Author Image

Quite a while back, I brought up a topic on Twitter that I’ve been meaning to blog about ever since. The question I tweeted was:

And the answers, to me, were a little bit surprising. For the most part, they were a resounding no. True, I follow and am followed by mostly other writers—so perhaps we just don’t like the idea of having to meet some idealized image from readers—but I was still slightly taken aback by the ferocity of some of the opinions. Obviously, writers and authors want the right to look however the hell they look. Seems fair. And yet…

I admit that I do have certain expectations when it comes to author image. A horror author, for example, I expect to look just a little bit edgy. They don’t need to be goth (I hate that stereotype), but if they were wearing pink and smiling sweetly, it would sort of jar my preconceptions. I more commonly see black eyeliner, intense eye contact, and maybe a sneaky little smirk.

Laurell K. Hamilton looks almost exactly how I picture her main character, Anita Blake.

Jack Ketchum stares straight into the darkest parts of your soul (and has great hair).

Stephen King gives you nightmares—and likes it.

Flavorwire has a very funny post about author photo clichés, if you’re interested: “Against Promotional Author Photographs.”

But truly, I think we all know them. Often, romance writers go for pretty glamour type shots, literary authors go for serious or somber shots, fantasy authors go for whimsical, sci-fi for nerdy intellectual, YA for young and accessible, etc. These are all stereotypes, mind you, but they’re ones that authors usually seem to hit.

Nora Roberts looks pretty next to her flowers.

Toni Morrison isn’t going to take (or write) any crap.

Yasmine Galenorn is holding a crystal ball?

Ray Bradbury really needed those glasses, y’all.

Veronica Roth goes for modern, young, and gorgeous.

Is it a bad thing if an author surprises me in this regard? No, probably not. Although the truth is… I’m not sure. I genuinely can’t remember that ever happening. (I can think of plenty of authors whose headshots are so plain they don’t suggest any genre, but not any whose shots go against their genre.)

Which leads me to believe that most authors are hitting these preconceptions intentionally. One simple explanation? It’s a form of marketing. Perhaps readers want to buy books from someone who *looks* like they should be writing them.

What other ways could this be a marketing tactic? Is it a useful one?

How about one step further? Why haven’t more authors tapped into the extreme of this concept and gone for major sex appeal? Surely there are some erotic romance authors out there hot enough to get a spread in Esquire, Playboy, or the like. I couldn’t find any examples of this happening, although a few of my tweeps cited Poppy Z. Brite’s racy photos back in the day, and Tawni O’Dell’s near-catastrophic photoshoot in her undies before Oprah scooped her up.

And could these expectations ever be turned on their head? Could the contrast between expectation and reality ever serve to catch a reader’s attention? I know that I often get comments of surprise when people find out I’m a horror writer… but I still haven’t decided if this works for or against me. It definitely seems to prejudice other horror writers against me (at least initially: what the hell is cheerful young woman doing tweeting me?), but it also gets some people talking to me who might not otherwise think to do so if I were all gothed-out.

I don’t have the answers. I do know that there have been times when I wished I had a different headshot to use, mostly if what I’m pairing it with is something serious, sad, or frightening. My smiley side-tilt (upper right sidebar) just doesn’t seem appropriate at times like those. At the very least, someday when I get a real, professional headshot, I’d like to get a few with different facial expressions. And, yes, perhaps wearing black.

Writers: Do you have headshots? Are you satisfied with them? Did you consciously make an effort to “fit” your genre when you had them taken? And if given the right circumstances, would you ever do a sexy shoot for publicity? How far is too far?

Readers: What are your experiences with peeking at the back of your books? Do you find yourself surprised by what authors look like? Are you disappointed when there is no headshot? Can you think of an author whose headshot conflicts with their genre or general image?

I’m curious to hear what you all think! Feel free to jump into the discussion from whatever perspective you have.

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  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    Ooh… what a fun topic and, oddly, something I was just dreaming of this past weekend. Given that I’ve written a story based (mostly) on a ranch in the southwest, I wondered if I should get a headshot with my cowgirl hat and boots. Ha ha. But I’m with you – when the time comes to get professional shots, I want a range of them to appeal in different circumstances -different attire, different facial expressions.

