Do You Judge a Book by its … Author Photograph?

pics

Here’s a task for you: get five or so hardback books and look at the author photographs in the back. How many writers are smiling? How many look pensive? Which of them would influence what you think about the book?

A little while ago I was on a panel at a book event, where I and the other panellist had to read three books from a prize shortlist and discuss them in front of the audience. My fellow panellist said she always looks at the author photograph – if there is one – before she starts to read a book. She admitted that the photograph for one of the shortlisted books was so self-consciously posed that it influenced what she thought about the book before she started reading it.

I’m not from the selfie generation. I am on Instagram, but you’ll find only a few pictures of me and those are usually at an event or signing books. My husband, Tim often takes these, and he knows that he needs to take many photos for me to find one that I can live with. Being okay with seeing pictures of myself has got easier over the years, but dealing with the author photograph is not something I enjoy. 

Contemplative and Moody, or Smiling and Approachable?

My agent was the first person who asked me for a photograph, one that she could send to publishers when she was trying to sell my first novel. (I know, I know – why should publishers need to know what a prospectMe 1ive author looks like, shouldn’t it be about the book?) Tim and I looked through scores of author photographs in the books we own. Most of the male authors were contemplative and moody, while the female authors were smiling and approachable. I thought I preferred the former. My first photography session involved a whole day of Tim taking my picture – in the garden, on the stairs, in front of this door, or beside that door, until I was happy with just one. (He’s a patient husband.) I showed it to my Mum: ‘Why aren’t you smiling?’ she said.

For other female authors the moody look definitely works. “I spent a couple of hours in Granchester

Sarah Vaughan Author & Journalist - photo by Philip Mynott

Sarah Vaughan

Meadow one March morning last year posing for a former local newspaper photographer [Philip Mynott],” says Sarah Vaughan. “This shot was taken 13 snaps in, and my family – used to me smiling – are not sure it looks entirely like me. It’s certainly a serious version, even more so in black and white. But then, the issue at the heart of Anatomy of a Scandal – my next novel – is serious. It’s a photo that fits the narrative.”

I don’t want to have to worry about what I look like, I feel it shouldn’t matter, but I also realised very early on that any pictures that are sent out by me, or on my behalf have the ability to hang around for years and to pop up anywhere, including national papers.

When my first book, Our Endless Numbered Days, was bought by Penguin, the team there arranged for some of their authors to come into their offices and have head-shots taken by a professional and well-respected photographer. I felt awkward and embarrassed, which was perhaps why, when I was sent a selection of the pictures, I nearly cried and I knew I couldn’t have any of them on a book jacket. Perhaps my editor at Penguin agreed because there was no picture on the hardback edition of Our Endless Numbered Days, for which I’m very grateful.

Other writers, like Karin Salvalaggio, author of Bone Dust White, feel similar about photography

Karin

Karin Salvalaggio

sessions. “I don’t particularly enjoy having my photo taken. My first author photo looks rather severe but this wasn’t by design. The session was difficult and humourless. It was in this session that I discovered that I had to work hard to make myself look approachable. Anyway, the result was pleasing enough but the number of takes it took to get a few good photos was ridiculous. The second photo shoot was at my home with a local photographer, [http://matsmithphotography.com] make-up artist, and a much trusted girlfriend. It was a far more relaxed session, which at times, bordered on the absurd. The photographer made me pretend to be laughing at something while Karin2he took pictures. This wasn’t difficult as my girlfriend was sitting on the floor with a hairdryer aimed upwards to provide my hair with a nice bit of movement. Anyway, it all paid off. The photos were so much better.” 

Our Endless Numbered Days was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize (and went on to win), and the trustees organised a party at Foyles bookshop in London. There were the inevitable photographs, which when I saw them taught me that I must stand up straighter and not turn out my toes.

