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
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
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
Here are a few rules that
have worked for author photos in the past.
Rule #1: Use a
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
Hemmingway was there
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
Ernest Hemmingway, Photograph:
George Karger/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
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.)
Peter James with a cool looking
Connelly with a dog
Charles Bukowski with a
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
But I am not alone. Some
authors look better than others in hats. I am not one of them.
Bruce Desilva with a two for one:
Hat and cigar
Nesbø goes with the hoodie look
There are many images of
David Foster Wallace in headgear.
David Foster Wallace
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.
Graham Greene had arrangements with
le Carréwith his 100-yard spy in the cold stare
Fleming, another British secret agent, turned fiction writer
I was never a spy so the
iconic photo is out.
Rule #8: Adopt the
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.
Norman Mailer is praying you buy
his book. And forgive him, too.
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
World Famous Author Salman Rushdie
Visits ECU | 9 On Your Side
Sometimes the direct
approach works. No need to beat around the bush.
Rule #9: Use a
Christopher G. Moore
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
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
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
Lawrence Durrell and Henry
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