    I agree that I’d expect horror writers to “look” a certain way. Your photo examples really drive the point home that different genres of writers DO have different looks. So interesting!

    • That would be ideal. I bet it would cost a lot to have a photo session like that, though, with time to change outfits, etc. I would also want some consistency, though, so I’d be recognizable from picture to picture. So much to think (read: fantasize) about. Some day! =)

  • Cynthia Robertson

    Great topic, Annie, and I really enjoyed that link to the different types of photos.
    I write in several genres, so one shot to cover them all would be kind of schizoid looking. I think I just go for approachable.
    That headshot of Stephen King is priceless – he is such an mischievous imp. Adore him and his work.
    The only type of photo that turns me off are the ‘I’m so deep and smart’ shots. Ick! I usually just laugh and toss the book back onto the shelf or into the discount bin. Stogy I’m so intellectual pretentiousness is just such a turn off.

    • Cynthia Robertson

      Meant to type ‘stodgy’. Terrible typist! 🙂

      • I totally agree! They can be intellectual, but trying to look intellectual usually just comes across as pompous. I love that Stephen King pic too. He’s just so dang gleeful about it.

  • I have been thinking recently that I need a new headshot… and like Melissa I consider being somewhat playful about it, like going with a Maine theme, with a lighthouse or some such in the background. But ultimately I’m certain I’ll go the professional route with a photographer that helps me (yes I need help in this department) look more serious and professional so I can use the bio pic in professional situations to allow me to create “brand recognition.”

    • I think that’s a great way to go, Julia. I imagine that’s what I’ll try to do when the time comes, too. Something professional without being stuffy–that’d be ideal.

  • Missy Frye

    The shot I use around the web was taken unexpectedly. I went to inquire about prices and the photographer wanted to play with some new equipment, so she took a few shots for free. I paid for the photo I use, but the session cost me nothing. It works for now. I plan to have new headshots done soon, and want a bit of diversity in the finished product because I don’t plan to write in just one genre. 

    You, Annie, crack me up! Looking at your photo does not bring to mind horror writer – but it does make me want to know you. You seem approachable and nice. I don’t think that goes against you when it comes to your genre. It’s kind of shocking, which could be considered a bonus. 🙂 

    • Well that’s pretty cool! Free photoshoots are awesome!

      And yes, it is sort of shocking. Maybe it makes me memorable? Or maybe it makes me crazy. Fine line. At a writers conference I went to two years ago, my horror query was read aloud (anonymously) in the auditorium, and it was the only one to make it all the way through. When they asked whose it was, I waved. And I knew it was just ridiculous because I was actually wearing a pink shirt with ruffles on it. I like to keep them guessing, lol!

  • I don’t really care what they look like, though as a semi-pro photographer, I can tell when their jacket pic was taken by say, their spouse. Happens more often than you think.  I agree with Cynthia below about the pretentious shots. Those are terribly lame.

    I generally don’t take many pics of myself so the only one I have is a (this one – facebook profile) spontaneous shot where I set my camera on a rock while hiking. I keep meaning to go the distance and set up lights, etc. for a closer to “pro” quality shot and I always put it off. So I can write. Like I should be ATM. 🙂

    • That does happen a lot! I always notice when the photo credit shares a last name with the author. 🙂 Stephen King actually had one by his wife Tabby for years and years before he finally broke down and got a professional one.

      Writing is good–always the priority. A few years ago, some writing buddies and I went to the used bookstore and just took pictures of each other. Obviously, they weren’t pro, but they were at least planned, posed, and relevant, which was nice. Sort of a compromise I guess.

  • Ooh, interesting. I’ve never really thought about this much, and of course have not had any professional author photos taken, being rather new to the actual business of writing. The picture I have up on my blog probably wouldn’t surprise anyone who knows that I write feminist/humanist-influenced epic fantasy, but I certainly didn’t choose it in order to give a certain impression. I just liked it. To me it seems young but adult, and amusing but not undignified. The setting is an English pub that was frequented, back in the day, by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, which fits right in with the fantasy thing. However, I didn’t choose it because of that. And, of course, I think I look non-hideous in it, but at the same time I’d feel rather silly posting a “sexy” photo.