Still, I nMe 2eeded an official author photo – it’s not really possible to do any events without one. The organisers always want one, along with a picture of the book cover. So I booked a friend of mine, Adrian Harvey (www.adrianharvey.co.uk) a professional photographer, to come to my house and take some pictures. I gave him his brief: take one hundred so I can choose one. And I was as happy as I could be (he’s a very good photographer; I’m just hard to please). A couple of years later when I’d decided to grow out my red hair dye and be happy with going grey, I got Adrian round again. I put on my red dress and some make up, and he took lots ClaireFuller 68 BW smallmore pictures including some of me with Alan the cat. Even with someone I know I find it hard to relax in front of the camera, to be natural. At the end of the session I sat on the sofa chatting to Adrian while he packed up his equipment. I was cold, I’d put my cardigan on over my dress. ‘Sit right there,’ he said, and took one more picture – and of course that’s the one I use.

Louise

Louise Beech

Louise Beech author of The Mountain in my Shoe, is also self-conscious. “I love mine, and I think that’s because I know the photographer, so he really put me at ease. I think it would be very difficult if I hadn’t. My daughter is doing A level Photography, so she’s going to take my next lot, so I have a feeling I might like them, if she’s kind. [http://jerome.photoshelter.com]

Of course, a little photo manipulation can help. My face often looks red in photographs – or maybe 

Fleur
Emma Curtis

that’s the embarrassment of having them taken, and I will often adjust the colour to compensate. Emma Curtis author of One Little Mistake says, “My best friend is a fashion photographer. Unfortunately, her instinct is to airbrush my lines out. It becomes a battle of wills with me shrieking about how awkward it can be when people meet me in the flesh and I look ten years older than my photo!

 Before I was published I had no idea that such angst went into author photographs, but I have to admit that like my fellow panellist I have always looked at the writer’s picture before I start to read.

Let me know in the comments how important author photographs are to you as a reader. Do they influence your thoughts about the book? Do you look at them first? And which do you prefer – moody and contemplative, or smiling and approachable?

ClaireFuller 60
(Apologies for the gaps in the text in this piece – I had no idea that working with author photographs would be so difficult…)

36 thoughts on “Do You Judge a Book by its … Author Photograph?

  1. I’m sad to say that but I definitely judge a book by its author photo. But that’s only if I’m not pulled in by the cover first. I do avoid books where the authors insist on pictures of their family members (yes I’ve seen these) and if they’re looking smug.

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  2. Excellent piece, I’ve yet to meet someone who is comfortable with having their picture taken. Especially as an author, you’re desperately trying to convey an impossible amount of information with your facial expression and it ends up feeling too contrived and naff! It’s amazing though, that photo of you in the cardigan is so spot on and in a completely natural way, tells me everything I need to know as a reader 🙂 Having said all that, I’ve had this conversation recently with my sister and she’s of the opinion that author photos are a complete distraction from the work and can at times (negatively) impact your opinion of a book. Love the red dress though!

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    • It’s so hard to get it right, and although like I said I really want them to be unimportant compared to the work, I know that they are important to readers, and that the pictures will stick around on the Internet for years. But glad you like the pics.

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  3. I feel I need to open this up even wider … Is a book cover relevant?

    Such is the internet, and the bias reporting of some sites, that I can’t find any verifiable stats on percentage of books -v- ebook sales, so I can only go on what I observe in the real world (or my real world at least). I see far more people consuming literature on ereaders than I do physical books. Me personally, I haven’t bought a book in years, but buy many ebooks a month.

    The cover plays no part in my decision making — in fact, other than at the point of purchase, I never really see the cover again.

    However, to get back to your question….. “Do You Judge a Book by its … Author Photograph?” NO. I tend to see the author’s photo when I read bio of them on Amazon or their own website. It doesn’t influence my ebook buying — it’s the story I’m after, not a supermodel author. 😉

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    • That’s very interesting (covers is a whole different discussion), but author photos on ebooks. I have to admit to never having read an ebook – I’ve just not got round to buying an ereader, and I do prefer the physical object. So, author pictures aren’t anywhere on an ebook?

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      • I don’t ever recall seeing an authors photo on an eBook — you get the cover. Maybe I skim past it. I must go look.

        I couldn’t be without an ereader. I already carry around so much stuff when commuting that the thought of a ~400 page book to add to the bulk would tip me (and my shoulder) over the edge!

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  4. I have to say, I never judge a book by the author photo. I look at it and think, “Huh, so that’s what they look like”… then move on to read the book! For me, it is solely curiosity on what the author looks like nothing to do with their writing skills.
    Now DAJ has me looking at any ebooks I have purchased to see if the author’s photo is included! (By the way, I don’t have an ereader as my iPad works fine. Usually.

