The Agony and the Ecstasy of Taking Author Photos
Okay, Mostly Just the Agony
I walked into the bookstore gripping my debut novel, its cover puckering where my sweaty fingers clutched tight, as if to remind myself: You’ve published a book, you’re not an absolute imposter. What awaited was a lectern and a huddle of sad chairs. This was back in 2010, at one of my first readings. Here I was, a writer at last. Only, how to appear writerly?
“Oh, hey!” the event organizer said, noticing me hesitating in the doorway. “I actually recognize you from your author photo.”
“You sound a bit surprised—do authors not look like their photos?”
Not usually, she answered. The writer on the book jacket and the writer in store often differ by more than a decade. We chortled about vain authors. Didn’t they realize they’d be unmasked at every public event?
Flash forward to my third novel. The publishers need a publicity photo of me for the inside cover. I’m glancing at an old headshot, then at the 43-year-old in the mirror: grayer, pudgier, baggier. Is it a crime, I wonder, to stay 33 for another book?
Problem is, books are written slowly, and aging happens all of a sudden. So the author is secreted away during the composition of a new novel, typing and deleting, until finally it’s complete and ready for exposure, at which point the writer stumbles from a study into the (very minor) flurry of publicity. By then, the previous shot compared with the new one is like a Before-and-After for a spa you’d best avoid.
Stressing about an author photo isn’t just vanity. It’s also about career survival, given that the spoils of fiction are meager, and accrue to the few. Writing novels is often a business of lionized old lions and bright young debutants, with prairies of middle-aged mid-listers between. An author’s image—not beautiful necessarily, but of striking looks—helps the sales package. Consider Virginia Woolf or George Orwell, Zadie Smith or Karl Ove Knausgaard. When I think of them, I have plenty of opinions about their work. But what I picture is their author photos: flinty or debonair or aloof. Culture—no matter how we hate to admit it—is a style choice too. This is disenchanting for all the obvious reasons, not least because many writers chose this line of work partly because relying on looks seemed a dismal answer to the world’s indifference.
A literary agent once told me that she, when new to publishing, asked her colleagues to see all the data on which books succeed. “Data?” they responded. “What data?” Many parts of the industry are merely the judicious bets of bookworms—and this keeps the business humane. An opposite approach (nervously debated today) involves mining data on how speedily consumers turn the pages of their e-readers, where they pause and where they comment, what percentage of a book they finish. The prospect of machine calculations deciding the future of literature frightens anyone who considers the book as more than a unit of sale.
But the print-and-pray strategy has had the effect of making many a failure perplexing and many a hit bizarre. Why did drivel like Fifty Shades of Grey sell when equally bad drivel flopped? Writing is never the lone reason. So people panic over the tiny variables: book jacket, title, page design, author photo.
For my first novel, I relied on my longtime partner to patiently snap photos of me around Rome, where we then lived. She insisted—and still does—that she knows what presents me in a flattering light: a complex combination of ironed clothing and me squinting soulfully. I remember that shoot as endless and highly embarrassing. “Wait, I don’t think you got my eye color in that one,” I said, wincing to hear myself.
Four years later, prepping for the release of my second novel, I leaned against various grubby walls in London, our new city, seeking to keep my facial muscles in just the right quarter-smile: rakish, but a good guy!
How tempting to refuse to provide an author photo, to stand behind words alone. Elena Ferrante got away with it until her novels grew so popular that her identity became arts-page gossip. Many denounced the journalist who exposed her. Yet some of those same people in publishing routinely compel writers to throw themselves in with the sales pitch. Only the famous have the right to hide; the others sit desperately at signing tables as the citizenry hustles past. In defense of publishers, they want only what every author does: readers. The quandary is that artistic types are expected to operate above the fevers of commerce—yet everyone around urges us to get out and sell.
One result of the pressure to self-publicize, I suspect, is that many literary authors seem a little samey—that is, they’re so pleasant, good-hearted, chatty on podcasts. They’re folks you’d bump into at the Whole Foods cashew-butter machine, who’d let you go first.
Marketing nowadays means we’re all posing, trying to look authorly, nervously unsure what that entails. And if we refuse, will anyone read what we devoted years to? How bad is it really, a coy smile for the camera? Chin resting on knuckles?
“You look horrendous,” my partner said, considering the author photo for my third novel. She hadn’t taken this one—I couldn’t subject our relationship to another 400-shot posing session, so was using an image snapped by an outstanding Danish photographer.
“Horrendous?” I said, taken aback. “But I’m already using this on the new book!”
“Well, I mean, the photo is well-taken. Just you look kind of old. I mean older. Than you actually are. Sorry,” she hastened to add, “this isn’t coming out right.”
“No, no,” I said, laughing. “It’s encouraging to hear that I look horrendous on the cover of a book that’s about to come out.”
“Just the back cover.”
“Maybe it’s just accurate. I am older.”
“Honestly, you shouldn’t worry,” she concluded. “Who looks at an author photo anyway?”