Ask a Book Editor: Everything You Never Thought to Ask About Your Author Photo
Even the most camera-shy should get with the picture.
Like an appealing cover and a strong book title, a quality author photo is an essential part of the publication “package” for both indie and traditionally published authors in most any format or genre. As humans, we’re social creatures and thus an official author photo can help curious readers connect with you. Seeing an author’s face humanizes a book. Perhaps it’s because the reader likes to know who they’re committing to “hang out” with and trust for many hours or days to come.
Think of your author photo as a best-case passport photo with better lighting (even sun-lit!), do-overs, and, if you wish, you’re allowed to smile.
In the Dark Ages (aka, mid-‘90s when I started my publishing career as a baby-faced publicist), selfies weren’t ubiquitous and the Internet had barely arrived. Getting an author photo taken was much more of an orchestrated ordeal. I’d wait to receive a single print from my authors and then send it off to be made into a stack of glossy black-and-white prints. Why black-and-white? Because back then they were largely used for newspapers’ book review sections. The rare magazine review or feature would either show the book cover or possibly have an on-staff photographer to take an accompanying shot of the author.
How times have changed. RIP once standard book sections and even many former newspapers and magazines themselves. Thankfully from Amazon Author Pages to author websites to Goodreads to Instagram accounts to countless blogs etc., there is more opportunity than ever to showcase your work, engage with your audience, and build a following. As your personal calling card, the author photo is alive and well.
Do I need an author photo for agent or editor submissions?
Unless it’s truly relevant to nonfiction works (e.g., possibly for a memoir), the short answer is no. While it’s true that your face may eventually become a marketing tool, at this stage the words matter most…and including an unrequested photo may be considered off-putting or distracting. If a prospective agent asks for a photo before agreeing to take you on, you might have found a modeling agency by mistake. Or at least a questionable agent. Besides, anyone even slightly savvy these days can find you on social media or somewhere online. Unless you use a pseudonym, the days of total anonymity are over.
May I use a new author photo for each book I write?
You’re welcome to use a new photo for each book but because so many authors—especially indie authors—are often prolific, unless your appearance dramatically changes, there’s merit in consistency. It builds audience recognition and an established author brand. Picture your iconic face over a line-up of your latest offering and entire backlist. Congrats. You’re in the big leagues.
Now on the flip side—I’m looking at you, romance or thriller author whose face or hairstyle/hairline has stood frozen for 20+ years—a little refresh may be overdue. As a general rule, you want to be recognizable if standing next to your poster at signings or conferences.
Dos and Don’ts
1. Be your best. Even natural beauties aren’t above a little primping, makeup, or a flattering outfit when immortalized on film. You’re aiming for an approachable “I ‘always’ look this good” illusion versus too-formal dress-up (or the often anything but glamorous reality of writing all day in PJs with unwashed hair). Ideally, you’re going to see the author photo used in many contexts, so above all be sure it’s a photo you like.
2. Black-and-white photography can be artistic, timeless, and super classy but I highly recommend full-color instead to satisfy wider outlets. Besides, it’s now easy to convert color to black-and-white but not so much the other way around.
3. Don’t use full body shots or where you obviously cropped yourself out from within a crowd or have an arm around an unseen partner. It’s your book; take center stage.
4. This should be obvious but no hats, sunglasses, distracting props, disguises, or costumes. Why risk looking like Carmen Sandiego? I’ll never forget one sci-fi author who once sent in a photo of herself in full alien cosplay with pointed ears and neon green tights. If you truly want to remain anonymous, just don’t choose to include a photo at all. It’s better to be a mystery than ridiculous.
Most Cringeworthy Pet Peeve
Hear me out because even the most successful or acclaimed author can fall victim to this artistic cliché. I beg you—no “fist under the chin with the other hand placed beneath your elbow” pose, as I’ve yet to see anyone make that awkward gesture appear natural. You know what I’m talking about—the “I’m-a-serious-writer-contemplating-deep-truths” pose. Honestly, I cringe at any strange pose involving hands that screams “I WANT TO GET AS MANY LIMBS AS POSSIBLE WITHIN THE FRAME.” You’re an author, not an aspiring hand model for Kay Jewelers, no matter how lovely the manicure.
Everyone Can Take a Single Good Picture (Or Find Someone Else to Do So)
Don’t overthink it. No one is expecting movie stars here—just authors who take their work—marketing and all—seriously. Your words are your sexiest feature. Good writing far outweighs good genes. But a professional-looking photo on the back of your book jacket or author page can’t hurt.