    Given that writing has a lot to do with personal taste, it’s no surprise that a picture of myself that I like would seem to be in accordance with the sort of things I like to write. And given that you don’t seem to like that tilted shot of yourself very much, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that it doesn’t seem to go along with the things you like to write. Actually, I bet you’d really stand out as a horror writer if you did dress up for a headshot in something pink and sparkly – but if that’s not you, then that may not be a good idea.I’m not sure how other writers approach these things, but I must say, I don’t think I’ve ever been truly surprised by an author’s appearance. But yes, I do tend to be disappointed when there’s no photo. I guess I tend to want to know more about how the book I just read flows from the author’s personality, even if only in a superficial way.

    • I do like that shot of you, and even more so now that you’ve explained it. And I think that’s a great point about liking pictures that suit your taste and writing things that suit your taste. Obviously, that worked perfectly for you–and likely explains a good deal of the photos I used above.

      I don’t dislike the purple shirt picture of me (although I am kind of sick of it since I’ve been using it so long) in general, but I do dislike it for my writing. My tastes definitely line up with my genre, but not in fashion. I’m a pretty girly person, which I’m totally okay with, but it does seem out of place in the massive field of black-and-red-dripping-guts horror blogs out there. I think it was Lura who pointed out in my last blog that my cutesy little owl notebook is full of horrific story ideas, which about sums me up, lol. So pink shirts are me… yes. But they’re not my books. I guess I’ll have to come up with the middle ground that feels true to both. Or just embrace the contrast.

      And I’m like you: I don’t so much care what an author looks like (although I do notice), but I am disappointed when there’s no photo at all. I like to feel like I know them too. Not that a picture can tell you much, but still it gives the mind something to hold on to.

  • So put a descriptor under your own photo, Annie. Say, playful? (It appears you’re on a playground.) 🙂

    A really fun post. I’d add that for me, I have different photos I need
    for different audiences, so I had my daughter take three different types
    of shots.

    • I am on a playground; how astute of you. =) And yes, “playful” is the word–which is maybe the problem. I think you have the right idea getting several different photos.

  • I need to get some real author photos so I can stop using the one of my paper person self-portrait. (I actually put the paper person in my ebook, and haven’t put a picture at all in the paperback so far. I suppose it’s time to decide one way or another about that, huh?) 

    I just want my curls to not be frizzy for the photo and my roots not showing – beyond that, I’m not quite sure what kind of image I’m supposed to project. Not a fat one, preferably, lol! But if it’s based on my writing, I’d probably need to look a little bit sarcastic, simultaneously hopeful and somber, while laughing at my own jokes. 😉

    It’s true though that people make assumptions about a writer based on a photo. Not enough to put the book down or anything. Like the lady with the crystal ball, if I saw her on the back of a sweet contemporary YA romance or something, I’d probably go, “Hmmm…” for a moment. That’s all though. 

    I was very surprised at first to find out you wrote horror! I think it’s because of the purple shirt though. In my mind, horror writers can’t wear purple. (Or sparkly pink – unless it’s pink and black! Yes! Pink and black would be awesome! lol!)

    • Well I absolutely adore your paper person, but I’m all for real people photos, as you know. I understand the curls/frizz worries. Curly hair is just so unpredictable; I never know what days it’s going to look like a crazy mess and what days it will look fabulous, so it does make planning for a photo shoot hard. Do you have a good product to put in it? The best thing I’ve found so far is Garnier Fructis curl cream.
      I agree; we make assumptions, but it’s not enough to ruin a purchase. I think a photo would have to be pretty outrageous to do that—and pretty large and prominent, like one of the ones that covers the entire back of the book.

      I wear pink, I wear sparkles, and I wear black… but not together! Omg. Haha. I’m sure it could be done with class, but what I’m picturing is so NOT classy. =)

      • Oh, right, I forgot we were talking about classy. Sorry, my redneck is showing, lol! 😉

  • I think when you originally tweeted that I said I thought the picture should match the tone of the cover and the book itself, so it wouldn’t be jarring and strange. I still feel that way, though I think a relatively “normal” picture of an author wouldn’t be out of place in any genre.