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  5. Fascinating responses! I was people watching in a bookshop the other day, seeing people pick up books, read the blurb and look at the jacket and then either take it to the till or put it back – I would love to know what swayed their decision. I suppose I glance at the photo but it would never actually influence my decision whether to buy it or not. I recently entered a writing competition where they asked for a photo which made me wonder why they needed one. I like your author photos Claire – they seem ‘natural’ and encapsulate something about you. Like most people, I loathe having my photo taken – no selfies on my instagram!

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  6. The only author photograph I’ve ever taken note of is Patricia Cornwell’s and that’s because after a decade of being presented with new titles when I was a bookseller, she apparently never changed! Have to say that I might be swayed by the one with you and your cat, though.

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  7. A very interesting post, Claire, thanks! I actually don’t mind having my author headshot done as anything remotely presentable seems like a miracle, even if it does take 100 shots to arrive at. As a reader I am not at all influenced by author photos and many of the books I look at don’t have them anyway as they’re proofs or paperbacks. Your post taps into one of my personal soapbox topics, namely double standards between men and women. It’s OK, apparently, for male writers to appear intellectual/serious – with women, both real and fictional, it’s seen as more important to be lovely and relatable. The headshot question points to much wider issues about how differently writing is received depending on who wrote it; I am far more interested in the work and how well it stands up on its own!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes – I only just touched on that point. It’s hard to tell where the influence is coming from with the differences in gender: the authors, or the publishers, or just how male / female authors are perceived. Interesting…

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  8. I think it honestly depends on the genre. If the author is more focused on writing about serious topics, a moody photograph would suit. After all, if I was going to read a novel about the struggles of a depressed, sick taxi driver in the slums of New York, a cheerful smiling photograph would seem out of place. Likewise, if it was a humorous book about 21st Century Dating, seeing a moody, melancholic photograph in the back would be a little intimidating. But maybe that’s just me.

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  9. I think Nietzsche once asked, ‘Which would you rather look at, a statue of a Greek athlete or a statue of a professor of Classics?’ I believe authors of adventure stories ought to look adventurous & authors of romantic fiction should have an air of romance. Granted such writers as Dennis Wheatley & Barbara Cartland overdid it, but I’d not fault them for trying.

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  10. The Unfortunate Englishman by John Lawton has a photo of the author sitting down with a woman standing beside him facing the other way, her hand on his shoulder. Her head and lower legs have been cropped and she has a gun tucked into the waistband of her short, backless dress. The book is a spy thriller and I found the plot typically sexist. When I saw the author photo, after I had read the book, I felt it may appeal to those who enjoy that sort of story so included it in my review…

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  11. Thank you for this post I really enjoyed it and it made me feel so much better about my own angst/hatred of having photos taken. I recently had to supply a current head shot and record a video to publicise a short story win – it was hell. I roped in a friend to take photos at I event where I was reading – thank goodness she took tons as only I could only stomach 1 or 2. Recording the video was a nightmare as I couldn’t figure out how to use the editing function and had to complete a recording without any fluffs or expletives … took days …

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  12. Well, to be honest I read most of my books in Kindle format, so I have no pictures there. I only see the author’s pictures when I go and post a review on Goodreads, so in that sense the picture will be the same for all books by that author and it does not influence my reading at all.

    But sometimes, in retrospect I wonder: I had no idea this person would look like this. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I do not judge a book by the author’s photo, although some look quite fuddy. I hate it when there is no bio at least to tell me a little something about who wrote it. I suppose the author was paranoid or very private.

    I judge a book by three things: The TITLE and oftentimes the COVER draws me too. I then pick up the book and read the BLURB on the back or inside cover. If that interests me I’ll read the first few paragraphs and see if I relate to the characters and subject matter. THEN I will buy my typically used book.

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  14. I must confess that I never really look at the author photograph. I thinks it’s nice that there is one. After I read a book and I liked it, I’m usually interested in knowing more about the author, what other books they’ve written, where they’re from and… what the author looks like. When I choose a book it’s much more a choice of book cover together with pitch at the back of the book, unless I’m reading an author I already know and love.

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