once wrote: “Every author, however modest, keeps a most outrageous vanity chained like a madman in the padded cell of his breast.”
He left out there is a mirror on the wall of that padded cell.
One more idea before I go. Why not require a photo of every on line reviewer on Amazon, and the reviewer’s photo accompanies the actual review? Unless the photo is of a sock puppet, we can see what the person looks like, the one who had the level of interest to post a review. Would that make a difference in the review culture? In the new digital age I suspect as soon as you step over the line into the public realm, you will automatically have consented to show your face. Maybe our new digital overlords will allow all of us to show our best face. Not the one on our passport, but our idealized face, the one face that if properly read tells a 10,000-word story.