Picture This: The Author Photo As A Tool
By Chris Mandeville
Your “official author photo” can be a powerful tool for drawing in and connecting with potential readers. Like your author bio, your photo gives a sense of who you are. If you make a good impression on someone via your photo, it can sway them to take a closer look at your book instead of passing it by.
There are some conventions when it comes to author photos. If you do a quick survey of author photos in the wild, you’ll see that most are headshots on a plain background where the author looks poised and “authorial.” Many are black and white, as that’s commonly perceived as “literary.”
Author Barbara Nickless came up against some of these conventions when choosing a photo for her debut novel, Blood on the Tracks, which stars a railroad cop and her canine partner. Barbara did a photoshoot with a dog (Nate from Mountain High Service Dogs pictured below) to tie in with the novel’s branding, but ultimately opted not to use any of those photos. Instead she went with the black and white headshot because “Every other author picture I’d seen was a close up headshot,” she says.
We know we need a “good” author photo, but beyond identifying and following popular conventions, how do we select which photo to use? The M-PACT system I developed for author branding can help you select the best face to put forward in your author photo.
The mnemonic “M-PACT” stands for:
T: To the point
Let’s look at each of these in the context of author photos.
What message do you want to send with your photo? For me, this is the key question. Like with the author bio, I believe that in order to draw readers in, all authors—regardless of genre, personality, style, or subject matter—should convey the message that we are approachable, credible, and interesting. This can be portrayed in a photo via a number of subtle ways including facial expression, pose, posture, clothing, color tones, and background.
When co-authors Giles Carwyn and Todd Fahnestock were tasked with providing an author photo for their novel Heir of Autumn, they took a series of “authorial” photos but couldn’t agree which one to use. So they sent their favorites to their agent, Donald Maass, asking him to make the final selection. Here’s one of the photos they sent:
There’s nothing wrong with this photo, but Maass didn’t select it or any of the other standard headshots the authors sent. Instead he chose the one below that the authors included for Maass’s personal amusement—they never intended for it to be considered.
The authors were surprised with Maass’s choice but went with it, trusting the advice of their experienced agent. When I asked Maass why he’d selected that particular photo, he said, “This shot of Todd and Giles humanizes them. It says they’re a team. And they’re fun.” I tend to agree that this is the message it sends. When I look at the photo, I like them. I’m drawn in. I want to have fun with them, so I’m inclined to pick up their book.
To explore this phenomenon of a photo conveying a message, go to Flickr and browse photos of strangers. When you look at a photo, note your first impressions—what connotations pop into your mind? Does the person seem friendly? Like an authority? Offbeat or quirky? Scholarly? Do you like them or are you put off? Are you intrigued? Impressed? Intimidated? This “flash of impressions” is what people will go through subconsciously when they look at your author photo. What impressions do you want to give?
I recommend that you decide on a message before your photoshoot and share it with your photographer so it can be factored into the shoot. When you have photos in hand, choose several you think convey your message and test-drive them on friends and acquaintances (Facebook is a great vehicle for this), asking what impressions spring to mind for each photo. The resulting information can be immensely useful in deciding which photo conveys your message best.
Your author photo is akin to your logo—you want it to look like it was designed and produced mindfully and professionally. To obtain a professional-looking author photo, consider hiring a professional photographer, though not necessarily a portrait photographer. Going back to agent Donald Maass on the subject, he says, “Professional quality author photos are helpful, but not the dull portraits taken against pull-down backdrops at the mall. Authors shouldn’t look like executives in annual reports. Great author photos are well composed, well lit, and capture something of the human being.”
I recommend seeking out a photographer who specializes in headshots because s/he will likely be accustomed to capturing images that convey a particular mood or message. Any professional photographer should be familiar with composition, lighting, color combinations, and the level of quality necessary for publication. But not every photographer will be in tune with the nuances that are important when conveying a message.
Beyond the message, the photo should simply “look professional.” Below is a photo of me taken at a book signing, shown adjacent to my official author photo. Both were taken by the same photographer with the same camera, but the differences are marked. The first photo is obviously a snapshot and not a professional-looking headshot.
Your photo should be appropriate for the venue where it appears. Follow the official guidelines for submitting your photo. For book jackets in particular, it should be easy to find out the requirements. If guidelines aren’t available for a particular venue, ask for instructions. If you can’t obtain any “rules,” you can evaluate other authors’ photos on the same venue and extrapolate.
Your photo should be appropriate for your audience and genre. Be mindful of your genre and target audience, and select a photo that makes sense. You wouldn’t want to use a sexy “glamour shot” on a children’s book, nor would it be appropriate to use a photo of a happy couple on a book about embracing the single life.
By way of a more subtle example, bestselling thriller author Jeffery Deaver once told me he likes looking slightly creepy in his cover photos. I’ve known Deaver for years and can promise he is not a creeper in any way! But his headshot does give the impression that if you read his book you’ll get a sufficiently creepy story that gets under your skin, which is accurate. Thus I think his is an effective strategy—and totally appropriate—for his genre and audience.
Consistency in your author photo is important because it’s the hallmark of your brand and should be easily identifiable. In my opinion, consistency doesn’t dictate you use the same shot everywhere. I think it can work well to tailor your photo to a specific purpose. But the photos you use in different venues should all be recognizable as “you.” In other words, in each of them you should look relatively the same age and size, and your hair should not be drastically different in color, length, or style. This is so you’re identifiable at a casual glance, since many viewers won’t look closely.
Again looking to Donald Maass for sage advice, he says that the best author photos are instantly recognizable as the author.
Author Gail Carriger, who writes what she calls “comedic steampunk mixed with urbane fantasy,” provides us with a great example. Here’s her publicity photo where, in my opinion, she succeeds at incorporating her branding into a headshot that’s “instantly recognizable:”
Your photo should be consistent with your subject matter. Carriger’s photo is entirely consistent with her books being quirky, comedic steampunk stories in the “Parasol Protectorate” series. If instead Carriger used this photo on the jacket of a nonfiction book about elevators, the photo would not appear to be consistent with the subject matter.
Your photo should be consistent with reality. This means it should look like you. While you may be tempted to portray a “better version” of yourself, it’s not a good idea to use a photo from ten years ago or one that’s undergone a lot of photoshopping. When a reader notices that you don’t look the same in your author photo as you do in person or in candid shots, it can diminish their trust in you. So choose a photo where you look good while looking genuinely like yourself.
T: To the point
“To the point” reminds us to edit. Try to determine if your photo achieves what you want it to achieve. If it doesn’t, what changes can you make to better achieve your goals? Is there too much background or not enough? Should you alter your clothing/hair/props/lighting/color scheme? What about your pose—does it look too posed or too candid? Do your body language and your facial expression convey the message you’re striving for? Edit until your photo communicates exactly what you want it to.
But when you edit, resist the impulse to edit out all the elements that show your personality and style—you want readers to feel like they are getting to know you. The trick is to achieve this without going overboard.
This is the author photo I chose for 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block:
The book has nothing to do with dogs, but I chose this picture to show my “fun side” because the book employs a fun approach to what can be a dry, academic topic. Plus I really like this photo. Is it too much? I decided it was just right, but your mileage may vary because ultimately it’s in the eye of the beholder.
While it’s not possible to ensure that everyone receives your photo favorably, by using the M-PACT system to guide your choices, you’ll put yourself on the right track to a good author photo. In the end, after doing your best prep, select a photo that you feel good about!
Chris Mandeville writes science fiction and fantasy, as well as nonfiction for writers. Her books include Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventureand 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block. You can find out more about her at chrismandeville.com