    My main concern with photos is that I look a lot younger than I am — when I went to give blood recently the woman thought I was 19 or younger, and when I first started working after college someone took me for a high school student. I have actually had people argue with me about my age! I worry that this might mean people don’t take me as seriously as they might someone who actually looks like a full adult. And I love dark stuff too, but I’m not sure I look the part either.
    I kind of like author photos though. The Stephen King photo really explains a lot about all his work, doesn’t it?

    • True, a normal picture can go with anything, which is probably actually the safest way to go. Especially if you cross genres like I do. That’s probably what I’ll end up going for.

      I never really noticed that you look young. Are you in your twenties? People often say I look young too, and I do experience quite a bit of age-ism, so I understand your worries. But you can’t really change that. Some people will just judge no matter what. And I bet some people are impressed by it. “Wow, she has done _____ at such a young age” type thing. You could always rock some business clothes; they always make people look older (or at least more serious).

  • Another excellent discussion, Annie. I think the picture you have up is perfect for your online presence because it does make you seem more approachable. But you have shown yourself to have great taste, so I’d trust you to fashion a nice horror writer picture, haha.

    I think that very often, what we write reflects our personality and so when we take a picture it will also reflect that. Like Ashlee’s photos recently. Her pictures were so bright and colorful! That’s the way she is and it’s the way she writes. I’ve seen pictures of Laura, and she does manage the “a little bit sarcastic, simultaneously hopeful and somber.” She was kidding, but I’ve seen it, lol.

    Man, this reminds me I still need an author picture myself! D: Ooooh, my stomach hurts now.

    • Thanks Nina! I’m flattered, hehe.

      I’m so glad you brought up Ashlee! I agree. I almost used her as an example photo, but I decided not to use anyone I really know since my captions are a little snarky. (Ha!) But yes, I adore her photo. It’s bright, approachable, and she looks gorgeous. And it does have a little bit of a fantasy vibe, to boot.

      And I believe you. I can totally see Laura nailing the sarcastic/somber/hopeful smile. Maybe she can teach us a thing or two?

  • How funny—I was just thinking of this the other day because I had my husband, who does photography, take my new profile picture. I thought about taking a slightly more serious one, since I write literary fiction that tends to deal with issues like family and hope in the face of tragedy. But I really can’t help but smile. I’m a very happy person overall, and in the serious pictures I thought it looked like I was trying too hard. So all my pictures usually have me smiling, teeth and all! I don’t know if that’s appropriate for my books or not, but I think that trying to find an appropriate headshot for a book jacket is a problem I’d love to have 🙂

    • I did notice that. Your new photo is gorgeous! I love the colors in it, and you have a great smile. I’m very smiley too, so I empathize there. And yes, it would be absolutely the best problem to have! I guess that’s why I like thinking about it so much–just another way to fantasize about my book cover some day. =)

  • This might be your best post yet, and that’s saying a lot because you write a lot of damn good posts. Love the captions under each picture. LOVE! 

    My pet-peeve on author photos is the utter seriousness of it all. Why is it so bad to smile????

  • Putting this on my facebook page (which by the way, is better for traffic than Twitter most times. At least that’s what I find!)

    • Wow, I’m so flattered!! Thank you, Nina! My Facebook is almost entirely my friends and family, so I tend to not post there, but I’m grateful for any added exposure you can give me. =)

  • The late great Tony Hillerman used to tell a great story about doing a jacket photo. His NYC publicist flew to Albuquerque for the shoot, strode into his bedroom closet and deemed all his clothes (khaki pants, polo shirts) nothing like Tony Hillerman would wear. She took him to Macy’s and bought jeans and a red plaid shirt that she thought was more representative of his New Mexico/Indian reservation cop protagonist image. Then she forced him and photographer to hike into the foothills onto posted no tresspassing land so the mountains would be his backdrop. Great photo, look for it on the back of his last few books including his auto-biography. But that wry smile he has is him thinking about how none of the clothes he owned were anything Tony Hillerman would wear.

    • That is a FANTASTIC story! What a hoot. Just goes to show, doesn’t it? Thank you so much for sharing that!

  • “For the most part, they were a resounding no.”

    I call bullshit!
    If you don’t post a photo to meet readers’ expectations you are getting a very bad marketing advice.

    • I hear you. I think there’s a difference between meeting readers’ expectations and just not clashing with them, though, don’t you?

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